I’ve written before about how the cabin in the orchard where I spent my early years in the company of my elderly aunts was, for me, my “sacred grove.” It was, in a psychological sense, an Eden to which I’ve been trying to get back ever sense. That is to say, it was, for me, a place of peace and order and sustenance. In that little cabin in the orchard was art, beauty, books, storytelling, wisdom — the things that gave little me a feeling of being at home in the world as no other place did, or ever has done.
I thought about that yesterday when listening to this podcast from Krista Tippett’s radio program, On Being, in which Krista interviewed Dr. Esther Sternberg about the connection between healing and a sense of place. Sternberg is a scientist who studies the connection between emotions and disease, specifically autoimmune response. In her latest book, the immunologist explores the connection between a sense of place and physical wellbeing. Excerpts from the transcript of her interview with Krista:
Ms. Tippett: Gosh. And so you make this observation in your more recent work that physicians and nurses know that a patient’s sudden interest in external things is the first sign that healing has begun. And you ask, do our surroundings in turn have an effect on us? And you’re part of these new encounters between neuroscience and other kinds of scientists and architecture and people involved in all kinds of spaces, from how hospitals are designed to civic spaces to contemplative spaces. So there’s a drama unfolding. There’s a cast of characters and there’s this whole new body of knowledge. It’s really exciting. And one of the milestones in this story that you’ve talked about is Roger Ulrich’s study called “The View from a Window” study of 1984, which was the beginning of one of these pieces of this new puzzle of what you now call environmental psychology.
Ms. Sternberg: Right. Well, so Roger Ulrich is an environmental psychologist who took advantage of a naturalistic experiment, if you will, where in patients were admitted to a ward for gallbladder surgery. Back in those days, you actually stayed in hospital for a number of days after you had gallbladder surgery. And some of them randomly were assigned to beds with a view of a brick wall and others had a view of a grove of trees. And he simply took the clinical data and measured how much pain medication these patients needed during their recovery, how long they had to stay in hospital, in other words, how quickly they healed, the number of negative nurse’s notes where they were complaining or had pain or such, and he controlled for everything: age, sex, you know, med — other medication use, other disease use. And all of these patients were taken care of by the same doctors and nurses. So it was an extraordinarily well-controlled study. And even with all these controls where the single variable that differed between patients was the view out the window, what he found was that the patients with a view of a grove of trees left hospital on average a day sooner, needed less pain medication, and had fewer negative nurse’s notes than patients who had a view of a brick wall.
MS. Tippett: So interesting, yeah.
Ms. Sternberg: Well, and one of the scientists that we interviewed, Irving Biederman, has a great quote where he says, you know, obviously, looking at a view does something positive to the brain. And his hypothesis is that endorphins are released in that part of the brain that recognizes a beautiful or preferred view. And he said, why else would we pay hundreds of dollars more for a hotel room with a beautiful view?
Ms. Tippett: Right.
MS. STERNBERG: You know, that really tells you that people are willing to put money out to pay for a view.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but we don’t think of it in terms of this is good for us. We don’t even think it that through that much. We just know that’s what we want.
That’s a really interesting point, that last one Krista makes. We think that aesthetics are merely matters of personal taste and preference, but actually there is something within us that responds to certain aesthetic patterns more than we do to others — and beauty has a physiological effect on us. More:
Ms. Tippett: The idea is, well, a lot of people would think of cathedrals as thin places or, you know, green pastures, still waters. Um, being in a place where — and this is the way some people will say it — it feels like the veil between heaven and earth has worn thin, where there’s a sense of being, you know, planted in the earth and yet also having some kind of almost physical sense of transcendence. I just wonder how you react to that, knowing what you know.
Ms. Sternberg: Well, I react to that. I have heard of that notion and I am actually very interested in exploring what is it about such places, about beautiful vistas of mountains, about the infinite horizon of the ocean. What is it that makes you feel that way about a cathedral? There are certainly physiological and neuroscientific bases to that feeling, that sense of awe. And I am convinced — I know — that these things can be measured and that’s the exciting new frontier for me, to ask exactly that question: What is it that makes one feel transcendent and is the environment something that we can consciously manipulate to find those feelings of transcendence? You know, if we’re so grounded in clay is there a way to at times, by simply going to a different place, achieve that sense of awe and transcendence?
Ms. Tippett: Again, I mean, Christopher Wren knew something about that, didn’t he, a couple of hundred years ago?
Ms. Sternberg: He did, he did. You know, when I visited, it was very interesting because I walked from the Royal Society of Medicine to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is not a short walk, but a very interesting walk in London. And I got there and it was just before Easter and there was a single man, the soloist, I guess, of the choir, who was practicing. I believe it was from The Messiah. He was standing in the middle of this dome and with this crystal clear voice that rose to the ceiling, it just gave — gave me shivers. It was really a sense of awe. So it wasn’t only the physical place. It was what that place did to sound.
Ms. Tippett: Mm-hmm.
Ms. Sternberg: I think the most important point that I came to in my own journey in writing this book is that we really can create places of peace not only in our real world, in our physical environment that surrounds us, but in our own mind’s eye. And those kinds of places of peace are portable. As you said, in many different traditions, like the Buddhist tradition or in virtually all religious traditions, you close your eyes and you visualize something. That’s a way of carrying these environments, these healing places, within you. It’s wonderful if you can go to them, but if you can’t, you can bring them to yourself.
Why is it that we physically thrive in some places but not in others? Why is it that we can touch the transcendent in some places but not in others.
We are not ghosts in a machine.