The Psychology of Place

Why We Do What We Do Where We Do It

By Leigh Brown Perkins
Illustration by Emiliano Ponzi

Person as Place

The womb, in fact, is our first place, fertile ground for the study of environment’s influence on psychology. Named after a 1993 study, the Mozart effect found test subjects performed better on spatial exams while listening to classical music. Our environmental manipulation: Endless rounds of sonatas played in neonatal units, baby DVDs featuring toy trains and mobiles moving to the beat of a kettledrum and a harpsichord. Surely, American marketers surmised, nocturnes played on a continuous loop through speakers attached to a pregnant woman’s belly would produce a genius.

Not quite.

“Despite the importance of the fetal and neonatal acoustic environments,” Gallagher writes, “one thing they don’t do is prepare a baby to take his SATs.”

A fetus’ sense of hearing is more highly developed than its other senses, but not for precocious music appreciation or word recognition (as some “baby universities” suggest is possible). The purpose of early hearing seems to be voice recognition, so that the baby, once born, knows its mommy’s voice. And that’s real genius, since mommy is where the food is. Studies bear this out. In one, newborns had a better suck response when listening to muffled recordings of their mothers’ voices, similar to what they would hear in the womb.

As in other areas of environmental psychology, humans have been intuitively creating prenatal environments that nurture the unborn child, with no studies, just common sense and folklore. “Stay away from funerals” when pregnant may sound like so much superstition, but studies bear out the idea that emotional distress absolutely produces harmful effects on the unborn. Research at UCLA found that high-anxiety pregnancies resulted in lower-birth-weight babies, preterm labor, and higher infant mortality. Lower cognitive development and poor health often accompany low birth weight.

The whole “pickles and ice cream” joke isn’t so far-fetched either. It actually makes for a healthy prenatal environment. Pregnant women, a University of Connecticut study showed, crave salty and sour tastes in later stages of pregnancy, when blood volume increases dramatically, and their sodium needs are at an all-time high. Likewise, a sudden passion for Cherry Garcia and all of its creamy sweet calcium seems to be linked to the timing of bone development in the fetus.

It wasn’t until the 1950s, and the horrors of thalidomide, that science discovered everything an expectant mother consumes affects her baby. Until 10,000 children were born with serious birth defects caused by their mothers taking the anti-nausea medication, scientists assumed the placenta provided a barrier to harmful substances. Soon, smokers were advised to quit when pregnant, drinkers to skip the cocktails, and all expectant moms to avoid even over-the-counter medications.

Our first environment has much to teach us and so does our second, the nursery. Even in newborns, our species has a highly tuned cyclical sense of time. Stripped of our natural rhythm, babies (and, yes, non-vacationing cubicle-dwelling adults) face unprecedented environmental stressors. As soon as medicine created the technology to keep premature babies alive, it discovered that preemies weren’t thriving in their incubators unless their mom’s touch and voice was nearby. Quickly though, this led to bright lights, constant traffic, and the ubiquitous Mozart track, the thinking being that if a little stimulation is good, a lot is better. But babies need dark and light cycles to develop properly.

“It’s striking how often the observations of scientists trying to design the perfect place for preemies also apply to the rest of us in our jumped-up, fast-forward world,” Gallagher writes.

In the last 20 years, how many articles have been written about how to get a good night’s sleep? Sleep disorders are a national plague, apparently, thanks to our insistence on ignoring our natural circadian rhythms (grande lattes don’t help much either). Many studies correlate our widespread sleep deprivation to the loss of our innate rise-with-the-sun pattern of living that served us so well throughout millennia and has only recently been replaced by fluorescent bulbs and digital alarm clocks. Likewise, the national epidemic of depression (almost 9 million Americans sought treatment for depression in 2007, 75 percent of whom received antidepressant medication) has also been linked to a lack of sleep and natural light.

“From the cradle to the schoolroom, the home to the workplace,” Gallagher writes, “our well-being depends on the delicate business of getting just the right amount of stimulation from our surroundings at the right time.”

That right amount and that right time, however, is different for every quirky human.

The Individual Preference Factor

Psychologists can fairly accurately predict that human beings will take the most appealing path laid out for them. But individual personality and background do play a role.

Consider the introvert. In the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain contends that designing spaces for forced connectedness is anathema to contemplative types.

“Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has a ‘room of one’s own,’” she writes. “During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.”

Research suggests the noise and nosiness of such closeness creates hostile and distracted workers, even prompting a host of health issues, from high blood pressure to exhaustion. Cain writes that open-floor workers take twice as long to complete their work.

Finishing slowly (and with more errors) is one thing, but attaining true mastery of a subject is quite another. For that, forget about brainstorming and committees. Mastery requires solitude.

Quoting research by Florida State University psychology professor Anders Ericsson, Cain writes that focused concentration on a difficult task is the only way to achieve expertise: “And often the best way to do this is alone.”

Privacy—or its lack—is a hot topic in environmental psychology. Recent studies have looked into the “personal space” responses of American students versus Turkish students (Americans expect more of it than Turks); another compared the advantages of living in private suites rather than traditional bunk-dorms (high density triples lost). Dorms, in fact, are ripe with environmental psychology issues, where even the kind of mementos a first-year student puts on her shelf can predict her likelihood of dropping out (too many dried-up prom corsages from high school and hometown photos are not a good sign). A well-trained RA might spot the decorative warning signs and intervene before homesickness hits the critical point.

At Rollins, wise planning has created a campus designed for both the gregarious and the less so. “My favorite place is the Alfond Sports Center,” said Jasmine Cohen ’14. “I can be myself and not worry about being graded, just have fun.”

Her fun is a less-athletic girl’s nightmare, no matter how carefully the space is designed.

Brenda Castro ’13 chooses Lake Virginia as her spot to draw, picnic, or meditate. But for an extrovert who feels most alive, say, prowling downtown venues, this scene puts too much environment in environmental psychology. The challenge in applying the research is finding the sweet spot between predicted group response and these quirks of personality.

Creating “place attachment” is critical to the comfort and retention (and—later—alumni loyalty) of students. According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, three components emotionally connect people to a place: attachment (mutual caretaking between the place and the person); familiarity (detailed knowledge of the place); and identity (having a sense of self in the place).

When a campus like Rollins gets it right, a lifelong bond between environment and person is forged.

It becomes, as Jazzmyn Iglesias ’13 says, “a place I already call home.”

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