The Restorative Impact of Perceived Open Space - Sky Factory Inc


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Welcome to Sky factories continuing education course, the restorative impact of perceived open space. This program is registered with the Royal Institute of British Architects continuing professional development providers network. As a RIBA chartered member, you can record and keep track of the credits earned for this CPD course using the RIBA online CPD recorder. The British institute of interior designers will also accept this course for credit toward their continuing education requirements. Certificates of completion for both RIBA members and non RIBA participants are available upon request. This course is copyrighted by Sky Factory and is protected by US and international Copyright laws. Reproduction, distribution, display or use of this presentation without expressed written permission is prohibited.



In this course we explore the impact of deep planned buildings on human performance. We analyse the role circadian light and perceived open space play in shaping cognitive function, as well as how our psychophysiology changes in interior environments. The course introduces a new technology that proposes the restorative value of perceived open space in its two essential orientations: perceived zenith and perceived horizon line.

In contrast to how we perceive these spatial reference frames outdoors in enclosed interiors where such reference frames are often not visible, we can stage architectural cues to alter our perception of interior space. Restoring these fundamental spatial reference frames through a valid multi-sensory illusion reveals a range of Wellness benefits normally associated with interiors applying biophilic design principles.


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Learning Aims

Following this course, you will be able to:

  1. Discuss how and why isolating the qualities of light intensity and colour temperature from their natural medium, the Sky, has a profound effect on perception: light loses its spatial attributes as an organic connection to nature.
  2. Define the role intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells play in regulating circadian function and why the environmental context in which our physiology detects circadian light, in open natural space, may play a fundamental role in generating a restorative effect.
  3. Describe how our sensory motor system in our memory share the same wetware, that is neural pathways, to perceive and map out our environment making our memory a neural repository of spatial reference frames.
  4. Summarised the malleable nature of human perception and how multisensory illusions can be designed in architectural settings, transforming how our Physiology experiences the built environment.
  5. Explain the implications of deep plan buildings on human health and productivity and how biophilic design technologies minimise their deleterious impact.


Sky Factory

Sky factory designs and manufactures the only research verified virtual skylights. The company's luminous Sky ceilings have been the subject of two peer reviewed studies published in the health environments research and design Journal. The first study neural correlates of nature stimuli an FMRI study was published in collaboration with Texas Tech university's College of human Sciences and their neuroimaging Institute. The study examined whether there are unique patterns of brain activation associated with exposure to Sky factories photographic open Sky compositions, as compared with other known positive negative and neutral images.

This pioneering study on the neural architecture of nature imagery has earned multiple awards from international organisations, including the international Academy for design and health, the environmental design research Association and Planetree international.


The Vastness of the Sky...Inside

Sky factories research on the effects of cognitive biophilia and the restorative impact of perceived open space has been presented at the Royal College of Physicians during the European healthcare design conference and at the Salk Institute during the academy of neuroscience for architecture conference both in 2018.


Circadian Cells & Spatial Cognition

To begin we need to take a brief look at the Physiology of the human visual system. Standard vision in the human eye consists of three basic functions, object recognition, colour vision and motion detection. Light entering our eyes is processed by specialized neurons called cones, responsible for colour vision when light levels are high, and rods, responsible for monochromatic night vision when light levels are low. Until 2002 these were all the photoreceptors the human eye was thought to have short metal and long wavelength cones plus the rods. However, science has recently uncovered another unique sensory apparatus responsible for regulating biological rhythms.


There's a fifth photoreceptor in the inner retina with a peak sensitivity to blue light of slightly different wavelengths than the cones and rods, these photoreceptors are known as intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells, hereafter referred to as circadian photoreceptors. Due to their particular sensitivity to this wavelength of blue light this photo receptor is called our physiologies blue Sky detector. The Circadian photoreceptors signal the Suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN in the hypothalamus area of the brain.



The SCN is known to be the body's master circadian Clock. This is something which they've always done in the environmental context of wide open space. This master biological Clock regulates how all the cells in our bodies adjust their Physiology and metabolism according to the time of day. Yet, it remains to be seen whether the brain's master Clock will operate in identical fashion in the absence of a visual connection to a natural exterior space, at this time no one can say for certain.


Thus far circadian photoreceptors were thought to only be concerned with their radiance or overall retinal light exposure and not play a role in visual image formation. However, a new paper by the University of Manchester reveals otherwise. The paper notes that the SCN is very responsive to spatial patterns and identifies spatial distribution of light as being at least as large an influence on SCN firing as a radiance. And while this study does emphasise that the spatial distribution of light does not appear to affect circadian phase resetting at least not to the limited set of light patterns tested thus far, in view of other neural clues it seems reasonable to assume that such data does play a valuable role. After all the sunbeams daylight within the context of a blue canopy that is by its very nature spatial.


Such an integrated view of our brains neural connections and synaptic inputs would also appear to fit well with other key neuroscientific observations which note that higher cognitive faculties like attention, memory and planning all share the same neural infrastructure that our sensory and motor faculties used to navigate a shifting external environment.


And while the relatively young field of circadian photoreceptors may be years away from mapping all their functional roles, their interconnectedness with the rest of the visual system demonstrates the relevance of a holistic approach to visual phenomena.


In other words, the neuroscience of visual processing has established that environmental context shapes cognitive perception. Studies have found that viewing the same object under different circumstances can and does influence the strength of the visual signal, hence changing the environmental context of daylight by creating a circadian effect in enclosed interiors might very well trigger alertness in the Physiology however it is equally plausible that the artificial context in which light intensity is perceived could also trigger other less desirable cognitive or physiological reactions in enclosed spaces. Particularly if the source of the circadian light cannot be attributed to a familiar biophilic or natural source, it provides a recognizable spatial reference frame like the Sky naturally does.


Man Made

While the impact of manmade circadian lighting systems is under study, we simply want to point out that light triggers a spatial dimension in the environment that cues perception in ways just as fundamental and just as meaningful as the circadian impact of light itself.


Leading researcher Mariana Figueroa, program director at Rensselaer Polytechnic institutes lighting research centre, has noted that the visual system relies on accurate spatial correspondence between the environment and perception. The circadian system however simply responds to changes in overall retina light exposure. Although it seems more responsive to light from above the line of sight which reinforces the notion that the circadian system is a blue Sky detector.


Taking a different approach the above noted observation may also indicate that are hard wired blue Sky detection system is not limited to just the retina, but might also involve the brain Maps created by our visual system to establish spatial correspondence between the environment, that is what's really out there and perception what we think is out there. These aren't necessarily the same as we will find later in the course.


A blue Sky does not transmit circadian light to our brain on an abstract basis, it does so as humanity's most meaningful visceral experience of open space. Perhaps In addition to mimicking the circadian oscillation of daylight and enclosed interiors another equally important component is the spatial context in which light is transmitted. If not the Sky itself then an illusion of a natural environment or an illusion of overhead Sky that is sufficiently credible to match our biophilic that is our genetic memory of the same stimuli, under similar conditions may be of significant importance.


In order to understand the spatial correspondence between the environment and perception, we need to take a closer look at the relationship between light, space and memory. Research in neuroscience has also uncovered the fascinating connection between our ability to map space and memory. A fundamental building block involved in giving rise to environmental context. According to Jennifer grow Duke University professor and author of the book, making space how the brain knows where things are it turns out that, not only is memory an integral part of building a sense of space but space in turn serves as a kind of filing system for storing and accessing memories and the brain's memory space connection relies on shared neural infrastructure.


This insight provides one of the clues that may answer the mystery behind by certain optical illusions, what we termed biophilic illusions of nature in this course, which provide a spatial reference frame have such a unique impact on our psychophysiology in comparison to standard or representational nature art photography. When we provide a visual stimulus that mimics a spatial relationship, we're familiar with the brain sensorimotor regions that react as if the original memory itself was being re-experienced.


This is consistent with a unique facet of illusions. They are capable of conjuring an experience when key cognitive cues emulate a bonafide past experience. While our circadian rhythm signals various internal biological clocks given the shared neural infrastructure between memory and spatial cognition, it seems reasonable to assume that our most universal sense of space, the Sky, would also be an elemental circadian synchroniser as it relates to the effects of daylight on our Physiology.


After all, our own experience confirms that we intuitively gravitate to nature and open space because our senses come alive, enticed in ways that no man made environment can mimic without overstimulation or sensory overload. For example imagine being out in a forest there is an almost infinite amount of visual information from tiny details in the bark on the trees, all the small insects that are crawling around, the huge numbers of small branches leaves and pine needles and, the constantly shifting light patterns as they rustle in the breeze yet most people find this a very relaxing and restorative experience.


Compare this to for example standing in Times Square in New York city wanting to cross the street, there was a lot of visual information here as well although, not nearly as much Forrest if most people would not find this situation to be very relaxing and many would find it rather stressful, the difference is that the sensory input is instead of being natural. In nature we transcend the confines of individual awareness and merge into our surroundings research has found that open space can literally deepen human thought. The proliferation of skyscrapers and the deep plan building again with a horizontal distance from the external wall is many times greater than the floor to ceiling height impairs our circadian cycle.


The circadian cycle is responsible for suppressing melatonin during the day low light levels typical of the plan buildings exposed the Physiology to only a fraction of the light needed to suppress daytime melatonin production, and this can have adverse effects on mental acuity emotional balance and optimal cognitive functioning.


Deep plan floorplates endemic to large buildings invariably generate reaching close sections that do not by virtue of their design receive much if any daylight. And while the highly sought after daylight workspaces lie on the periphery a significant percentage of the staff remain in darker, enclosed interiors. Over the last 30 years, research in fields of study ranging from evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, environmental psychology, biological anthropology, social ecology and sustainable design, have all contributed to the consensus that conventional building design runs counter to what our Physiology needs for optimal performance.


Overtime we've discovered that sustainable interiors for human occupancy are defined by a connection to open natural spaces, that provide access to unimpeded views to nature from a place of safety. One environmental psychologists refer to as prospect and refuge, a spatial pattern each of us intuitively recognises and prefers. The biophilia hypothesis first proposed by Harvard biologist and Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward O’Wilson, to describe our innate genetic based need to affiliate with other living systems provides a scientific explanation for an experience we all intuitively understand.


We are part and parcel of the natural environment and maintaining this connection in the experience of our buildings allows our Physiology to resonate with a deeply ingrained spatial pattern, that of wide open natural spaces. These two conflicting developments, prevalence of windowless interiors and the discovery of their effect on our mind and body have propelled the rise of biophilic design. A field that seeks to create buildings that connect their occupants with the natural surroundings, providing a psycho physiologically sound working environment, where the opportunity for attention to be directed outdoors, facilitates cognitive restoration throughout the day.


However, in spite of the rapid ascent of the key elements of biophilic design, ample daylighting, green spaces and views to nature in new buildings, we've developed a blind spot concerning the design of the commercial buildings most people currently occupied and, will continue to occupy for several decades to come.


According to Edward Masuria the visionary architect and founder of architecture 2030, an organization dedicated to achieving carbon neutrality in new building design. The average global life span of a building is 80 years unlike most applied technologies commercial buildings have long lifespans. So how long will it take to replace outmoded building design.


The American physical society calculates new building growth rate in the United States at 1 to 2% per year which means, that our cities are many decades away from offering the already well established benefits of biophilic design to the bulk of commercial building occupants, whether they are employees, residents, students, patients or shoppers. What is the cost of property owners and tenants of occupying older buildings?


The Hidden Cost of Enclosed Structures

According to the Institute for building efficiency over 50% of the buildings that will still be in use by 2050 have already been built. In other words, a large percentage of the workforce can be expected to work in outmoded buildings for the next 35 to 50 years.


Furthermore, a 2010 survey by the US Energy Information agency found that nearly 3/4 of the commercial floor stock in the US, equivalent to 46 billion square feet belong to buildings over 20 years old, before the principles of biophilic design were well understood let alone widely applied.


These figures can only mean that while biophilic design, green design and sustainable technologies are more and more being incorporated into new buildings. The pressing question is what solutions are available for billions of square feet of completely or partially enclosed interiors that will continue to be used for decades to come? How can we create sustainable interiors for long term human occupancy in older buildings that are not optimal for human performance and health?


In the summer of 2015, the Journal of hospital administration published the article. 


Return on investment of a lead platinum hospital the influence of healthcare facility environments on healthcare employees and organizational effectiveness. This study set out to examine the relationship between hospital environments and employee engagement, turnover illness, and injury.


The study concluded that employees’ perceptions of the interior environment can and do impact their engagement, health and well-being, but the deficiencies in building design even for LEED platinum projects was apparent. 


The unique challenge of infiltrating natural light into the core of the building where most employees spend their working days was noted. Given the LEED credit for 75% daylight penetration in the LEED platinum hospital, access to natural light and views within the nursing station and other occupied work areas were limited. Much of the natural light is located in patient environments and public corridors where healthcare employees are less likely to spend their working hours.


The layout of the LEED hospital is different than those of comparing non LEED facilities with patient unit pods, rather than the traditional racetrack design. Yet the findings indicated similar dissatisfaction with participants at the other facilities. Future design of facilities would benefit from careful analysis of layout and organization of spaces with consideration to employee work processes.


In fact, we may find that as long as deplaned buildings continue to exist the solution to their detrimental effect may not be found within their walls as much as within our perception of those surfaces, walls and ceilings as a spatial boundary. This change in emphasis allows us to consider visual spatial technologies within the context and less than ideal existing working environments.


Environmental Design and The Mechanics of Perception

In order to understand how these technologies may prove to be of value we first need to peer into environmental design and the mechanics of perception. The field of neuroscience has done much to uncover how our visual system makes inferences and fills in the gaps from missing or misleading visual input. Our brain routinely makes assumptions about sensory input, this confirms that our perception is born of a process of interpretation not static transmission of one to one correlations from environmental cubes. An example is this slide which at first glance appears to be spirals or perhaps interlocking circles but, in fact they are just four concentric circles.


In reality the rich tapestry of visual experience that we cognise is actually an internal composite presented by our senses and organised by the internal algorithms, used by our brains to interpret and give rise to meaningful perceptions. Psychologists call this our habits of perception.


Sleights of Mind

This phenomenon according to neuroscientist Steven Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde authors of the fascinating book sleights of mind, is an unavoidable result born of the sheer limitations in the number of neurons and neural connections underlying our sensory and mental processes.


We are accustomed to the notion that our perception of reality of what is out there is accurate but this simply is not true, for example this appears to be 3 lines of well-formed text, it looks like someone took great care to make all the letters the same size and all nicely aligned, but if we shift our position by a few steps, we see that the letters now appear to be quite distorted. Here, the context of what we see depends on where we stand.


Our visual circuits are not passive transmitters of sensory input, but as the authors note they actively amplify, suppress, converge and diverge all incoming visual information. They go further and assert you perceive what you see as something different from reality, perception means resolving ambiguity. They provide another great example that we're all familiar with.


Why does the full moon look enormous as it first rises over the horizon, whereas it looks small when spotted high in the Sky. The discrepancy in perceived size is due to the influence of visual context. Down near the horizon adjacent to trees, Hills, buildings or mountains, our brain actually enlarges the size of the lunar disc that we see based on these environmental or contextual cues but, high up in the Sky with only the vastness of the open Sky to provide context, our visual circuits actually reduce its perceived size.


Which size is true? It's hard to say, and these are just a few examples of how our perception is not as static as we believe it to be but, is a dynamic process that is sensitive to the environmental cues surrounding visual input.


Furthermore, scientists have been able to categorise what we would recognise as attention, our ability to direct our focus, not as a single and uniform phenomenon it is a number of discrete cognitive processes.


Of particular relevance to environmental design and the mechanics involved in how we experience a given space is the cognitive phenomenon called the spotlight of attention. The ability to regulate sensory input by bearing down on a particular region of visual space while at the same time tuning out data or stimuli outside that tunnel vision of focus. This isn't limited to just our sense of sight; you may have heard of something called the cocktail party effect.


We can be in a room with 50 other people having multiple conversations among themselves and we have the ability to hone in and follow and understand a single conversation between two people while tuning out all the other conversations in the room.



When we direct our focus to a given area our spotlight of attention falls on what is called retinotopic space, as Macknik, Martinez-Conde explained, neurons from higher levels of your visual system increase the activation of the low level circuits and enhance their sensitivity to sensory input, at the same time neurons in the surrounding regions of visual space are actively inhibited. Neuroscientists have discovered that our retinotopic or focused vision accounts for a mere 5% of visual input while our peripheral vision counts for 95% of the visual field. In other words, context shapes perception.



It's interesting to note that another neuroscientist Doctor Steve Rose, author of the future of the brain, notes a fascinating study where the perceived sensory input actually increases when the context changes. That is the same visual stimulus presented under a different context, does in fact lead to a more or sometimes less engaging cognitive experience. This is the stuff of which unexpected illusions are made.


In one of his lectures discussing his book, Doctor Rose wonders what is wrong with the world around us considering that clinical depression which the World Health Organization has called the epidemic of the 21st century, has become the normalisation of contemporary humanity. Considering what we now know about the importance of multi-sensory stimuli and environmental context, could the unprecedented global spike in clinical depression have an architectural origin.


Neurologically Complex Environments

Could the lack of a neurologically complex environment which is the hallmark of visual access to nature coupled with the wholesale migration to static artificial interiors that provide little sensory stimuli, be largely responsible for this dramatic change in modern humanity psychological well-being and even our neural chemistry.


Instead of living and working in natural environments a substantial percentage of the population labours with an intricate labyrinth like buildings in high density Metropolitan areas. Nothing could be further disassociated from our innate biophilic need for open space.


The healing canopy of open skies, one of the circadian synchronizers that help train or reset our circadian rhythm, is the spatial connection that artificial interiors must account for, if there to support occupants who spend the majority of their workday within their walls. When our senses are immersed in a natural environment, we experience what's called biophilic engagement.


Our Physiology relaxes while our mind remains alert, this is an automatic relaxation response the opposite of the fight or flight response and every bit as instinctual. On the reverse when we're stressed and fatigued our productivity plummets. Enclosed interiors to magnify stress anxiety and fatigue. To alleviate these symptoms, we must learn to elicit biophilic engagement in confined artificial environments.


Internalised Reflections and Reconstruction of Space in Thought

While cognition itself is a complex subject it's enough to note that human spatial cognition is fundamental to human life. By spatial cognition neuroscientists Roger Heart and Garry More refer to the internalised reflections and reconstruction of space in thought.


Over the last 30 years the field of evidence based design has taken a prominent role in studying the environmental features most conducive to a healing environment. During this period healthcare researchers and designers have embraced the benefits of nature art imagery in providing positive distraction features in clinical settings.


Interestingly enough until recently neither designers of nature art imagery nor the researchers involved in documenting the clinical future art, have considered the cognitive implications of introducing a more profound phenomenon, visual illusions into healthcare settings.


Virtual Skylights

Virtual skylights are such visual illusions, when properly designed they give rise to a powerful architectural tool biophilic illusions of nature. That incorporates both materials and techniques ranging from art and photography, to film making and architecture. Taken together they become an artistic tool and unique image technology that can engage our cognitive organs in such a way that our hardwired habits of perception experience something else.


They transport us somewhere else. Vanduser restorative experience of biophilic engagement in interior spaces.


Such a visual design framework would need to factor how we process multi-sensory stimuli, unlike standard commercial photography which does not require context, images designed as visual illusions reinforce the environmental context of their surroundings, an attribute that permits them to engage spatial cognition.


Imagery that incorporates an architectural context triggers a deeper therapeutic response, not a psychological but a broader neural physiological response to perceived change in the surroundings. Illusions of natural environments lead the observers Physiology to experience a visceral sensation of openness that has meaningful restorative benefits.


After a dozen or so years of noting recurrent patient experiences of vastness that is a palpable sensation of openness, when exposed to biophilic illusions and enclosed clinical environments, it became evident peering into the neural architecture of how nature stable is perceived could be illuminating.


In 2012 Texas Tech University's College of Human Sciences and their neuroimaging Institute, spearheaded a study that was subsequently published in the peer reviewed academic Journal health environments research and design.


A Texas Tech study was designed to uncover the neural pathways involved in the perception of open Sky photographic compositions representing nature stimuli as compared to other positive, negative and neutral images.


Researchers used a technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging or FMRI, to map electrical activity in the brains of test subjects, as they were shown a series of different images. Some of the images were known by neuroscience to elicit positive emotional responses and activate areas of the brain known to process positive content. These were images of butterflies, cute animals or pleasant nature scenes. Some of the images were known to elicit negative emotional responses and activate those areas of the brain known to process negative content. These were photographs of forest fires, dead animals, ugly insects and garbage dumps. Some of the images didn't elicit any emotional response at all; these included close ups of a sheet of plywood or a brick wall.


Sky photographic compositions

Finally, some of the images were carefully crafted open Sky photographic compositions. This study earned best international research project at the 2014 design and health international Academy Awards for shedding light on the neural architecture of functional illusions of nature. And in 2017 the study also learned a certificate of research excellence or core award from the environmental design research association.


The award winning study, neural correlates of nature stimuli an FMRI study, revealed that specifically designed open Sky photographic compositions can be deliberately framed, not only to share the characteristic neural activations present in positive images, again these are nature images that elicit the positive emotional response in the brain but also engage areas of the brain involved in spatial cognition. Of particular interest to the researchers were activations found in the cerebellum, as it is often associated with aspects of moving through space and depth perception.


The positive impact of nature images on health outcomes has been traditionally measured using behavioural and physiological indicators leaving much to be understood about the neural mechanisms that explained their positive influence. The Texas tech study was a step toward such understanding.


Biophilic Illusions

With a neurological understanding of the power that biophilic illusions have to alter perceived space in enclosed interiors, indoor spaces can leverage a research based approach to mitigate the deleterious impact of deplaned buildings. With such tools isolated areas can be adapted to provide healthy biophilic and restorative interiors for human occupancy. There is a growing interest in studying biophilic delusions to pinpoint how they mitigate the consequences of prolonged exposure to enclosed interiors.


Visual illusions are cognitive puzzles, they emerge from an amalgam or combination of environmental cues among these are the Fidelity of the reproduced visual content. That is how good is the photograph, the seamless integration of these visual elements into an appropriate architectural context such as what appears to be part of a skylight as you see here and, the manipulation of light intensity and colour temperature which, all collectively combined to synthesise a new perception of space.


In situations where an interior space cannot incorporate an organic visual connection to nature, we can mimic the geometry of natural environments by reproducing two fundamental biophilic spatial relationships within the architectural framework of those interior spaces. These are the perceived zenith the point in the celestial sphere directly above the observer, inside this is typically the ceiling plain appointed only a few feet above our head but outside the zenith can be hundreds or thousands of feet up.


As an example of how strongly the perceived zenith can affect us consider the last time you had a really gruelling day at work, maybe you had a client deadline due the next day, or you were preparing for a presentation you came in early, worked through the day without any breaks, eat lunch at your desk, stayed and ground through it to finally get it all done, think back about how you felt that evening as you left the building on your way home. If you're like most people you felt an almost palpable sense of decompression and relief the moment you exited the building when your perceived zenith went from a point a few feet above your head, the ceiling to appoint much much higher, the Sky.


Horizon Line

The other spatial relationship is the perceived horizon line, the apparent junction of earth and Sky. To illustrate how important the horizon line is to our sense of space consider airplane pilots who find themselves flying in clouds, they report this to be a completely disorienting experience, they literally cannot tell which way is up or down and can't tell if they are ascending or descending. In fact, less experienced pilots have been known to crash by literally flying their planes into the ground. Mountain climbers report similar disorientation and clouds come in while they are ascending even though they can see the ground and they can feel which way is up, they will often stop climbing and set up can to wait for the clouds to clear before continuing.


In any environment, natural or artificial exterior or interior, zenith and horizon line serve as environmental anchors that shape our experience of space. We cannot underestimate the importance of visual input and spatial awareness to our well-being.


When we have our eyes open, vision accounts for 2/3 the entire electrical activity of the brain, a full 2 billion of the 3 billion total neural firings per second. In fact, over 50% all the neural tissue in our body is directly or indirectly related to vision. Both our frontal vision and our peripheral vision work together to automatically map out the space we occupied, but our psychophysiological relationship to space is much more than a mechanical mapping function.


Environmental psychologists have discovered that spatial and temporal dynamics are asymmetrical. That is, space plays a larger role in modulating how we perceive time. When space around us is abundant, time takes on elastic quality, it feels abundant and we find it easier to think and reflect, weighing matters of moral creative or strategic value in a clear manner. In other words, space can and does influence both the quality and depth of human thought. When we feel our body our entrained measure of scale to be smaller in relation to the space we occupy, we perceive time to slow down.


This clinical observation echoes the scale proportions found in views to nature that offer prospecting refuge, where we have unimpeded visual and spatial access into an expansive environment from a small and secure spot like a balcony or secluded overlook. Given this recurrent scale relationship it is not surprising that panoramic views of nature remain a hallmark of ideal aesthetic design.


A breath-taking view to nature is not only a poetic way of describing the swing of awareness that humans find intrinsically enticing and healing, it also literally describes the physiological transformation that occurs during biophilic engagement. When the breath slows down or is momentarily suspended it is the direct result of the quieting of the mind and reflects an experience of the deep connection between the observer and the observed.


This visceral recognition and conscious amazement reflects the innate kinship between living systems, humankind and nature, that biophilia attempts to define. When we perceive a small relative scale such as our body, in the context of a much larger relative scale, such as the environment or geography, the juxtaposition of contrasting scales creates an unparalleled experience of wholeness. A perceptual experience conducive to reflection, contemplation, mental clarity and emotional balance.


When we experience vastness, time appears to slow down become abundant and feel infinite. Any experience of Infinity the mind finds much more than solace discovers its own unbounded nature and experiences deep rest.



On the other hand, smaller spaces particularly in closed artificial spaces tend to crowd us in. Our perceived sense of time speeds up leading to the common experience of time pressure, task related stress and anxiety. As a matter of fact, small enclosed spaces make occupants feel like the walls are literally closing in, which given the research might finally be understood as an accurate expression of cognitive perception. This sense of body of research does indicate that space time interactions in human vision are asymmetrical. 


That is spatial cognition has a larger effect on temporal cognition than the other way around. This fundamental insight into cognitive perception provides fascinating architectural design possibilities. If we account for how our neurophysiology reacts, in relation to perceived space then we can also, to an extent modulate the occupant’s subjective relationship to time, which in turn can affect his or her productivity, work satisfaction and health.


Interior environments that provide a visual and spatial connection to open natural environments foster a calm grounded psychophysiology. On the converse, isolated interior spaces without a visual and spatial connection to a natural exterior will, by design, speed up time contributing to a compressed feeling of unease.


This happens because we measure time in terms of space, after all time is an abstract concept where space is a concept we can measure and quantify given that we literally map out spatial relationships in our brain. As a matter of fact, some neuroscientists like Jennifer Groh speculate that abstract thought is intimately linked to spatial cognition and the way we map out our sense of space may also be responsible for the nature of human thought itself. In her book making space how the brain knows where things are, Doctor Groh asserts that much of the information stored in our memory systems is intrinsically spatial.


We find things by remembering where to look and many of the brain sensory and motor regions also exhibit memory related activity. She goes on to remark that the parietal cortex seems to play a role in unlocking memories by calling to mind spatial frames, references based on one's imagined perspective on the scene. She gives a fascinating example from a 1978 study by Italian researchers Eduardo Busyaachen and Claudia Lizotte who tested patients, who suffered from damage to one side or the other of their parietal cortex on how well they could recall familiar settings. The researchers asked the patients to imagine themselves standing at the foot of the famous Piazza del duomo in Milan Italy and to name as many landmarks around the square as they could. The patients had trouble naming landmarks from the side of the square that corresponded to the damaged part of their parietal cortex and the associated impaired region of space.


For example, the patients weren't able to recall the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele which for Italians is the most important and well known landmark on that side of the square. However, the fascinating discovery came when the researchers asked the patients to switch mental perspectives and imagine themselves standing at the other end of the square facing back the opposite direction.


The change in vantage point even though only imagined allowed their patients to recall landmarks they previously couldn't, now they could recall the Galleria. So, the memories were there all along. Conscious access to these memories was only a matter of recreating the proper spatial reference frame in the mind’s eye of the patients, interesting study.


In similar fashion, when we create visual stimuli in enclosed interiors with the proper spatial frame reference, we re-establish a neural connection to our past experiences of looking up at the Sky. Even when the environmental context is virtual that is simulated in an isolated interior, we can trigger spatial memories of experienced environments, our biophilic memory because the hippocampal region has a profound sensitivity to one’s own spatial location in relation to past memories formed under similar sensory stimuli.


These neural dynamics indicate the central role that spatial reference frames play in channelling stored biophilic memories of spatially similar experiences. This mechanism may explain why a biophilic illusion of open Sky inside a building can also evoke that same relaxation response that open natural environments so easily reveal.


Studies have shown that mentally picturing a visual stimulus elicits activity in the primary visual cortex and furthermore that the extent of this activity varies with the size of the object being imagined, tying into the visual cortex map of space hence, the visceral sensation of open space and even a small multi-sensory illusion of Sky is able to generate, is possible because the size of the object observed, in this case the Sky is tied to the visual cortex map of space, which for the Sky is the experience of utter vastness and relief.


These assertions provide a neurological basis to understand why natural environments have played such a fundamental role in the development of our neural circuitry and, why now more than ever when urban humankind's daily experience is one of limited built space rather than interconnected open space, the negative consequences to our cognitive functions cannot be stressed enough.


Doctor Groh’s argument brings us back full circle to the biophilia hypothesis and the impact of natural environments on our ability to restore and recharge. She says such studies suggest that mental representations for space are not merely Co-opted from the sensory and motor domains but that those domains may in turn shape thinking in the abstract domain.


The implication of this is that perhaps many aspects of our ability to think and reason may be shaped by the nature of our neural wetware that originally evolved in the context of sensory and motor processing. Therefore, if our brain acquired its neural complexity in direct response to the natural environment that enveloped our earlier psychophysiological experience on earth, it is no wonder that our sense of time as a direct correspondence to the space we occupy. When we find ourselves outdoors surrounded by nature with a palpable sense of infinite space, our minds feel expanded and serene, induced to abstract thought, daydreaming, free association, creativity and foresight.


On the other hand, with the modern march toward limited disconnected space society has seen the rise of urban pathologies most notably hypertension, chronic stress and attention deficit affective disorder. However, it's interesting to note that these acquired behaviours do tend to lose much of their neurotic hold when the subject is immersed in a larger spatial frame of reference such as a wide open natural space.


In the case of enclosed interior spaces, we can extend the interior zenith using a multi-sensory illusion that passes through the ceiling plane we can establish a perceived zenith beyond the ceiling. Such an illusory zenith not only provides visual information but also engages our vestibular system, thereby incorporating our sense of balance and spatial orientation to reinforce the new spatial reference frame. A multi-sensory approach to image composition among other elements of design is fundamental to creating a successful illusion.


The combined environmental cues tie the overhead image to its architectural context thereby, making the boundaries of the ceiling transparent to both the eye and awareness of the observer. The suggested quality of the environmental cues, image composition and light quality married to an appropriate architectural context, can create a perceived horizon to similarly weaken the boundaries of interior walls. These two spatial relationships to perceive zenith and the perceived horizon line, represent a new visual and cognitive technology that has just begun to be leveraged in deep plan interiors.



Over the last hour we've looked at the Physiology of human vision. We've explored how daylight impacts our biological or circadian rhythms, as well as its fundamental spatial dimension as part and parcel of the Sky. We also examined how our perception of sensory stimuli particularly, visual input is not static but open to interpretation based on structural and contextual cues.


We've reviewed studies that highlight how our ingrained habits of perception modulate how our brain interprets what we see, effectively creating our reality. We learned how memory is essential to building a sense of space and how the spaces or environments that we've experienced serve as spatial repositories for storing and accessing memories. We underscored the fact that the brain's memory space connection relies on shared neural infrastructure.


We've examined how architectural cues can be appropriately staged to alter our perception of enclosed interiors, and provide many of the same restorative benefits of actual views to nature, biophilic designs most researched Wellness feature. We introduced the perceived zenith and the perceived horizon as the restorative barometer of spatial cognition, the more natural space we perceive around us, the longer our cognitive abilities and Physiology remain in optimum performance. These two fundamental spatial relationships are set by the Sky and are stored in our memory as spatial reference frames. We covered how natural environments slow down our perceived sense of time, which results in cognitive and physiological benefits.


We also discussed how structural and contextual cues in the design of biophilic illusions of nature such as virtual skylights in enclosed interiors, can create a palpable experience of perceived open space, slowing down our perception of time and reducing workplace stress and anxiety.


We introduced a new visual and cognitive technology that is particularly useful when other avenues to bring biophilic design relief indoors are not structurally possible or economically feasible. By taking this cognitive framework into account in the visual design process, it is possible to have a research based visual technology, that can turn billions of square feet of enclosed interiors into comfortable healthy and restorative indoor spaces, that are much better suited for long term human occupancy.



This concludes our discussion on the restorative impact of perceived open space.


This course was derived from a 2017 Sky factory white paper of the same title, which is available on our website under the education tab. The paper is fully footnoted with a complete bibliography to references to all the scientific studies and research discussed in this course. Thanks again for your time and interest today.

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