Pilot Bio Mirror
The main question we want to answer in our Bio Mirror project is:
How can materials and interior products contribute to mental well being?
Based on literature and psychological (environmental) theories, we divided the question into three courses:
Relaxation & stress reduction
Concentration & Focussing
Letting go & changing mindset
With every course we chose an existing design we wanted to research and develop.
A research into
to create tangible surfaces for daily life
Stress & relaxation
Stress can be defined as a physiological response to undesired situations, either emotional or physical (Busch et al., 20212). When we experience stress our sympathetic nervous system turns on, which is one of the two systems in our autonomic nervous system that regulates bodily functions unconsciously.
The sympathetic nervous system gets us in an action mode (think of the evolutionary fight or flight mode). Our heartbeat increases and our breathing pace goes faster, oxygen is going to our muscles, ready to act. The opposite happens when our parasympathetic system turns on, we start to relax. Our heartbeat and breathing pace slows down, our muscles relax. Our body gets time to digest and regenerate.
These physiological characteristics of stress are exactly what we want to counteract. Related to stress, turning on your parasympathetic nervous system can be called the relaxation response. A bodily reaction in which slowing down your heartbeat, breathing pace, blood pressure and feeling of arousal is necessary to give your body the time to regenerate (Galving, Bense, Deckro, Fricchione & Duesk, 2006). Techniques like meditation, guided imagery, biofeedback, deep breathing, tai chi, qigong and yoga can help to trigger the relaxation response (Galving et al., 2006).
Biofeedback is one of the techniques that help trigger the relaxation response. Biofeedback is a method to learn to become aware of bodily functions.
Biofeedback is one of the techniques that help trigger the relaxation response. Biofeedback is a method to learn to become aware of bodily functions. By becoming aware people can train to change them. In biofeedback users are provided with feedback from their own physiological data (for example the heart rate). With this feedback they learn to control or modify this data by acting on a specific indicator (for example breathing pace) (Purwandini Sutarto, Abdul Wahab, & Mat Zin, 2012).
Diving into the literature on heart rate and bodily functions we see that the autonomic nervous system controls our heart rate indirectly (the nervous system that controls bodily functions). When the sympathetic branch is active the heart rate increases, when the parasympathetic branch is active the heart rate decreases (Feijs, Langereis & Van Boxtel, 2010). Even though it seems that only one can be active at the same time, they actually work simultaneously. Think of it as an equilibrium. They want the system to stay constant or balanced (homeostasis), keeping the blood pressure within safe limits. Sometimes the heart rate needs to go up (activating the sympathetic branch), and a moment later it needs to slow down a bit (activating the parasympathetic branch).
The differences between the increase and decrease of the heart rate can be translated into something thats called the interbeat interval. The interbeat interval is the time that elapses between two heartbeats. When your heart rate goes up, the interval decreases, the time between two beats is shorter (Lenvin & Swoap, 2019). When your heart rate goes down the interval increases, the time between two beats becomes longer.
The interbeat intervals show how the equilibrium works. They can vary every beat. This variability between intervals is called Heart Rate Variability (HRV). The greater the variability, the better, it means that the two systems are both working keeping the blood pressure balanced (Feijs, Langereis & Van Boxtel, 2010; Lenvin & Swoap, 209).
HRV is a measure that can be calculated out of the interbeat intervals. It gives us information about how we are doing. When the HRV is low, we tend to be stressed, the time between intervals is more similar and varies less. The parasympathetic nervous system is not capable anymore of regulating the feedback control system. The sympathetic system stays more active, keeping the heart rate up. When the HRV is high we're more relaxed, the time between intervals varies. Both systems are working, especially the parasympathetic system is keeping the balance by slowing down the heart rate when needed (Feijs, Langereis & Van Boxtel, 2010; Lenvin & Swoap, 2019).
The interbeat interval is directly related to the breathing pace. When in a relaxed state, the heart rate becomes faster and the time between beats becomes shorter (decrease in interval) with an inhalation. The heart rate will slow down, the time between beats becomes longer (increase in interval) with an exhalation (Lenvin & Swoap, 2019). These differences between inhaling and exhaling keep the variability up in the HRV. When we're stressed, the variability is less. Something that can also be noticed by the breathing pace going faster and by inhaling and exhaling taking the same amount of time.
''Breathing is the one bodily function we can consciously manipulate, in which it can influence the heart rate.''
(Feijs et al., 2010)
Top: Heart beats appearing at irregular intervals
Bottom:Tachogram with intervals plotted vertically
We explained that breathing influences your heart rate (more specific: the interbeat intervals). Breathing is the one bodily function we can consciously manipulate, in which it can influence the heart rate (Feijs et al., 2010). When we talk about breathing and breathing rhythm related to increasing relaxation, we mostly talk about deep and slow breathing (Busch et al., 2012). Deep breathing has been shown to elevate the HRV by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (Lenvin & Swoap, 2019).
What deep and slow breathing contains differs in the literature. Often they describe it as the amount of breathing cycles per minute. For example, Moss (2004) found that 5 - 7 cycli per minute is most frequently used by people who are in a relaxed mental state and breathe in a full diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing). Another breathing rhythm that has been shown to be effective in increasing the HRV is the paced breathing rhythm. A very slow breathing rhythm (3 cycles per minute), where you breath in for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and breath out for 8 seconds (BRON).
If we look into the breathing techniques related to biofeedback, we can divide them into two categories (Feijs & Delbressine, 2017):
Breathing in a prescribed breathing rhythm (feed forward)
Observing your own breathing rhythm (mindfulness breathing)
Within biofeedback research and development both techniques have been used. Creating applications or devices that give a breathing rhythm to follow (1) or that help you to follow your own rhythm (2). Within our own research we use the feed forward system, giving people a prescribed rhythm to follow.
The environment is the context in which we behave and experience. It can be either physical or social. When we talk about the environment in this theoretical framework we'll be talking about the physical environment.
The perspective of environmental psychology dives into the mutual exchange of behavior and the built or natural environment. Behavior is always related in the context it takes place. Although researchers love to separate the two, in real life the two are intertwined. The stimuli of the landscapes, the complexity of it, the abilities of the one perceiving it, but also the previous experience someone has is one holistic environmental-behavior perspective. We need to see the whole picture, instead of only small parts of it.
Attention Restoration Theory - ART:
Attention Restoration Theory, created by Kaplan (1995), states that exposure to natural environments or scenes that simulate nature can overcome a mental state called Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF) (Putrino, 2020). A state of mind in which our mental resources are depleted (Vohs et al., 2014; Ohly et al., 2016 in Putrino 2020). Consequences of DAF can be poor decision making, emotional dysregulation and performance variability (Linden et al., 2005; Ohly et al., 2016 in Putrino 2020).
The main perspective of ART is that nature creates scenes that stimulate a soft fascination. With this soft fascination our attention is grasped by the natural environment we see. We can take in this environment without needing to thing about it, creating space to reflect and linger our thoughts (Basu et al., 2019 in Putrino, 2020). Because it's effortless attention it helps to relax and regenerate the brain.
In a small study during corona times, Putrino et al. (2020) created two recharge rooms in a hospital based on ART,
one having a forest theme and the other an ocean theme. 219 participants experienced these rooms for about 15 minutes.
The results show a significant decrease in stress, measured on a self-report scale (scores going down from 4.6/6 to 1.85/6; p < 0.001). Although this is a first simple research example, it shows the impact ART can have.
Adaptation level Theory:
Preferably we experience the environment with an optimal amount of stimulation. If we're able to find a balance or homeostasis, we can function at our best. This is the perspective of the Adaptation Level Theory (ALT).
ALT is a combination of three other theories:
Arousal model: arousal can be defined as an increased activity of the central nervous system. What we experience is an amount of agitation we need to act on. Arousal works on a continuum, going from a minimal amount of arousal to a maximum amount of arousal. When the amount of arousal rises above a personal threshold it will influence behavior. People will start to act on the arousal they feel. For example by looking for information, comparing their experiences with others or by changing their performance. The environment can influence arousal. Think of stimuli like noise, temperature, crowding or other stimuli.
Environmental load model: when we experience too many stimuli, there is more information coming in than we can digest. The amount of arousal levels toward the maximum and rises above the threshold. Our way of coping with this load could be to narrow down our attention to only one stimulus and diminish the stimuli coming in. Another thing that happens more often is that we get tired. At some point we're not able to handle the amount of information anymore and we shut down.
The environment is the context in which we behave and experience. It can be either physical or social.
Nature and biophilic design:
Next to ART, more research shows that natural environments have a positive impact on people in several ways. Not only in reducing stress (Fuller et al., 2007; Park et al., 2009), but also by improvement in mood ((Brown et al., 2013; Shibata & Suzuki, 2004) and increased productivity (Aristizabal et al., 2021).
It's the sounds and sights of nature that have a physiological impact on us (Kuo, 2015). Seeing and experiencing nature reduces the sympathetic nervous activity and increases the parasympathetic activity (Brown et al.,2013; Kuo, 2015). Like we talked about before, these physiological effects are related to relaxation and stress reduction.
The field of study It relates to is called Biophilic design, a design approach in architecture. Biophilic design states that humans have an innate desire for spaces to resemble natural environments, because of it's evolutionary benefits (Aristizabal et al., 2021). From an evolutionary perspective we learned which type of nature will help us (biophilia) and what kind of nature poses danger (biophobia). This innate response makes us react to or prefer nature scenes.
There is also criticism with the research done on the effect of nature on well-being. In their review Yeo et al. (2020) state that a lot of the studies done do mention theories like ART of biophilic design, but the studies are weak to medium in quality of method and design. Improvements can be made in up and coming studies about the effect of nature on well being.
Preferably we experience the environment with an optimal amount of stimulation. If we're able to find a balance or homeostatis, we can function at our best. This is the perspective of the Adaptation Level Theory.
The environmental competence model states that successful environments enable people to function to the best ability with the skills they have, however limited.
(Pastalan, 1983 in Vischer, 2003)
We experience an overload. If this overload takes too long we can go into a mental state called: Directed Attention Fatigue (DAF). We're too tired to handle the information. Our mental and motor performances diminish, we get more easily frustrated and we're less able to empathize with others.
Sensoric Deprivation: the opposite of an overload is an underload. When we experience too little stimuli we tend to perform less as well. We experience more negative emotions and more stress similar to having an overload.
Combine these theories and we get into the Adaptation Level theory. We want to experience environmental stimuli within an optimal range. Not too little, not too many, giving us the right amount of arousal to act. (Wohlwill, 1974). What the theory states is not that people don't adapt to their environment, it states that we try to find and need to find a balance within the boundaries we feel comfortable (Vischer, 2003)
The adaptation level theory gives important information in the relationship between people and their environment. When is the amount of stimuli at an optimal level? Is it over stimulating or understimulating (Vischer, 2003). Are we adapting well or are we coping in some sort of way?
The environmental competence model states that successful environments enable people to function to the best ability with the skills they have, however limited (Pastalan, 1983 in Vischer, 2003).
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