how our spaces shape us

The world around us shapes and moulds our internal experience on an ongoing basis and yet so little of this process occurs within our conscious awareness. We humans live with an unspoken sense that we are aware of the reasons why we think, feel and behave the way that we do. We readily and easily provide justifications for our actions to ourselves and to others. But most of the work that our brains do, occurs without our direction and out with conscious control. And many of the true reasons for our behaviour are a mystery even to us, though it does not feel this way. In the magical dance our brains are perpetually engaged in with the outside world, our minds perceive so much more than what we are privy to within that narrow scope of our conscious existence.

The world around us has an enormous influence on our internal world and the environments we spend our time in play a significant role in shaping who we are and how we feel. A growing body of evidence is beginning to tell the story of how we are shaped, for better and for worse, by the spaces we spend our time in and the objects those spaces are filled with.

Experiments that have shown the positive impact of plants within our environment on our health, wellbeing and mood are now familiar to many and have been widely cited and replicated. Other research has shown that people are more likely to exhibit positive social behaviour, such as not littering, when they are in a clean rather than already littered environments, and in turn that environments with visible signs of anti-social behaviour, such as broken windows, encourage more antisocial behaviour. 

The results of research and experiments such as these are insightful and can help to give shape to our discussion on the topic of how our environments shape us. But at the same time, taken on their own, these tiny fragments of insight can break down the dynamic interplay of the multitude of elements within our environments that all contribute, not merely as individual pieces, but as parts of a greater and inseparable whole that is constantly exerting its influence on us.

It is precisely the richness of the multifaceted nature of our environments interacting with our own multifaceted selves that plays out in shaping our behaviours in subtle and not so subtle ways.

How exactly our environments shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions is still a mystery. Gaining an accurate understanding of the diverse and varied processes that exert their influence on our lives, and understanding precisely how they shape us, will take time.

But for now, clever minds that have dedicated many hours of thought to considering this subject matter, offer insightful perspectives that help us to begin to think about how our spaces shape and mould us and impact our everyday existence.

Architect, theorist and author Christopher Alexander offers a beautiful point of view on how the spaces that surround us make their important contribution to the way we feel and live. In his book titled The Nature of Order: The Phenomenon of Life, Alexander argues that the spaces we spend our time in have “the most profound impact possible” on us. He notes that our environments have the potential to shape “the most important of all human qualities” namely our “internal freedom” or “freedom of the spirit”.

This idea of internal freedom is a fascinating one, and one I have come across before throughout psychological, philosophical and spiritual literature. The discussion around this topic, which Alexander refers to as ‘internal freedom’, is anchored around the idea that freedom, in the deepest sense of the word, is the ability to respond appropriately to the realities of what is actually going on. Let me explain this a little further.  

Within this context, the notion of internal freedom, is presented as the idea that we are only truly free when we are able to respond, both in our emotional reactions and our behaviours, in ways that are appropriate to the realities of what is actually in front of us. An appropriate response is one that neither suppresses emotions or reactions (even negative ones), nor acts out compulsions based on our past. Instead, it refers to a kind of mental and emotional flexibility that allows us to perceive and understand the situation as it truly is and respond to it as needed, responding to what is actually happening in front of us in the here and now.  

There are countless elements that contribute to the overall sense of freedom each individual person is able to inhabit and express. Many of them are formative experiences from our past, that compel us to repeat familiar patterns of emotion and behaviour again and again rather than allow us the space to process what is truly in front of us in the here and now. Other limiting factors on our freedom can be external stressors such as financial worries, an unstable work situation or strained relationships with friends and family. These and many other stressors can preoccupy our mental world leaving less of our capacity free to allow us to experience and be present in the here and now. This lack of internal freedom ultimately diminishes our ability to experience and express feelings such as joy, curiosity, love and compassion and stops us from contributing in a positive way to the wider world around us.

I want to illustrate this point with a simple example: when people’s very basic needs such as hunger are not met, our entire focus will naturally turn toward feeding ourselves. There is very little we are able to focus on other than getting food. We are not only not free to respond to anything else that may be happening, we are far less likely to even notice much of the world around us unless it relates to our need for acquiring nourishment.

On a more subtle level, almost all of us are surrounded by daily stressors, from strains in our relationships to stress caused by malfunctioning technology which we have become so reliant on for our daily routines. Each small stressor uses up some of the limited mental energy we have available to deal with life’s challenges. The more of our mental energy is bound up in dealing with the various stressors in our life, the less energy we have available to invest in growth, curiosity, pleasure, compassion, and all of the emotions and actions that make our lives enjoyable and meaningful. The more space these stressors occupy within our mental landscape, the less free we are to engage fully with the world around us as it is.

Christopher Alexander argues that our environment, the physical spaces and places that we live, love, work and play in, can make an important contribution to either adding to the subtle stressors that plague our daily existence, or otherwise, set us free by supporting us to carry out the tasks of daily life in a way that is easier to execute, more enjoyable, more meaningful and more beautiful.

In our next blog post we will consider how the way we shape our environments plays out in shaping our daily lives. 

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