The mind and body are an integrated mobius strip which influence one another. How we move changes how we think, and recent neuroscience explains this interconnection in ever increasing clarity. As designers, we can integrate this information into our professional environment and work with our biology instead of valorizing and romanticizing the suffering that is all too common in studio culture. This article introduces various simple somatic interventions that can be integrated into our daily routines to help modulate our nervous system and improve our capacity of production.
Your Mind on Movement
As landscape architects, we design the built environment, and as human creatures living on planet earth, we are also designed by our environment. Our species has evolved over millennia in response to the environment. Many of these adaptations are innate, although the duality of mind & body, popularized in the 17th C. by Cartesian philosophy, has distanced us from our own intuitive somatic intelligence. Fortunately, modern science can now image the inner workings of our nervous system and the findings are shining a new light on the intimate connections between how we move and how we think.
The mind and body are an integrated mobius strip. Each influences the other and neither can be separated from the other. Knowing this, I believe we are missing one of the most profound areas that can affect our designs, and that is the designing of our process, of how we organize our days, of how we occupy and move within our own workspace. By learning to work with our biology, instead of trying to command it by force of will, we can be more creative and productive, live healthier lives, and enjoy ourselves more while doing it.
First let’s talk a little about our nervous system. Everything begins as a thought or idea, which literally occurs in our nervous system. Our nervous system controls everything about us; what we like, what we don’t like, how we move, when we sleep, how we think, what we feel or perceive… literally everything. Your brain consists of billions of neurons, each with thousands of connections to other neurons, which are reorganizing themselves moment to moment in response to our environment. This reorganization is your brain learning. Scientifically, this process is called neuroplasticity.
Recent neuroscience has shown that both optimal learning and creative flow work similarly in our brains . They both happen by literally making new connections between things (ideas, neurons, brain regions) that were previously unconnected. The optimal conditions for learning are also the strategies for finding creative flow. The good news is we can use movement to activate neuroplasticity and put our brains in learning/ creative mode .
Movement catalyzes a variety of physical and mental changes to occur, including the release of neurochemicals that elevate our mood and make us feel energized. Our brain is the most energy-demanding organ in our body, and although it represents only 2% of our total body weight, it accounts for 20% of our energy use . Movement heightens circulation to our brain, which helps increase cognitive function by delivering more energy.
Movement also has another important function: movement is how we learn .
Our brain is continuously collecting information about motion and spatial qualities to keep us balanced and oriented in space. It can recognize an error in movement and immediately respond to the changing environment by recalibrating itself. Once an error is sensed, it triggers the release of a precise cocktail of neurochemicals that allow neurons to begin changing, responding, creating new connections, and pruning unused ones in an attempt to make sense of the environment.
An example of this is imagining you are reaching for an object underwater. Our visual perception of the object through water is skewed. We reach and miss, quickly realizing that the object is further away than we thought. Immediately, the brain lights up and we start recalibrating to the environment to correct that error in perception.
A similar thing happens when we are going up a flight of stairs and we think there is one more step, when there is none, and we step awkwardly. The brain is instantly triggered into the process of neuroplasticity for recalibration. The exciting part is that once neuroplasticity is triggered, the chemicals start flowing and the brain stays in learning mode for hours afterward.
Now the next question is how to apply and incorporate this information into your daily routine? Below are some simple and effective somatic interventions.
Somatic Intervention #1 – Creativity & Learning Mode
[30 seconds - 3 minutes]
Next time you want to get into creative brainstorming mode, or are trying to learn something new, begin by first challenging your orientation system. You don’t need to trip on a flight of stairs, but you do need to challenge your brain. One easy way to do this is to try the following:
- Interlace your fingers. Look to see which thumb is on top.
- Change the thumbs so the other thumb is on top.
- Now change over every other finger, so that you are interlacing your fingers non-habitually.
- Feel the strangeness. Switch back & forth a few times and feel the difference.
- Stay with the non-habitual interlacing and look at your fingers. Wiggle your left ring finger.
If you had difficulty finding the correct finger to wiggle, then this intervention may have triggered your brain to recalibrate. For many of us, just feeling the non-habitual interlacing is novel enough to trigger our brains. However, if this is easy or familiar for you, then you need to find a new challenge.
The caveat here is that our brains quickly learn to master an activity, and once that happens, it no longer works for triggering our brain. To get into learning mode, we need to keep modifying the challenge so that it stays novel and unfamiliar, and thus, activates the release of neurochemicals needed for plasticity to occur. We cannot rely on what worked the previous time because the more familiar it becomes, the less effective it is. Fortunately to change things up, all you need are small, playful variations on a theme, such as finding a new way to interlace your fingers, and then finding the non-habitual interlacing of that way too.
Some other ideas to try include:
- Changing your orientation in gravity by laying down for a few minutes, or tilting your head to the side or hang your head upside-down
- Playing with hand-eye coordination by mousing with your non-dominant hand
- Playing with errors in perception by walking around with one eye blindfolded
- Walking backward, sideways, or some other silly way
- HINT: if you are far away from a smile, you are working too hard
Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) refers to your system’s state of calmness or alertness. There has been a great amount of interest and research conducted in this area, and you can find plenty of information online. I will just cover the basics here because it’s useful to understand. Briefly, the system is composed of two parts, the Parasympathetic Nervous System, and the Sympathetic Nervous System.
The Parasympathetic System is also known as the “rest & digest” system because it is activated when you are feeling calm, chilling out or daydreaming. It is characterized by the body and mind being generally at rest and the digestive system is actively processing food for energy. What’s important to note is that this is our default state. Unless we are activated out of it, this is where the brain and body go automatically. This is home.
The other side of the spectrum, the Sympathetic Nervous System, refers to the stress response also known as “fight, flight, or freeze,” due to the physiological changes that happen to prepare your body to respond to the perceived stressor. Your heart rate and respiration increase as adrenalin pours into your bloodstream and all your organs, including your brain, are affected. Blood literally drains from your brain into your musculature to get ready for action. The measurement of IQ can drop significantly; basically, we get stupid. We also get tunnel vision, unable to process context or see the bigger picture, both essential skills for problem solving. We also tend to make poor decisions and our rate of mistakes increases. And most of all, we get into reflexive or reactive mode where our brains go on autopilot, and we can only do what we already know. It is important to note that this state significantly curtails learning, and blocks creativity.
The takeaway here is that everyone has an optimum window of performance along the ANS gradient. Some people work best under a deadline or some form of pressure, while others need more calm to be productive. Too far in either direction has its issues. If you are too calm, you get bored, distracted, or sleepy. If you are too stressed, you go over the threshold & trigger the stress response.
The good news is that we can influence where we are along the continuum using simple eye movements. This may sound surprising because many people aren’t even aware that their eyes move!
We have six tiny muscles that move our eyeballs in our eye sockets. These muscles are connected to the musculature of our neck, jaw, and shoulders, which happen to be places that typically hold stress-induced tension. Neurologically, our eyes are also connected to parts of our brain that can either help us be more alert and focused or can activate our relaxation response .
That our eyes can induce varied cognitive and emotional states suggests a neurological explanation for what most designers already know intuitively, for example, about the value of the long view. We know people enjoy long views. We know they make us feel good, and most any design will evaluate the site for potential views and incorporate borrowed scenery when possible. Federal public lands in the United States have an entire design system dedicated solely to evaluating and preserving scenic views, and here’s why. Neurologically speaking, the movement of diverging our eyes, literally moving them away from each other, activates the relaxation response in our brain, and so we associate the long view with relaxation, ease and calming.
Additionally, a specific horizontal eye movement, which occurs when we move forward through space, also induces a calming effect  by quieting the part of our brain responsible for fear and threat detection. This type of eye movement happens innately as our eyes track passing objects during the visual flow created by moving forward. It’s one reason why we feel calmer after walking or cycling. What’s most interesting about this response is that it is not directly related to perception. You don’t need to be moving to experience this effect.
Somatic Intervention #2 – Calming Eyes
- Sit or lay down comfortably, close your eyes and imagine a faraway horizon off in the distance. It may be the ocean, or a great body of water, or a prairie, or a desert landscape. Imagine the horizon line where the land and sky meet.
- As you imagine this view, your breath may start to change. It may slow down, or maybe you take a deeper breath.
- Feel your gaze soften, imagine your eyes widening, diverging from each other as you look to the far horizon. You’re not looking for anything, just taking in the view.
- You might also notice the tiny muscles of your face start to soften, your jaw may slack a bit, the corners of your eyes soften, your cheeks soften and your brow releases.
- Slowly, begin a small movement of gently moving your eyes left and right along the horizon. You can keep the movement small because you’re looking so far away into the distance that you barely need to move your eyes to look left & right.
- Attend to the quality of smoothness in your movement. Your eyes trace a small horizontal line in space. Trace the line slowly. If you feel strain, or the movement feels jumpy or choppy, go even slower and make the line smaller. In this intervention, less is very much more.
- After a minute or so, come back to the center and pause. Gently open your eyelids as if you are lifting a heavy curtain and gradually let light into your eyes, keeping your gaze soft.
- Enjoy how you feel!
Other types of eye movements activate alertness and focus, but before we go further, I need to mention the primary importance of having sufficient restful sleep. Although it is beyond the scope of this article, we must acknowledge that our ability to engage in focused alertness is directly related to our ability to regularly get quality sleep. Once you figure out your sleep, then you can augment with alertness and focus-related interventions.
Somatic Intervention #3 – Alertness
The muscles of your eyes and eyelids are also connected to attention centers in the brain . Directing your eyes upward heightens alertness. The opposite is also true, a lowered gaze induces sleepiness.
Therefore, to stay alert, position computer screens, tablets, or books at eye level or higher. Positioning your device or book in your lap or on a low table where your gaze is aimed downward will cause you to be less alert and will induce drowsiness and may be partly why you get sleepy during zoom meetings.
Somatic Intervention #4 – Focus
Deep focus comes online gradually, and it is unreasonable to expect to immediately drop into a focused state. It typically takes between 5 and 10 minutes to begin to focus on a task . However, cognitive focus follows optical focus, and we can speed up this lag time by practicing optical focus.
Our ability to focus relies on the release of a cocktail of neurochemicals in our brain . When our eyes converge on an object with the intention of focusing, it initiates the release of those neurochemicals and helps jumpstart our brain into focus mode.
Before you begin your focus task, set yourself up for success by reducing or eliminating any possible distractions. Turn off notifications, close email and put a Do Not Disturb note on your door. When I work from home, I put a sticky note on my front door for neighbors and package delivery drivers that says, Do Not Knock – Recording in Progress. Mainly this keeps my dog from going into a barking frenzy which can be distracting to say the least.
Now that you are set up for your task, begin by selecting an object to focus on. Hold your visual focus on that object for 30 seconds. You can blink of course, but stay visually engaged with the object and attend to its details, color, texture, form, reflected light and shadows, etc. Then go back to the original task you want to focus on. You have just primed your brain for focus mode.
Practicing this simple intervention can help you get into the focus state quicker and can help you re-focus after a distraction. Maintaining a narrow visual window, by wearing a hoodie for example, can also help you stay focused by narrowing your visual window to minimize visual distractions.
Working both individually and collaboratively in the studio setting is essential to the design process. The studio is a place where we work iteratively, synthesizing interdisciplinary information and testing many solutions for a particular design problem. This process, albeit fruitful, can also be time consuming and incredibly stressful. This is particularly true when faced with tight deadlines and hard critiques, both of which are inherent to design education and practice. Studio culture is characterized by stories valorizing and romanticizing the suffering of working incredibly long hours, self-imposed sleep deprivation, lack of adequate rest, and poor eating habits, all of which compound the effects of prolonged stress.
Stress itself is not the enemy. On the contrary, stress is inevitably part of our biology, and, in moderation, short-term stress improves cognitive alertness and performance . However, stress is cumulative, and the negative physical and mental effects of prolonged chronic or intense stress are well documented.
Unfortunately, there seems to be an assumption that creative design must be made under these conditions, either because it is considered a rite of passage, or because there is no experience of alternatives. Perhaps it is in part due to the pervasiveness of the myth of the suffering artist, or our cultural bias of overvaluing struggle, fight, and dominance. How often have we heard, “no pain, no gain,” or that we must, “do more,” and “work harder,” in the face of challenges? Yet, science and anecdotal experience shows us that by understanding our biology, attending to our natural rhythms and tendencies, and modifying our environment to suit those tendencies, we can literally “work smarter, not harder,” for optimum performance without the struggle.
We can get so accustomed to working in our sympathetic stress zone that we start to equate effort and suffering with value. If something comes together easily, we question its worth. If we are not working hard, we feel like we are slacking. Often, in our professional culture, practicing self-care is seen as a subversive act, but it is proven that no one can do their best work when they are constantly working under duress.
Recently, many firms and educational institutions have acknowledged the high volume of designer burnout, mental health issues, and physical deterioration that come with studio culture, and they have attempted to ameliorate the negative effects by creating institutional policies that prioritize rest, health, and a work-life balance. Yet, sustained stress, burnout and diminishing returns remain ubiquitous.
I believe what is missing is not the knowledge that things need to change, but how do we go about implementing change? It is my hope that by teaching tangible strategies and interventions that can fold into the design process, we will begin to address the question of what a change in studio culture might look and feel like.
It's time to revisit the culture of design that valorizes and romanticizes suffering. How we care for ourselves has bearing on how we are toward others, including our clients, colleagues, friends, and family. Using self-awareness and simple somatic interventions backed by neuroscience is one way to reimagine the environment of design, avoid burnout, and be optimally engaged, productive, creative, and resilient.
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