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  • Writer's pictureNicole Baxter

The Anxiety Remedy: Interoception's influence on design

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Interoception is my new favorite interior design word.

You may not have heard the word before, but you certainly know what it is. It's cold, hungry, tired, happy, and anxious. It's the awareness we have of how our body feels. Clients often use it to describe how that want their home to feel-- calm, peaceful, and cozy. Or, rather, we should change that and say how they want their body to feel-- calm, at peace, and comfortable.

Another way to look at it is that interoception is your sixth sense (it's not actually seeing dead people). It goes way back to our earliest ancestors, when our brains functioned through animal instincts and we lacked upper level abilities to assess and process information. Interoception is what tells us to run-- now, because our five senses have detected some form of nearby danger and feels threatened. The sense-to-body messaging is lightning fast and happens well before the slower executive brain can analyze the situation. A great example is a loud and unexpected bang. First we jump, then we see we're safe. The jump-- racing heart, and heightened awareness is interoception at work, and the realization a second or two later that it was just a car backfiring is the slower executive brain figuring out the cause. If primitive man had to think about and process his surroundings before acting, he very well might have been a hiding tiger's lunch. This happens to us every day, all day long. We're constantly gathering information from our environment.

How it works is fascinating. The senses deliver information to our animal brain which shoots a message down our vagus nerve, the long nerve that flows from our brain to our gut, and it shoots out messages to our organs, like our heart, lungs, and glands, and releases the action hormone cortisol, which prepares the body to do whatever it takes to physically survive. In these moments, our reasoning brain is temporarily shut down so all of our focus is in our body, the environment, and the situation at hand. It's extremely sensitive under normal conditions, but if we have a history of trauma and abuse, it can be triggered with no obvious threat-- just by something being "off" in our environment. The lack of an obvious threat fills us with anxiety. Our body and nervous system is activated. Our heart rate is up, our blood pressure is up, we feel tingly and jittery with our nerves firing on all cylinders, and we feel like something really bad is going to happen, even though we're completely safe. Our executive brain catches up and since it doesn't see a threat, it searches for causes, like an unsent email, something stupid you said earlier, maybe you left to coffee pot on? In actuality, it was something wrong with the room you just entered.

Interoception is also positive. It's how we feel when we smell fresh bread baking because it reminds our body of something good. It's the happiness we feel when we see our partner or kids, or how we exhale with relief when we're at the beach or walking in the mountains. It's the calm we feel when we walk into a top rated and well-designed restaurant, high end hotel, or boutique furniture store. It is, in short, our emotional response to the outside world.

Interoception is our body's split-second reaction to our environment. That means our body processes space, like our home, the office, a friend's home, etc, quicker than our brain can. If we understand what triggers negative and positive reactions, we can deliberately create spaces that eliminate the negative and promote the positive. That's the actual science behind interior design and why beautiful and well-thought out spaces make us feel good. That's also why we walk into places like RH, Crate & Barrel, and West Elm and want to take everything home. It's not the look we want, it's the emotions and feeling of safety we feel when we're there.

A funny thing about the brain-- after regulating our organs, its number one job is searching for patterns so it knows what comes next. It might be more apt to say its searching for breaks in patterns, because abnormalities tells us something isn't right. A mishmash of collected furniture pieces, tired ones that are damaged, no concise theme, or a random color palette, etc, all disturb the brain. So what makes the body feel good? Things that positively stimulate the senses and tells the body that it's safe. Design is primarily visual and tactile, so it's furniture that makes sense together, details that repeat in various ways around the room, balance, symmetry, a concise color palette, a variety of textures, layers of patterns, plants, natural materials, daylight and proper artifical light. When people don't think about how their furnishings work together, buy whatever they like, or don't factor in basic design principles, our body gets negatively triggered. By not consciously designing, we're actually furnishing our homes with anxiety triggers. A designer's natural talent is a deep and instinctive understanding of design principles and how to manipulate the details to create succint systems of patterns that quiet the brain. There literally is a science to design and why it makes us feel good. A lot of clients argue that their mishmash of pieces aren't the problem-- the massive dark brown leather sofa with it's buldging headrest isn't broken because it's still in good condition, and the Farmhouse cocktail table across from it is perfectly fine, as is the Arts & Crafts lamp on an old antique end table, and the weird modern rug. They just need help "tying it all together," but they are broken because they fill you with anxiety, which is your brain telling you something is wrong.

Listen to it, because it's right.

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