Can a humble houseplant make you more creative?

Story highlights

  • Research shows that environments connected to nature promote cognitive performance
  • Replicate biophilic design in your own environment; even a houseplant makes a difference
  • A study found that green may enhance performance when viewed before a creative task
  • Take control of your environment by de-cluttering and managing temperature and stimulation
So, there is this monkey, living in the jungle.
Every day he wakes up, strolls through the forest, swings a few ropes, greets his fellow monkeys at the watering hole, chows down a few bananas, then settles in to conduct some monkey business in a sun-soaked tree top.
Later, he tucks himself away for a nap behind a bush, listening to the sound of birds and the trickle of a nearby brook.
This, he tells himself as he dozes off to sleep, is the perfect environment for a monkey like me.
As it turns out, it may be the perfect environment for you too.
Environmental psychologists point to a growing body of research showing that environments that connect people to nature, are more supportive of cognitive performance, well-being, stress reduction, among other things.
Leigh Stringer, director of innovation and research at HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm, says this instinctive bond between humans and other living systems -- often referred to as biophilic design -- is well worth replicating in interior environments.
"Greenery literally physically relaxes you," she says. "Even with a fake plant, your mind goes back to the Savannah."
Staring at a green plant might do more than that. A study by the University of Munich and Rochester shows green may enhance creative performance, when viewed before a creative task.
Another study showed that people working in a windowless room with plants, worked more efficiently, had lower blood pressure, and felt more attentive than people working in the same room without plants.
According to environmental psychologist Judith Heerwagen, there are strong universal, cross-cultural patterns underlying what we find beautiful and enjoyable -- and these have evolved from primitive preferences that kept our ancestors safe and healthy over eons of human evolution.
That primitive preference is likely why daylight, which regulates our daily cycles of waking and sleeping, is another important factor. A Northwestern University study found that workers in windowless environments scored significantly lower on things like quality of life measures, vitality, and daytime function. Another study linked better workplace lighting to a 15% reduction in absenteeism in office environments.
This is all worth noting, at a time when office environments are changing radically -- with open environments, "hot desking," and other trends -- doing away with cubicles and offices.
In one study covering 42,000 U.S. office workers, researchers found that large, open-plan offices did not improve work satisfaction or communication -- but were found to be disruptive due to uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy -- and were "clearly outperformed" by enclosed private offices.
"The trouble with open space is that we are a social species, and we are very interested in what others like ourselves are up to," says Sally Augustin, environmental psychologist and author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Inner Architecture. "So no matter how much we want to 'behave,' we get distracted, and when people get distracted they don't have all of their mental processing power available to the task at hand."
The good news is that even if you work in windowless, open-plan office -- Augustin says there are plenty of things you can do to set up your environment for success.
Rule number one -- take control of your environment. "We feel much more relaxed if we are in control of our physical environment," says Augustin. "So, take control. Start by adjusting your desk chair -- try to sit with your back against a wall, bookcase, or anything. As primitive humans we like to know nothing can sneak up on us from behind."
Control how much stimulation is coming at you. Random sights and sounds, like noise, chatter, phones ringing, and so on -- can have a major impact on your performance. Employees report improvements of up to 38% for the performance of simple tasks and 27% for complex tasks, when noise is covered by white noise. "White noise really helps -- and you can download little apps to have on as background sounds," says Stringer.
If you can't see a tree or nature -- fake it. "A lot of people use nature wall graphics," says Stringer, "and those things really help from a mental perspective."
If your space is too hot or cold, bring in a heater or a fan. A study at Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, found that working at your preferred temperature can enhance your cognitive abilities and working memory.
Declutter your space. "Clutter is very stressful for human beings," says Augustin, "but don't take everything out, that is just as upsetting. Leave a few personal items and things that are meaningful to you."
Take your meeting for a walk. In one study by Hartig, people who went for a walk in a predominantly natural setting performed better on several tasks requiring concentration than those who walked in a predominantly built setting or who quietly read a magazine indoors. "Both are facing the same direction, you are on the same team -- getting the adrenalin moving, your blood pumping -- so you are already thinking more creatively," says Stringer.
And if you need inspiration, make a trip to the zoo. According to Heerwagen, zoos have radically and successfully changed their design to model nature in the past decades. The three main lessons to take? Look beyond survival to well-being, build on primitive preferences and connections to nature, and design for the senses as well as the body.
Just consider nature, says Augustin. "As humans, we are used to living in environments where the darkest color is underfoot -- medium intensity colors are trees and bushes, and lightest colors are overhead -- like the sky. So, an all white place for example, would be alien to us as a species."