NewslettersJuly 20th, 2021

PG #86: Staring at horizons is good for our brains

A photo of Steph Mellor. She is smiling and in a co-working space with plants in the background.
Steph Mellor, Business Development Manager
A bright pink sunset

“Going to stare at a wall. Take care all.”

This was the sign-off on the Paper Giant slack chat that prompted this piece. Many of us were feeling the same way that week – a week in which desk-based workers the corporate world over hauled tired brains over the line after the marathon that is end-of-financial year deadlines, prompting efforts towards better cultures of care at best, and health collapses at worst.

I felt that way a bit too, that last week of June. After such intense focus, there’s something very appealing about... blankness. About unfocus.

But we shouldn’t be staring at walls. We should be staring at horizons.

Why is it that people pay such big bucks for ocean frontage, the penthouse suite or mountain views around the world? Why do cultures paint landscapes the world over? Why are windows a proxy for the relative rank and influence of office users?

These things don’t just represent effort and status.

Staring at horizons is good for our brains. We tend to internalise and ruminate more in walled environments. When we can’t see the landscape, we lose our evolutionary senses of groundedness and comfort. (Reductively, we can relax if we know any threats will be spotted while they’re still miles away.)

Distance and vastness shift our sense of proprioception – our ability to sense our own body’s position in space. Our minds are quieter and more engaged with our environment when we can see our surroundings at a distance: when it’s hard to stay focused on any one thing for long, and nothing may be in focus at all. That’s why ’scapes – be they land, sea or city – feel so revitalising and calming.

Ever since I learned this,* I’ve found myself staring at horizons and out into the far distance in the same way I used to buy gym supplements – in the hope that it will bestow some small benefit to my wellbeing.

I reckon a lot of us have spent a tonne of time staring at walls lately.

And not just because of lockdown – in business, we stare at walls a lot too. Deadlines are walls. Frameworks are walls. Project parameters, more walls. We turn horizons into boundaries for change and targets to reach. In design, we are always being asked “what’s the point of view? the narrative? what’s the framing?”

Might I ask us all, with the air of an unqualified anthropologist, to imagine how we might feel – how we might operate and create and navigate and plan – if we all spent a bit more time blanking out restoratively? Staring at horizons.

*learned from actually-qualified anthropologist and visual designer Dr. Alex Pavlotski

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