When my husband Richard and I worked with an architect to design the passive solar house where we now live, we were less concerned about the architectural style and more concerned that the house be healthy, which we defined in part as "connected to the out-of-doors" and "comfortable without fuss or excessive energy use." Hence its open, airy spaces lit by abundant natural light, the large south-facing windows framing views of the peaks rising over town, and the sliding-glass doors throughout that invite movement between the house and yard.
After reading Dr. Esther Sternberg's Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, I understand more about the intuitive design decisions we made. Without consciously realizing it, Richard and I designed a space that is healing in the most fundamental sense, a house that makes us feel good just to live there.
"There is a turning point in the course of healing when you go from the dark side to the light, when your interest in the world revives and when despair gives way to hope," writes Sternberg in the opening paragraphs of Healing Spaces. "As you lie in bed, you suddenly notice the dappled sunlight and no longer turn your head and shield your eyes. You become aware of birdsong outside the window and the soothing whir of the ventilation system down the hall... This is when the destructive forces of illness give way to healing." That impulse toward healing, she notes, comes from within. "But do our surroundings, in turn, have an effect on us? Can the spaces around us help us heal?"
This beautifully written, intensely informative book answers those questions, and along the way, gives animated descriptions of our immune system mobilizing to heal a wound, our eyes taking in information about what we see and transmitting those images to our brains. Sternberg describes how we hear, smell, taste and feel, and then how these senses work with the brain in healing—the actual physiological "belief response"—and with the biology of the hormones that promote healing. She also portrays the personalities behind the science of health and healing (many of whom, by the way, are women) and the history of their discoveries.
Sternberg tells a good story, so even though Healing Spaces is not a light read, it is compelling. Here she pictures how our immune system repairs an incision:
When cells die, they release their contents, including chemicals that call living cells to the site. The cells they summon—white blood cells shaped like irregular spheres, called monocytes—have been happily floating through the bloodstream. Now they begin to assume a different shape, and no longer float smoothly through the blood but collide with the inner surface of the vessels. As they bump and roll along, they produce proteins on their surface that make them stick to the blood vessel walls. And then, like some primordial fish taking its first tentative steps onto land, they change shape even more. Bits of their surface reach out, like feet, and they begin to crawl and ooze, first along the blood vessel, and then through cracks between the cells that make the vessel lining. They use their foot-like extensions, called pseudopods, to crawl through the tissues beneath the blood vessel, toward the wound, drawn inexorably by the scent of the chemicals released by the dying cells.
Who knew that cells could be so, well, lively? Sternberg has an extraordinary ability to make science come alive and to describe how our bodies and brains work at the basic level. And her conclusions about how spaces as large as whole cities or as small as individual rooms—or our own brains—affect all aspects of health and healing, whether obesity or cancer, are illuminating.
As I said, Healing Spaces is not a quick read. This is a book to savor: read a bit, let it digest, and then read more. You'll reach the end understanding yourself more fully, inside and out, and with a richer sense of the ways you and your environment interact and how these interactions affect your life and health.
Esther M. Sternberg, M.D., received her M.D. and rheumatology training at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, and was on the faculty of Washington University, St. Louis, prior to joining the National Institutes of Health in 1986. Dr. Sternberg is internationally recognized for her discoveries in brain-immune interactions and the brain's stress response in diseases including arthritis: the science of the mind-body interaction. She is also the author of The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. She has been featured on numerous radio and television programs, including PBS's "The New Medicine" and "Life Part II", NPR's "Speaking of Faith" and, in 2009, created and hosted a PBS special based on her books, "The Science of Healing." See the preview for her PBS show, "The Science of Healing."
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