Image description: Inside the Radcliffe Camera
Ideas about environmental psychology are relatively new but nevertheless play into architects ideas about designing space. Fundamentally, the principle of this line of research is that our mental space stands in direct proportion to our perception of physical space. How, then, can we apply ideas about how the space we use affects our thinking, into the kinds of work students undertake at the University? How might space affect creativity?
Are we more likely to let our imaginations wander in the rooms of the Old Bodleian than we might in the darkness of the Sackler?
Oxford certainly has its fair share of aesthetic spaces around town. From colleges, libraries, gardens and coffee shops, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to study spaces. Are we more likely to let our imaginations wander in the rooms of the Old Bodleian than we might in the darkness of the Sackler? Since the very start of Oxford, the advice is not to confuse your work-space with your living-space: don’t do your essay reading in your room where you might be distracted, do it in the library or a study room. The power of being in the right mindset associated with a place is similar to the anthropological idea of embodiment.
In 1973, Mary Douglas wrote of the body as being twofold: physical and social. Your physical body is you as a person, the physical attributes that make you individual, while the social body is you as you are required to be by the social space you inhabit at any given moment. In terms of working, this idea of manifesting the expectations of space within your person might go a long way in helping you to decide where the best place for certain kinds of work might be.
Your physical body is you as a person, the physical attributes that make you individual, while the social body is you as you are required to be by the social space you inhabit at any given moment.
During Prelim season last year, many of my friends preferred the Sackler library as their chosen study space, because not only had they not frequented it before (thereby creating a whole new association of the space with exam revision) but it also lacked the aesthetic dynamics of other Oxford spaces — quite simply revision didn’t require the creation of new ideas. Whether these people realised it or not, they are actually making use of environmental psychology.
Whether these people realised it or not, they are actually making use of environmental psychology.
Construal Level Theory explains how the distance of objects in a room, and the size of space, spur different mindsets. Observing or perceiving things far away from us stimulates abstract thinking, while nearby objects or concepts, stimulate a concrete and detail-oriented mindset. The Sackler is an incredibly enclosed space. The study areas that flank the central bookshelves are small and artificially lit: there is no staring into space here because there is no space to stare into.
Creativity is not a word usually branded to science subjects, being more comfortable among the arts and humanities. Of course, one cannot recommend the Radcliffe Camera as a space suited to certain, messier forms of artistic expression, but perhaps those who occupy extra-curricular time with drawing and sketching for magazines or simply for relaxation might find the atmosphere of focus that the space emanates useful.
If you find yourself struggling with motivation and focus, try changing your workspace
Yet, one must be careful to keep the functions of spaces separate. In a city such as this, with so many places to choose from, this is not a difficult task. If you find yourself struggling with motivation and focus, try changing your workspace: one space could be for formulating ideas from set texts (where you have time to be a bit more creative in thinking about ideas), and when it comes time to write out the essay (inevitably at the last minute) change your scene to somewhere more enclosed, where the spacial limits of your focus are your notes and your laptop.
Image Credit: Andrew Perabeau via unsplash