The science of getting some headspace

I have been regressing slowly but surely over the last few days. I have returned to leafy Surrey, to my Dad’s house, as I’m attempting to be more productive in my dissertation writing. I have to admit its absolute bliss to away from the hustle and bustle of London.

Getting some headspace has definitely has helped (and I promise I’m not making that up just because a tutor might be reading this!). I feel that, as I can sit in my childhood room and look over the rolling Surrey hills, I can think more clearly, see the bigger picture and this leads to better writing.

I’m sure that there is a significant comfort element to this feeling – the security of my childhood home when life feels a little bit out of control – but also I am convinced that having more space also has a psychological effect on me. In fact, studies have suggested that the space you experience whilst indoors affects your cognition. Specifically, research such as ‘The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use’ indicates that ceiling height alters the way in which you think.

The study cites research which has indicated the psychological effect of ceiling height. Anecdotal evidence suggests that high ceilings are associated with inspiring places, such as the vast openness of the cosmos, and this invokes feelings of freedom. On the other hand, low ceilings are associated with cramped conditions and confinement. Due to these associations, ceiling height can prime people to think, and act, in certain ways. One study cited “proposed that low ceilings may encourage quieter, more restricted play, while higher ceilings (e.g., above 8 feet) foster more active (i.e., freer) play.

Using this anecdotal evidence, the authors decided to investigate whether ceiling height primed people enough to alter how they processed information. The researchers proposed that high ceilings allowed people to relate objects to each other and think laterally (i.e. ‘seeing the bigger picture’, referred to as relational thinking), whereas low ceilings caused people to process information in an item specific way.

Figure 1 from Meyers-Levy, J & Zhu, R (2007)

During one experiment the participants were asked to do a categorization task. They carried this both in a room with a relatively high ceiling, around 10 foot, as well as one with a relatively low ceiling, around 8 foot. Each participant received a list of items, all of which were in a broad category (for example sports).

They were asked first to identify as many dimensions as they could that were shared by the items (e.g., equipment required for the sport, as some sort of apparatus was needed for each sport). Then, for each dimension, they were requested to categorize the items into sub-groups based on each item’s value on the dimension (e.g., the type of equipment needed). Last, they provided descriptive labels for all the subgroups. 

If people were using different types of information processing then there should be differences in the way people carried out this task:

  • First, individuals in a high versus low ceiling room should identify a larger number of shared dimensions. This follows because these individuals’ proposed greater reliance on relational versus item-specific elaboration should prompt them to discern more connections among the disparate stimulus items.
  • Second, those in a high rather than a low ceiling room also should identify more dimensions that are abstract (vs. concrete) in nature.
  • Third, due to their greater reliance on relational versus item-specific elaboration, individuals in a high versus low ceiling room should assign the stimulus items (i.e., sports) into fewer subgroups per dimension.

The results of this experiment showed that people did alter the way they processed information in the way proposed initially by the authors. “Specifically, individuals who completed the study in a high versus low ceiling room appeared to rely predominately on relational elaboration and therefore identified more dimensions shared by a number of rather dissimilar items, exhibited a greater degree of abstraction in the dimensions they identified, and sorted these items into fewer and thus more inclusive sub-groups per dimension.”

Or, in other words, when you are in a low ceiled room you process the information around you by focusing on specific objects. But, when in high ceiling rooms, you think laterally and process information by relating it to other objects.

This study shows that getting some headspace does actually affect the way you think. So, if you’re bogged down in a problem and can’t see the wood for the trees, working in a place with a high ceiling or getting away from cramped urban life may aid you more than you think.

The effects that ceiling height can have on people was also demonstrated in the opening programme of Channel 4’s The Secret Life of Buildings, which I contributed some scientific thoughts to:

Paper reference: Meyers-Levy, J & Zhu, R (2007) The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use.  Journal of Consumer Research 34(2):174

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