Creating Moments of Awe in Healthcare Environments

By Kurt Johnson Photography • May 3, 2024

Have you ever gone walking in nature and been moved by rows of trees towering above you as sunlight trickles between the leaves?  Have you seen the magnificence of a star-filled sky away from city lights?

Maybe you’ve felt inspired by a breathtaking sunset over a mountain range or as you watched a quiet mist roll off a lake first thing in the morning.  These moments evoke a sense of awe within you that’s essential for your physical and mental well-being.

Awe is what you feel when you encounter the grandeur, beauty, and immensity of the natural world.  It’s the feeling of being overcome, yet uplifted, by the sheer magnificence of nature’s wonder, which has a calming effect on the mind and body.

Research suggests exposure to natural environments can lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.  A new line of study reveals experiencing awe goes hand in hand with these benefits, which is why creating moments of awe in healthcare environments is a necessity when it comes to healing.

It can be hard to experience moments of awe in our day-to-day lives when we’re mostly indoors, but that’s why bringing nature photography into built environments can have a positive impact.

In “Tapping Into the Healing Power of Awe,”  author Karolyn Gazella points to the direct connection between nature and nature imagery:  “Natural settings are common elicitors of awe…But even looking at pictures of natural wonders may elicit an awe response” (Psychology Today, 2023).

In the CNN story, “Why Looking at Awe-Inspiring Art Could Lead to a Happier, Healthier Life,” author Eva Rothenberg digs into the research surrounding the power of awe done by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, writing:

“He and other scientists have found that awe was among the positive emotions associated with less inflammation in the body, a major trigger for chronic disease.  Awe has also been show to calm our sympathetic nervous system, which activates when we feel stressed, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure” (2023).

Creating moments of awe in healthcare environments is an effective way to help patients deal with anxiety, pain, and illness.  Awe is a powerful medicine that supports your body’s natural healing processes, leading to quicker recovery times, feelings of calm, and hope.

“Creating moments of awe and wonder for patients, families and the entire care team is what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’ve seen firsthand the positive effects nature images have on patients and staff, and it motivates me to keep pressing the shutter every day.”

– Kurt Johnson

Evoking a sense of wonder, beauty, and comfort into the built environment is as easy as creating moments of awe in healthcare environments.  Here are some strategies that focus on bringing the awe of nature indoors to benefit patients, visitors, and the entire care team.

1. Make Nature Art a Focal Point – Gone are the days of nature art as an afterthought. More and more hospitals and wellness environments understand the necessity of incorporating nature into healthcare design from the beginning.

Consider how patients, visitors, and staff will interact within various spaces.  Do you need artwork that doubles as wayfinding to help people navigate complicated areas?  Who is the artwork for?  Everyone in the community or a specific group like children or seniors?

Creating moments of awe in healthcare environments means designing spaces that accommodate the needs and preferences of your community.  This kind of intentional design fosters a sense of belonging and inclusivity which has a direct impact on the physical and mental well-being of everyone moving through the facility.

2. Include Panoramic ViewsPanoramic photography captures a broader view of landscapes. By including the foreground, middle ground, and background of an image, a richer narrative is produced.  Showing the full scope of a scene produces stunning images with grandeur, which is the definition of what it means to feel awe.

In his best-selling book, “AWE: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life,” Dacher Keltner talks about “how we feel awe near great trees and in looking at panoramic views.”  Feeling like you’re part of a scene leads to an immersive viewing experience, which produces the positive benefits of both being in nature and feeling nature’s awe firsthand.

There are several ways to create this kind of large-scale panoramic imagery.  Since the success of creating panoramas depends on the quality of the original images, we use the most up-to-date equipment so you get the best results (which in turn lead to the most healing in your healthcare environment).

You can learn more about Panoramas and the many ways we create them here.

3. Make the Most of Unexpected Spaces – Sometimes the most impactful areas to put artwork are in places where you don’t expect it – forgotten areas of healthcare environments that have high traffic but don’t seem like top priorities at first glance.

Putting artwork in these unexpected places adds to their awe factor, creating the element of wonder and surprise.

This stairwell at Republic County Hospital in Belleville, Kansas is the perfect example of surprising visitors with healing nature art where they least expect it.

CEO of the hospital, Dan Kelly, described the art placement as being “…a beautiful splash of color and wonderment in a drab corner.”  This image printed on dibond metal adds the perfect moment of awe to anyone using or passing by this stairwell.

Our canvas corner wraps are another example of unexpected art placement.  These custom-built canvases wrap around corners, producing seamless visuals bursting with color and creative design.  This refreshing and unexpected display is the perfect solution for creating moments of awe in healthcare environments.

Talk about challenging?  How about a windowless basement in an established healthcare facility with no determined set-up for lighting?  In the case of CHI’s Immanuel Hospital in Omaha, NE, the art becomes the light and provides multiple opportunities to experience nature’s awe down this long (formerly dark) corridor.

The back-lit REX frame by Renze runs on LEDS (which practically run forever) with an extremely low energy output.  And it’s the perfect way to help staff and visitors recharge as they fuel up in the cafeteria across from the approximately 90-foot hallway.  This well-lit beacon prompts awe from everyone who passes by.

Creating moments of awe in healthcare environments involves integrating elements that evoke wonder, beauty, and comfort in the built environment.  There are many ways to elicit awe but the ways that connect us to our environment and our innate need to stay in touch with the outside world all begin with nature.

Categories: Healing, Healthcare, Research

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