How You Should Decorate, Scientifically-Speaking

Moving to a new place? Redecorating? Just wondering where you should put up your Christmas wreath to show it off to best effect? You'll be pleased to know that there's a heap of science out there about the best ways to decorate your home, some of it reliable and some of it ... well, a bit more confusing and odd.

From color theory (which has some scientific basis) to the much-misunderstood art of feng shui (which doesn't really, but doesn't do any harm), we've been looking to experiments and scientific thinking to give us guidance on where to put our flowers and what kind of chairs to buy for a long time. And scientific theories about decorating and design aren't just confined to our homes; they're also out in the world, in the layout of shopping malls, kindergartens and casinos, and in the animal world in abundance. As any interior designer or architect will tell you, design is everywhere — and it often affects our mood without our being any the wiser.

Whether you're wondering how to best set up your new place or redecorate for the New Year, here's what you need to know about the science of decorating.

Integrate Circles Wherever You Can

Ever wonder why we're attracted to rounded armchairs, rounded cushions, rooms with curved edges and people with rounded tummies? (OK, maybe that last one's just me.) It seems that preference for rounded surfaces over straight ones may be a part of innate human perspective on our surroundings. A series of fascinating studies done in 2013 found that humans are far more likely to give rooms with rounded surfaces and walls a "beautiful" rating than ones with lots of straight lines, and that those with the curves tended to active the emotional centers of the brain.

There are a number of hypotheses for why this may be so. Humans may associate curved lines with natural human bodies, nurturing feelings, and safe interiors (like caves); we may just like them because they harken back to childhood, when we were kept away from anything with sharp edges that could harm us; or some bit of our brains may look at the straight and narrow with suspicion as potential dangers. But your friends are more likely to rate your house highly if it's filled with rounded, curved objects and rooms, unless they're avant-garde and like their sparse harshness. Want a warm living room? Arrange the seating in a circle.

Make Your Bedroom Blue And Your Office Red

One of the most bizarre studies ever done in decorating history is all the more remarkable because it had a positive result. In 1989, a researcher tested the arousal levels of brains through electrodes placed on the scalp in people sitting in two different rooms: one painted blue, one painted red. The brainwaves of the people in the rooms differed significantly over two hours, as did pulse rate. Those in the blue room had waves associated with relaxation and drowsiness, while those in the red room had more brain "arousal." A lot of our associations around colors are culturally based (white, for instance, is not a positive color in many cultures, and is associated with death), but this, along with other studies, indicates that there may be some serious weight behind the idea that some colors make us act in different ways.

So if you want your bedroom or living room to be a calm space, blue is your best bet — and if you want an office that pushes you into action, red will do the trick.

Know That Feng Shui May Just Be A Good Idea

The art and practice of feng shui, the Chinese art of decorating and designing to maximize luck and health, has existed for thousands of years. In the modern era, though, many of the same principles have been adopted by the idea of "neuroarchitecture," an environment that's supposed to enhance brain function and happiness — with mixed scientific results. (We're still not sure if anything about the placement of things in a room genuinely does anything to the brain.)

Interestingly, though, a 2005 study took a particular version of feng shui that can be applied to architecture and design, and lined it up with the ideal layouts and designs for buildings created by some Chinese and Australian architects. The feng shui model lined up almost exactly with the new "ideal" one. It seems that Feng shui might just be common sense — so while there isn't exact psychological proof for it, following the rules of feng shui probably doesn't hurt.

Remember That Over-Decorating Messes With Your Concentration

Prone to cluttering the walls, surfaces, and every available spare bit of space in your workplace with knick-knacks and thingamabobs? If science about preschool children can be extrapolated to adults, you may be ruining your concentration. A 2014 study of preschoolers by Carnegie Mellon researchers found that, in classrooms with huge amounts of decoration, the kids just couldn't sit still and focus; they seemed keep looking up and getting distracted. This is particularly interesting because, if you remember your preschool classroom correctly, you'll know that having lots of visual stimuli around for small kids has been the educational norm for ages. The problem with this, the Carnegie Mellon researchers found, was that it seemed to interfere with children's retention of information.

To test the idea, they gave preschoolers lessons in two different rooms, one heavily decorated and one with less on the walls and elsewhere.The kids were then tested on what they'd just learned, and those in the sparse classroom answered 55 percent of the questions correctly on average, in comparison to 42 percent correct in the busier classroom. If you're attempting to learn and retain information (if, for instance, you have a room in which you're doing studying), it might pay to keep it a bit distraction-free, even if you think you've got a better attention span than a toddler.

... But That Having Some Patterns Around Is Likely To Make You Happy

Love polka dots? Find yourself drawn to wallpapers? Even if you're one of those people who likes every surface in your house to be pristine block colors, the instinct to embrace patterns in general, in everything from the visual world to music, appears to be something very cool about the human brain itself. Almost every culture on earth has developed patterns of some kind as part of its culture, often with deep mathematical rules about symmetry and shape (the mathematics professor Frank Farris has done some fascinating work on the math of wallpaper patterns and why we like them so much, for instance).

We love patterns of all kinds, it seems, because "superior pattern processing," or the ability to detect sequences and repetitions in data, is one of the biggest advances in human thinking; we're able to find (or think we find) patterns in everything from random noise to swirling colors. A new study in 2014 posited that this ability is actually "fundamental basis of most, if not all, unique features of the human brain including intelligence, language, imagination, invention, and the belief in imaginary entities such as ghosts and gods." Pattern-making, in other words, seems to make us who we are. Think about that next time you're checking out a cool patterned quilt for your bedroom (though remember, the more patterns that are around, the more likely you are to be distracted).

Keep Strategic Flowers And Photos Around For Real Psychological Benefits

When it comes to what you should actually put in your home and why, a number of studies have laid out some pretty interesting strategies for your psychological benefit. Good Housekeeping compiled a collection of studies that showed that flowers and sentimental photographs both induce a sense of happiness and calm if you put them in your close surroundings at home, even if they clash with other decor.

Flowers in particular have a good psychological pedigree. Sick patients in rooms with flowers need less pain medication, and plants improve performance and creativity in workplaces (which is why you need to press your boss to give you that green wall, stat). People also respond well to windows that look over a natural landscape, hence the popularity of screensavers that look like just that.

So there you have it: If you want to design a serene home, keep the decor to a minimum, organize your seating in a circle, have some flowers and photos around, and paint your bedroom blue.

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