If you’re bored by the idea of spending yet more time locked down in your home, let science writer Emily Anthes convince you that it’s at least an interesting place to be. Her new book, The Great Indoors, explores all manner of things that happen between walls, from the microscopic creatures that live in shower heads to the reasons it’s healthy for bedrooms to have windows. The book also tours the research and design behind other indoor spaces outside the home, from the dimensions of operating rooms, to the seating plans of offices, to features of hypothetical outposts on Mars. It’s hard to read the book without constantly thinking about how everything relates back to the coronavirus. How spaces can be configured to facilitate or reduce human contact—and what playing with that does to our happiness, productivity, and health—is a big theme. (Plus, doesn’t Mars sound nice right now?)
Anthes describes herself as an “unapologetically indoorsy” person who has been working from home since before the pandemic. I talked to her about what we can all be doing to improve our indoor spaces, and the very weird timing of her book. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Shannon Palus: What does the indoor space where you work look like?
Emily Anthes: I work in my living room sitting on my couch, which is extremely non-ergonomic, but it’s habit.
What I like about this workspace is I have a lot of natural light, and over the course of reporting the book, I became extremely convinced about the power of plants. I have steadily converted my living room into a small jungle. I have, probably, 20 plants in here of various types and sizes. I find it calming and restful to be surrounded by greenery. When people ask me what they can do to improve their indoor space—which a lot of people are doing these days—the No. 1 recommendation I make is plants.
What does research say about the power of plants?
We know that they are really good stress relievers. They seem to have cognitive benefits. People who are surrounded by greenery tend to have longer attention spans and focus better. Kids who go to school in classrooms that are surrounded by nature tend to have better test scores. They have healing effects; patients who are hospitalized and have a view that looks out to greenery or some sort of natural scenery tend to use fewer painkillers. Plants can really have a powerful effect on all sorts of aspects of our functioning. They don’t even have to be real plants. Artificial plants can have the same benefits. So do things like photographs of nature—or, some studies suggest, nature sounds, like the rustling of trees, a babbling brook, or birdsong, can have some of the same benefits of bringing a real plant into your home.
How could an artificial plant be helpful?
There are a couple of different theories about why greenery is beneficial. They’re probably operating in concert—there’s no definitive explanation. One is the biophilia hypothesis, which posits that because we evolved surrounded by plants and greenery, we have an innate affinity for them. They make us feel restful and calm; the subsequent benefits come from that stress reduction. There’s a similar but slightly different theory known as the attention restoration theory. That holds that nature and plants engender what’s called a soft fascination. They’re engaging and interesting, but it doesn’t take a lot of cognitive work to look at a plant. It gives your brain a break. Then there have been some mechanistic studies that have come out more recently that look at how walking in a forest seems to actually boost the immune system: You can quantify the changes in immune cells. There do seem to be some real physiological changes happening, but there’s still a lot to learn about how it’s all playing out.
One claim you see a lot is that plants will be good for your air. In theory, that is true. Plants can absorb certain air pollutants. But in practice the studies show that you would have to have a basically impossible density in your home for it to make a difference—numerous plants per square foot to even begin to make a dent in the air quality.
One thing you wrote about where the science is not there is probiotic spray for homes. Can you talk about that?
The promise is you can spray this good bacteria around your home and that will boost your immune system. The science is not even close to there yet. Even studies of oral probiotics have been disappointing. Even if we discovered what effective probiotics were, one of the scientists told me, it seems unlikely that the best way to take a vitamin would be to spray it around your room and walk through the cloud.
If you were doing reporting for the book now, during the pandemic, what would you be exploring more?
There’s been a lot of focus now on how can we stay connected with friends and family, how can we set up all these remote social events. There’s not as much attention paid to our need for privacy and personal space, which is a fundamental need we have, and can be hard to achieve when you’re sharing a tiny apartment with another person 24/7. I’m interested to see if there are time-tested, evidence-based ways to carve out personal space even when the total amount of indoor space is not huge. We’ve seen problems related to this in outer space, or Antarctic bases, where people are stuck with the same crew day in and day out for months. We know that there can be irritability and depression as a result of not having enough personal space.
Is there anything that you’ve done to create more private space for yourself during the pandemic?
I was thinking about what one of the researchers who has studied simulated space missions told me, which is that privacy isn’t just visual privacy. It isn’t just closing yourself behind a door. There’s olfactory privacy and auditory privacy. Inspired by that, I’ve been doing things like sitting on the same couch as my boyfriend but we both have headphones on and are listening to our own music or podcasts. It’s the smallest thing, but it creates a sense of refuge, a little way in which you can create your own world when you don’t have your own space to work with.
What’s it been like promoting a book right now?
I think most authors who have books out right now would say it’s been strange. I feel like it’s been particularly strange for this book because it’s been so unexpectedly timely. This is not a news hook that I ever would have asked for. If I could snap my fingers and make the pandemic go away, I would do that in a heartbeat. I do think one of the slight silver linings is a lot of people are thinking about their indoor environments more and paying more attention to them. COVID-19 is essentially a disease of the indoors; it’s being spread almost entirely indoors. I think there is an opening here if we want to take it, if we want to really think through how we can make healthier indoor environments. That includes environments that protect us from COVID-19, but it goes a lot further than that.