A sense of belonging | Daily News

A sense of belonging

Iver Hagen – “Some houses have memories. They don’t forget what happened.”

Meg Russell – “You mean like ghosts?”

Iver Hagen – “There’s worse things than ghosts.”

The movie Inhabited is about two girls who lived 50 years apart in the same house. Both girls claimed to have seen fairies/trolls. The fairies/trolls first appear benign but then become malevolent. We are told that these “little folk” live in dark places and that they have been there longer than the rocks and roots. In the case of one girl, a psychiatrist in the movie believes her ‘problem’ is caused by the environment and stress resulting from moving house.

Of course this could all be fiction, but it is open to interpretation. However, we do know that the built environment can have an effect on a person’s mood. ArchWorld speaks to the experts on how the built environment can affect one’s thoughts and emotions.

Archt. Nirodha Gunadasa Gunadasa points out that it is a natural human need to belong to a place we call home. A place we belong to. A place we can call our territory or village. When the built environment fails to satisfy that need, a crisis then begins within our minds unknown to us. It is a huge mental crisis when you realize that your ‘belongingness’ to the living environment is just a number of an apartment. You have no place, a boutique, a back yard to refer to as ‘my neighborhood’. ‘Home is where ones’ roots are’, and this is the crisis we see today due to the built environment.

Dispersed city syndrome

He suggests that we first look at how we have organized our cities and how it affects our mental health. The emerging urban form in many of our townships today is a sickening urban form that we call the “Dispersed City Syndrome,” says Gunadasa.

Cities are evolving - large scale plot sizes and large scale buildings mostly with one unique function such as apartment, office, retail or shopping complex. There is less road network density in between them. It doesn’t generate a sense of belongingness, a sense that this is my village, my neighborhood, my people, my area or my place. It does not generate the sense that this is the place and society I belong to. The city by its nature isolates you into economic, social and cultural enclaves.

During his childhood there were no boundary walls between the houses of his village. There were only some short fences here and there. So the entire village was like one compound. So all of the children used to get together every day and play in this compound. He could see what his neighbor was doing all the time. He knew what they were cooking, He knew what they were wearing and knew what problems they had. He could see everything.

Boundary walls

“But let’s imagine we introduced boundary walls between the houses. It can do very little to the relationships we have with our neighbors. We will always find a way to get together, meet and play with each other. But look at what it can do to our lives over a period of decades. Today, there are boundary walls constructed between houses of that village. Some people have left the village and new people have come in. And after a decade, I don’t even know who my neighbor is. Over a large period of time, a simple boundary wall has completely changed my social life. How I spend my weekends and with whom I spend my evenings affects my way of thinking. So the built environment changes our society, our habits, our life, our psychology and mental health,” said Gunadasa.

The human brain is one of the most plastic things in the universe. It can adapt, change over and reorganize to suit the circumstances and the situation. It can survive in almost any environment. The brain of a person living next to a railway line could completely erase from his consciousness the noise of a train passing a few meters away from his ear making him sleep comfortably.

“I remember, decades ago, my mother came to my school for a parents meeting. My school was next to a beef cutting factory. The merchants drop the parts and blood of the animals killed into the canal close to our classroom. My mother that day felt like vomiting due to that odor. I was totally unaware of the odor she was talking about, because my senses and my brain had gradually adapted to it. The brain had completely muted that odor from my consciousness. This is the power of our versatile plastic brain. It can adapt to almost any environment and manage to stay healthy,” explained Gunadasa.

When Gunadasa looks back at his life he has many memories.

Glittering cobwebs

“For me it is made out of the moonlight falling between the coconut leaves, the morning sunlight glittering in the cobwebs, the twilight drawing long lonely shadows in the cemetery. These are the memories I treasure. Without them what would my life be?

The environment we create around us and the environment we choose to live in, is our life story. It is your psychology, your emotions, your feelings, your memories and your pain. It is everything about you. It is you. And that is why it is important to be receptive about the built environment we live in and create around us. It could be the room you live in, the house, the village or the entire city. It is the stage on which the story of our entire life is unfolding on. Ultimately it is going to be what we are.”

He points out that the sound of the falling water, the sound of birds and the sound of bees has a great effect on how we feel. Sometimes our ears are ‘bombarded’ with outside noise. If you ever get an opportunity to just escape this background noise, you will recognize what a relief it is. What peace and what tranquility!

“Our entire built environment is highly polluted in so many ways. We notice only the garbage and the smoke as pollutants. Look at our night sky. How important is it for a peaceful mind to have a dark sky to gaze at before sleeping? How important it is for a peaceful mind to have a moment of silence! All noise pollution and air pollution contribute to this toxic environment we live in,” points out Gunadasa.

He recalls the loneliness of rocks, the cool comfort of the clean river, the thick dark skies with fire flies and the stories told by his grandmother – these were the things that built up the story of his adolescent life. They are the things that make him the poet, the creator and the architect he is. “The experience of space, the experience of the environment (natural or built) and emotions and feelings - those are the seeds of imagination and creativity. The time behind you is the story of your life. That bulk of experiences is what you are today. The richness of that stuff is the richness of your imagination.”

Gunadasa added that if Architects work with those who are doing proper scientific research on fields such as ‘neural correlation of consciousness’, there can be some useful insights building up. The way an Architect or a Physicist looks at the world or understands the world is different. A physicist understands the world in terms of fundamental forces, fields and particles. An Architect understands the world in terms of fundamentals of socio, economic, cultural and environmental factors.


Consultant Psychiatrist, The National Hospital of Sri Lanka, Colombo, Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychiatry, University of Colombo, Dr. Mahesh Rajasuriya pointed out that the relationship between mental illnesses and the environment is through stress. Certain people are more comfortable in the natural environment and are unhappy, stressed and tensed in the built environment, and for others it is the other way around.

Mental Illness involves multiple factors that interact in a complex way to cause or sustain these illnesses. These factors can be divided into three areas.

• Physical/ biological

• Psychological factors

• Social factors

“The environment built or natural is part of mainly social factors and indirectly influences psychological factors. It can also influence biological factors to mainly cause physical illnesses. The levels of stress may lead to mental illnesses or sustain it. There is another term I would like to introduce and it is called Residual Stress,” said Dr. Rajasuriya.

He explained that if you fall down and break your leg, it is a stressful event. It may affect your mental health vastly. However residual stress can result in the little things in life that happens throughout the day, week or month. Little things that gradually add up to the stress levels.

“For example, it takes a long time for you to go to work and come back. The streets are really noisy and the sound pollution is intolerable. The air pollution is also intolerable and you cannot breathe easily. At office it is difficult to get things done and also it is difficult to get things done at home. So these little things add up to Residual Stress. In developed countries Residual Stress is less. It takes less time to go to work and things can be fixed easily. When it comes to services, you can get things done quickly. So the levels of Residual stress are low. How the built environment and natural environment affect levels of Residual Stress is complicated. However, the environment and Residual Stress have a relationship. It may affect your overall stress levels, which may affect your mental health,” added Dr. Rajasuriya.

ArchWorld asked Dr. Rajasuriya the following question – Your house is hot and stuffy and it is located near the road and you are exposed to sound pollution and noise pollution coming off the streets. There are no trees to cool the air and suck in the Carbon Dioxide. The house is dark with very little ventilation. As mentioned before, it takes a long time for you to go to work and come back. The streets are really noisy and the sound pollution is intolerable. The air pollution is also intolerable and you come home to an unhappy environment. Can this cause illness or make it worse?

“Of course yes. Such a high level of stress in an environment which is not very conducive to comfortable living will add a lot of stress to the individual’s life. This may give rise to illnesses such as depression or worsen any other illness the individual has already got,” said Dr. Rajasuriya.

ArchWorld asked Dr. Rajasuriya one final question – Can living in a house and experiencing environmental stimuli cause a normal person to hallucinate?

“No, if these are usual stimuli. However, if someone is deprived of stimuli, such as put in a dark room with no stimuli for prolonged periods of time, he/she may experience hallucinations,” said Dr. Rajasuriya.

Gunadasa points out that it is a natural human need to belong to a place we call home. A place we belong to. A place we can call our territory or village. When the built environment fails to satisfy that need, a crisis then begins within our minds unknown to us. It is a huge mental crisis when you realize that your ‘belongingness’ to the living environment is just a number of an apartment. You have no place, a boutique, a back yard to refer to as ‘my neighborhood’. ‘Home is where ones’ roots are’, this is the crisis we see today due to the built environment.

However residual stress can result in the little things in life that happens throughout the day, week or month. Little things that gradually add up to the stress levels.


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