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It’s like another world: the perceived beneficial effects of an artistically designed multisensory environment
  1. Bliss Cavanagh,
  2. Kirsti Haracz,
  3. Miranda Lawry,
  4. Carole James
  1. School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medicine, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, New South Wales, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Bliss Cavanagh, School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medicine, University of Newcastle, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia; Bliss.Cavanagh{at}uon.edu.au

Abstract

Self-management strategies have been identified as having a key role in supporting mental health and preventing mental illness. Evidence suggests that spending time in nature, experiencing or viewing artwork and accessing sensory rooms all support self-management and positive mental health among varied clinical populations. This evidence informed the design of the sensory–art space (SAS), an artistically designed multisensory environment, which drew on themes and images of nature.

The aim of this study was to explore the experiences and perceived benefits of the SAS among members of a university community.

A maximum variation approach to sampling was used, and 18 participants were included in this qualitative study. Data were gathered via semi-structured interviews, which were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim for thematic analysis.

The findings presented six themes. The two core themes were: it’s like another world, and easy to focus and describe how the SAS produced the beneficial effects described in the four remaining themes of: emotionally nutritious, meditative effects, relaxation and therapeutic.

Participants identified beneficial effects of the SAS that were consistent with the evidence for other self-management strategies. The identified benefits also aligned with existing theories suggesting that the SAS functioned as a restorative environment. This study is the first to explore the experience of art in a multisensory and multidimensional capacity, which further contributes to the growing field of receptive engagement with the arts for health outcomes.

  • arts In health/arts and health
  • design
  • mental health care
  • public health
  • medical humanities

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Introduction

Mental health and self-management

Mental health and well-being are integral components of the overall health of every individual.1 Mental health can be affected by a range of environmental factors in conjunction with an individual’s ability to manage their own thoughts, emotions and behaviours.2 One in four people will experience mental ill-health during their life, indicating a need for greater resources for prevention on a global scale.1 In Australia, current policy and planning for mental health services involves a ‘stepped care’ model, where services are matched to individual need. The model aims to reduce the associated costs of mental ill-health with greater investment in promotion and early intervention for the whole population to support self-help and empower self-management of mental distress.3

The ability to self-manage stress and emotions is a key element of prevention and supports the improvement of mental health.4 5 Stress has been identified as one of the leading contributors to poor mental health.2 Despite stress being universal, there is a significant lack of trained professionals to help manage stress.6 The ‘stepped care’ model supports the use of evidence-based self-management and self-care as alternative or complimentary healthcare treatment.3 Self-management strategies include engagement in recreation and enjoyable activities, which have shown numerous benefits stemming from the positive emotions they evoke.7–9

Benefits of engaging with art and nature

Engaging with and participating in art activities is a widely used type of recreational activity that is supported as being therapeutic.6 ‘Art as therapy’ or ‘participatory art’, which focuses on the creative process, has a long history of being used to support health and treat the effects of illness, particularly mental illness.10 There is also a growing body of evidence for the benefits, such as reduced stress, lowering blood pressure and shorter recovery time, in clinical populations from simply experiencing or viewing art.11–14 Recent studies have also demonstrated health benefits of viewing art, including improved mental health and immune system, in general populations.9 15 16 However, more research in this field of receptive arts engagement and its impact on health has been encouraged.17

Spending time in nature has also been identified as an effective strategy for self-management of stress.6 Being surrounded by natural stimuli, or even just looking at scenes of nature, has been shown to provide restoration and stress-recovery benefits, increase cognitive functioning and promote well-being in general population samples.8 18 19 These benefits have also been found to reduce recovery time spent in hospital.20 Attention restoration theory21 provides a framework for understanding the restorative benefits of nature. Kaplan asserted that the ‘soft fascinations’ of the natural environment provide an effortless attention that restores cognitive resources.21 This aligns with the concept of positive distraction22 as the basis for the restorative benefits of art and nature in health facilities.12 23 24 Positive distraction refers to good environmental design and features that elicit positive emotions by holding attention to reduce stressful thoughts.22

Benefits of sensory rooms

Another example of the use of external or environmental stimuli to elicit therapeutic outcomes is the use of sensory rooms. Sensory rooms are specifically constructed environments that are used to engage the senses as a type of sensory processing intervention to support sensory modulation.25 26 Sensory modulation refers to the neurological process of organising and regulating sensory input in order to respond adaptively to the environment.27 This process can be impacted by stress, anxiety and mental illness, which can affect an individual’s ability to self-organise sensory input and regulate emotions and behaviours.27 28 Sensory rooms contain items to engage various senses such as: bubble tubes, light projections, sound machines, scents, massage chairs, bean bags and other equipment tailored to the individual’s sensory needs.25

Initially developed as a recreation option for people with intellectual disability (Snoezelen), sensory rooms are now used in a wide range of health and social care settings.29 Snoezelen was designed as a failure-free environment to provide feelings of comfort, safety, relaxation and enjoyment, and an enhanced sense of control and choice.25 30 Recognition of their potential beyond recreation lead to their use in schools for children with autism and more tailoring of the sensory input to individual needs.31 Sensory rooms are now used to achieve a range of outcomes with different clinical populations, such as reducing negative emotions in people with dementia, and facilitating relaxation to assist breast feeding.30 32 Sensory rooms have increasingly been installed in acute inpatient mental health settings with some evidence for their effectiveness to: support self-management of distress, reduce seclusion and restraint, reduce distress, facilitate relaxation and restoration and enhance positive emotions.4 5 32–34 Despite the growing use of sensory rooms in different clinical population groups, there is no research available of the benefits of sensory rooms for the general population.

Aims

The aim of our study was to explore the experiences and perceived benefits to members of a university community of spending time in a purpose designed sensory–art space (SAS), as a new self-care intervention.

Methods

Intervention: the SAS

In 2016, a study room in the university library was transformed into the SAS (created by BC). The design of the SAS was informed from the evidence base regarding the benefits of sensory rooms and the benefits of experiencing art and nature for self-management. The SAS was an immersive artistically designed multisensory environment that stimulated the senses of sight, touch, hearing and smell. It was constructed in a dark blacked-out room, fitted with illuminated nature-inspired artworks and sculptural forms, soft seating, instrumental music and floral aromas. A selection of weighted blankets and cushions were also included to stimulate the proprioceptive system. Refer to figures 1 and 2 for photographic documentation of the SAS.

Figure 1

Entrance to SAS (detail). Photographic documentation by BC, 2017.

Figure 2

A view from inside the SAS (detail). Photographic documentation by BC, 2017.

Study design

Our study used a qualitative descriptive design, which was most appropriate for achieving the aim of our study exploring participants’ perceptions and to enable a rich account and understanding of their subjective experiences. Participation in the study was voluntary and participants were free to enter or leave the SAS during the period of the study.

Recruitment and sampling

The participants were drawn from a larger study in which students and staff of the university completed a survey about their experience of the SAS. Submission of the completed survey was taken as informed consent for the larger study. Participants had the option to provide their contact details at the end of the study if they consented to being invited for a follow-up interview. Of the 224 survey participants, 102 consented to being invited for a follow-up interview. Sampling was purposive, using a maximum variation approach. This sampling method enabled understanding of the SAS experience from the broadest range of participant demographics and perspectives. The different parameters considered were: age, gender, role (staff/student), the presence or absence of physical and/or mental health conditions and changes in self-reported stress levels and mood reported after experiencing the SAS.

Participants

Our study consisted of 18 participants. The participants and their characteristics are outlined in table 1 below.

Table 1

Participant characteristics

Data gathering

Data were gathered via semi-structured interviews (carried out by BC), using an interview guide to prompt open discussion in an informal interview setting.35 The interview guide included a set of open-ended questions and prompts to provide a reliable and comparable rich dataset.35 The interview guide was developed in response to the research aims and included questions relating to the participant’s experience in the SAS: at the time of their participation in the survey study and on the day of the interview, responses and perceptions regarding the sensory elements, and perceived benefits from using the SAS. The use of observation and field notes were also employed to contribute additional data for a more complete understanding of the participant experience.

Participants were invited to spend 20 min alone in the SAS before the interview commenced. Interviews took place within the SAS (see figure 2). They were audio recorded and transcribed verbatim for analysis. Interviews lasted an average of 71 min (range 39–98 min). Participants were asked to choose their own pseudonym to maintain anonymity, and verbal consent to participate in the interview was audio recorded before proceeding with the interview questions.

Analysis

Interview data were analysed using thematic analysis, a method used for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns to provide a rich and detailed account of the dataset.36 An inductive data-driven approach to analysis was adopted to enable an in-depth understanding of the participants’ experiences.36 37 The analysis process involved familiarisation with the data through repeated readings, coding to identify patterns, then grouping and collapsing of codes into categories to identify recurring themes, with continuous re-examination of the themes throughout the analysis process. Analysis was carried out by BC and supported with regular peer review by the other authors (CJ, KH and ML) to examine the consistency between the data and emerging findings. NVivo software (V.11.4.0 (2065)) was used to organise and examine the data.38

Rigour

The processes to ensure rigour in this study included consideration of the four components of trustworthiness: credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability.39 Strategies to support credibility included: the use of a reflective journal to track and manage the influence of preconceptions and the maximum variation approach to sampling to enable collection of data from a range of different perspectives. Detailed information has been provided about the characteristics of participants and the setting to support transferability. Dependability and confirmability are underpinned by the systematic and rigorous process of transforming the data into the findings, using the reflective journal to document decision points in the process and regular peer review by the whole team of researchers during the analysis process.

Results

Data analysis produced six themes. The core theme is it’s like another world, which describes the participants’ perceptions of being completely removed from the outside world. This is followed by easy to focus, where participants described how the SAS enabled them to focus their attention. These themes identify factors that caused the beneficial effects experienced by participants described in the remaining four themes: emotionally nutritious, meditative effects, relaxation and therapeutic. The themes and their relationships to each other are represented in the diagram shown in figure 3 below.

Figure 3

Diagram of key themes.

It’s like another world

The core theme was it’s like another world. All of the participants described feeling like they had been transported into another world when they entered the SAS and that this feeling was essential to the benefits they experienced. Daisy said: ‘…I feel a million miles away from the library… it’s otherworldly’ and added ‘I could be on Mars, like I could be on a completely different world’.

For the SAS to act as a positive experience, the participants identified several contributing aspects of it’s like another world that have been grouped into three subthemes: it’s unique, safety and comfort.

It’s unique

Central to the sense of otherworldliness was the difference between the SAS and the environment outside. James said, ‘… it’s because it’s so different to just outside the door. It helps you escape what was on your mind when you’re outside because it’s such a different environment… It’s like going to a different world’. This transformation of the space into feeling like another world was attributed to the uniqueness of the artistic design of the sensory elements.

Safety

Another important factor was that a strong sense of safety was felt within the SAS. Participants reported feeling safe, protected and cocooned inside the SAS, as Barney said: ‘So there’s definitely that feeling of safety… It’s quite relaxed and almost feels like that there’s a bit of a shield around you’, and Fletcher described the SAS as: ‘… like a sanctuary’.

Comfort

Feeling comfortable also contributed to the positive experience of entering another world. Some participants likened the comfort of SAS to the feeling of being held or hugged, or as Jayne said: ‘it’s like the comfort of your bed’, and Rose described it as: ‘… like being in the comfort of your own home’.

Easy to focus

The second theme describing factors that facilitated the beneficial effects participants identified from spending time in the SAS is easy to focus. Participants found that the sensory stimuli within the SAS enabled them to focus their attention. The majority of participants saw the combination of sensory input as being central to the benefits they experienced, as Jayne said: ‘…you need the smells, you need the music, you need the furry things, you need the pretty things to look at. Because if you miss one of them, it’s not going to have the same impact’. While others recognised the value of focusing on a single item, as Kirsten recounted: ‘I find myself looking at it for a long time and then I feel calm because I’ve been able to focus on that one thing…’

Two subthemes were identified that contributed to the participants’ experiences of it being easy to focus, which were: being present and space does all the work.

Being present

Many participants described how the SAS made them feel present, as Lesley described: ‘… it was just about being present and grounded and being more in the moment in a positive way…’ Participants described this ability to be present as something that occurred naturally, identifying the sensory elements as holding attention, which distracted from outside stresses. Rose explained: ‘… it’s a distraction from stress and thinking and it’s a focus that’s not on yourself’.

Space does all the work

This subtheme relates to the ease or effortless feeling the participants described as the space does all the work. As Alex said: ‘The room’s doing all the work. Everything is here and my mind can just interact with the room and I just sit back’ Common qualities identified were that nothing was required of you and you can just sit, as Jayne explained: ‘So because I don’t have to prepare it’s just easy. It’s like you don’t need anything but you and you just leave when you feel like you’re ready to’.

Emotionally nutritious

This theme describes the first of the main beneficial effects of the SAS being, as Fletcher described, ‘…emotionally nutritious’. All participants reported feeling a range of positive emotions, which were grouped into four sub-themes: happiness, motivated, calmness and control.

Happiness

The participants described positive feelings of happiness, contentment and an overall enjoyment of the SAS. Daisy said: ‘… it’s almost like you get this dose of happy’ and Bella described the longer lasting benefits: ‘… my spirits were lifted. …probably a couple of weeks of just feeling a lot better’.

Motivated

Feeling motivated was identified as another benefit experienced by participants. Many reported feeling more productive, motivated, inspired and excited within the SAS and as a longer lasting benefit. Kirsten described: ‘I felt excited. I was really amazed and I just wanted to come back. I did feel motivated and was like yeah, I feel good, let’s go!’

Calmness

Calmness was another benefit reported among participants. Jacob described: ‘I noticed that it was instant; the atmosphere was calm. And I felt that all the stresses and things literally were left at the door’. Calmness was also described as a longer lasting benefit. Kirsten said: ‘I really do feel calmer when I leave here’.

Control

The emotionally nutritious benefits were also identified in the subtheme control. Several participants described this feeling, as Louise said: ‘it’s sort of like everything is then under control’ or as Albert described in terms of being ‘more manageable’. Others reported feeling empowered and confident, like Kirsten who said: ‘I just feel like I can go and calmly conquer the world’.

Meditative effects

References to meditative concepts were common, with participants describing a range of psychological benefits experienced in the SAS. Kidoni emphasised: ‘I think this is a form of meditation, to be in a room like this’. Many participants also described the difficulties of practising meditation and mindfulness strategies in daily life but reported an increased ability to achieve these benefits in the SAS. These meditative effects were grouped into four subthemes: emptying the mind, introspection, clarity and deep breathing.

Emptying the mind

Emptying the mind was identified as one of the meditative effects of the SAS. Kirsten described this as: ‘… it’s like emptying my brain rather than filling it up more’. Many participants recognised that the increased ability to focus enabled this effect, as Barney said: ‘It’s another way of switching off. So it’s almost like a trigger for meditation… If you’re just thinking about the slow changes between the different colours, that’s pretty close to thinking about nothing’.

Introspection

Another meditative effect described by Albert was: ‘I became a bit more introspective’. Some participants explained how the SAS provided a safe space to sort out personal issues, as Kidoni said, ‘… after feeling calm and collected you can start to think about how you’re going to deal with the things that stress you, and because you’re not in that situation, it’s okay’.

Clarity

Many participants described the feeling of clarity or a change in perspective. Lesley said: ‘I’m able to re-evaluate priorities really clearly in this space. The things that are really causing stress before I’ve come into the space both times are put in perspective after I’ve experienced the space’. This sense of clarity is recognised as a longer-lasting benefit, as Louise described: ‘I found that when I left here I had clarity. Clarity in terms of a lot of things that I was thinking about and I was able to go back to work and think clearly’.

Deep breathing

The final subtheme of meditative effects is deep breathing. Kirsten explained: ‘…being able to look at something and focus, I’m able to think about my breathing and everything just sort of slowed down’. Many participants identified the rhythmic movements of particular sensory elements as stimulating this effect, as Lily described: ‘It definitely made me more aware of my breathing and conscious that I should take slower breaths, deep breaths, and work on fully expelling the air…’

Relaxation

Participants identified another beneficial effect of the SAS as facilitating relaxation. As Fletcher described, it is: ‘a relaxation space and Jayne emphasised: ‘This needs to be everywhere, like a chill-out room across all universities… It’s like an adult’s playground for de-stressing’.

There were two subthemes of relaxation: solo pampering and reduces stress and anxieties.

Solo pampering

This subtheme of relaxation is portrayed through Louise’s account: ‘… this is a sensation of being pampered, without someone else doing anything. This is like solo pampering’. Participants commonly associated the SAS to self-indulgent activities, like Jayne saying: ‘It’s like a massage for your brain’ or as Lily described it: ‘… like a bit of a treat, like a bit of a pampering for myself’. These associations reminded the participants of the importance of self-care and as Kidoni described: ‘It made me feel like it’s okay to have this time’.

Reduces stress and anxieties

The other subtheme commonly reported among participants was that the SAS reduces stress and anxieties. Barney said: ‘I felt like my – any kind of work related stress or anything like that had dissipated’. This was also experienced as a longer lasting benefit, as Lesley described: ‘… the heightened sense of anxiety that I had before entering the space was completely juxtaposed by what I felt when I left the space’.

Therapeutic

Therapeutic is the final theme, which describes the more lasting beneficial effects experienced by participants. Jacob said: ‘It’s therapeutic. The colours, the smells, the sounds, the calmness of it… I feel really good’. All of the participants identified that they would use the SAS regularly if it were a permanent facility, like Louise who described the SAS as being ‘very healthy’ and ‘it’s definitely an awesome facility to be proactive about wellbeing’.

There were two subthemes of therapeutic, identified as rejuvenating and hope.

Rejuvenating

The majority of participants described feelings of rejuvenation and restoration. Lily said: ‘I felt rejuvenated, like I’d had a bit of a meditation’. Other participants, like Barney, described the SAS as ‘a good reboot’ or as Albert said ‘it’s like wiping your hard-drive and starting from blank’. These feelings of restoration were described as longer-lasting effects after leaving the SAS.

Hope

The final therapeutic subtheme is hope. Many participants described the recognition of the beneficial effects they experienced as an important aspect to encourage self-care. Emphasis was placed on the value of understanding what is possible in terms of self-management, as Lesley described: ‘I think knowing that you can get a shift this efficiently… it shows me what is possible in terms of changing my emotional state’. Alex described this recognition in relation to the SAS calming her mind down: ‘The other benefit is recognition that that’s possible… I’ve had one of the toughest weeks for me and to have that change literally in 5 to 10 min is – that’s very beneficial because it gives me hope…’

Discussion

This study explored the experiences and perceived benefits to members of a university community of spending time in the SAS. Our findings are presented in six themes. The two core themes were: it’s like another world and easy to focus and describe how the SAS produced the benefits described in the remaining four themes of emotionally nutritious, meditative effects, relaxation and therapeutic.

Theories of restoration

There is considerable alignment between the factors that enabled the beneficial effects of the SAS described in our study and the four properties considered necessary to achieve restoration in the natural environment, according to Kaplan’s21 attention restoration theory (see table 2). The first property, ‘extent’, refers to the scope to feel immersed in the environment through connection to rich stimuli causing a feeling of being in a ‘whole other world.’(p. 173).21 This echoes the core theme of our findings it’s like another world, and the subtheme being present, which describes the participants’ feeling of being immersed in a completely unique environment due to engagement with the sensory stimuli. In it’s like another world participants also describe the SAS as providing a break or escape from daily life, attributing this to the uniqueness of the artistic design. This parallels Kaplan’s second property, ‘being away’, which describes an escape from habitual activities or usual places.21

Table 2

Alignment between attention restoration theory and themes of our study

The third property, ‘soft fascination’ refers to aspects of the natural environment that hold attention effortlessly without requiring cognitive resources, which provides capacity for reflection and restoration.21 This concept aligns with the theme easy to focus, where participants reported that the sensory elements of the SAS held their attention effortlessly, further detailed in space does all the work. This effortless engagement with the sensory stimuli in the SAS also supported similar restorative benefits to ‘soft fascination’, including clarity of thought and rejuvenating benefits.

The fourth property, ‘compatibility’, proposes individuals must want to be exposed to the environment.21 This is reflected in the subthemes of comfort and safety, which identified important aspects that contributed to participants’ positive experience of the SAS. Compatibility is also shown in the theme emotionally nutritious as participants described a range of positive feelings about the SAS, and through the theme relaxation where they characterised the SAS as a self-indulgent activity, like solo pampering. Further parallels were exhibited through the theme therapeutic, where recognition of beneficial effects of the SAS was considered an important aspect of the participants’ experience and identifies their desire to use the SAS regularly.

Findings from our study also aligned with concepts of restorative environments in Ulrich’s theory of supportive design.22 Ulrich’s theory focuses on stress reduction to promote wellness in the design of healthcare environments by cultivating a sense of control and providing access to positive distractions of nature and art.22 A sense of control is well established as an important factor to reducing stress40 and the subtheme control in our study reflects this property of supportive design. Our findings suggest that the SAS provided positive distraction illustrated through the themes being present and easy to focus, which describe the capacity of the sensory elements to hold attention and offer distraction from outside stresses. Furthermore, the benefit of the SAS to reduce stress and anxieties reflects the main objective of stress reduction outlined in supportive design.

While the SAS was a constructed space, it drew on themes and images from nature, thereby bringing these elements into the built environment. Karmonav and Hamel41 argue that non-natural or urban environments with well-designed aesthetic qualities are able to hold restorative benefits equal to that of nature. Their findings support our assertion that the SAS possessed restorative qualities, as shown in the alignments to existing theories.

Sensory approach

The findings from our study with a general population sample of a university community concur with the benefits that sensory rooms have shown in health settings.4 5 32–34 The participants in our study described feelings of comfort, safety, relaxation and control as is common in sensory rooms used in mental health settings.25 The benefits of reducing distress and facilitating relaxation are identified in the themes relaxation and reduces stress and anxiety and reflect effects from sensory rooms in different populations including assisting women to breast feed.32 The benefits of sensory rooms to support self-management, assist emotion regulation and increase positive emotions4 33 34 are also demonstrated in the themes of emotionally nutritious, solo pampering and therapeutic as participants recognised the self-care benefits that the SAS provided. Our findings suggest sensory modulation was an important factor of the SAS and is demonstrated through the theme easy to focus, which identifies engagement with the sensory stimuli as the foundation for the beneficial effects the participants experienced.

Meditation and mindfulness

The themes of being present and meditative effects, in the findings of our study, offer interesting associations with meditation and mindfulness practices. Meditation and mindfulness strategies are used to reduce stress in people with mental illness, reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms in clinical settings and foster relaxation in general populations.42–44 However, these effects have not been previously identified in other research regarding the benefits of sensory rooms. The subthemes of meditative effects described different modes of consciousness achieved in the SAS: clarity, emptying the mind and introspection, all of which align to the objectives of meditation and mindfulness practices. Furthermore, the subtheme deep breathing correlates specifically with breath-focus meditation.42 There was a general consensus among participants that these meditative effects were due to the increased ability to focus, as described in easy to focus. Unlike traditional mindfulness-based techniques requiring directed attention, participants described being present as an effortless occurrence within the SAS, further described in space does all the work.

Self-care

The participants described a range of beneficial effects that are consistent with self-management and self-care strategies used to manage stress, regulate emotions, facilitate relaxation and foster well-being.6 The subthemes of control and motivated described feelings of empowerment, resilience and confidence, which are important characteristics to empower individual self-management and self-care, aligning with the aims of the ‘stepped care’ model in current mental health policy.3 6 In addition to the meditation and mindfulness benefits participants experienced, the concept of self-care is also shown through the theme relaxation as a way for participants to self-manage their own stress levels. Furthermore, the subtheme solo pampering aptly embodies this notion of self-care as participants described the SAS as a healthy activity with rejuvenating and therapeutic outcomes. The participants were drawn to visit the SAS due to its uniqueness, which offered them an escape to another world. This escape appealed to their recognition of the beneficial effects that the SAS provided, as described in the final subtheme hope and identifies the participants’ enthusiasm to use the SAS regularly as self-care. Our findings suggest the potential for the SAS as a resource for self-care in community settings.

The role of art

Our findings indicate that the role of art is key to the beneficial effects experienced by participants. The importance of the artistic design of the SAS is illustrated through the subtheme it’s unique, which was fundamental to the core theme it’s like another world. The benefits of being surrounded by artwork in health settings have been identified to reduce stress and anxiety11 12 14 and similar benefits were recognised in our study in the theme reduces stresses and anxieties. In general population samples, the benefits of boosting positive emotions and well-being from viewing art as recreation has also been identified,9 15 16 which further aligns with our findings described in the themes emotionally nutritious and therapeutic. Additionally, our study explored the experience of art in a more multidimensional multisensory capacity, extending beyond research into the benefits of viewing two-dimensional artwork and further contributes to the growing field of receptive engagement with the arts.17 This multidimensionality of the SAS could be associated with the extended range of psychological benefits experienced by participants in our study and could suggest a role for artistic design of sensory spaces to enhance the therapeutic value of current sensory room design in health settings to be considered.

Limitations of the study

This study focused on a sample of highly educated university students and staff, which may not capture an accurate representation of the general population more broadly. A maximum variation approach to sampling was used to ensure that we included the broadest demographic and experience-based characteristics possible in the participants selected for the study. All participants were volunteers, which may create some volunteer bias to the findings. Finally, member checking was not implemented for this study due to a limited time frame of having access to the SAS within the university environment.

Conclusion

Participants in our study identified a range of beneficial effects from spending time in the SAS. These benefits appeared to be facilitated by the sense of being in ‘another world’ and an associated increased ability to focus. This study is the first to explore the experience of art in a multisensory and multidimensional capacity. Alignment to existing theories suggests that the SAS functioned as a restorative environment. The benefits described by participants were consistent with the evidence for other self-management strategies including: experiencing or viewing art and nature, meditation and mindfulness and sensory modulation, which suggest the SAS as a potential new resource for self-care. These findings could assist future research in developing innovative restorative spaces in the built environment and identifies new territory for artists as an important resource in the development of new public health spaces.

References

Footnotes

  • Twitter @BlissCavanagh

  • Contributors This is an outline of who contributed what to the planning, conduct and reporting of the work. (1) The planning, study design and ethics application for this study was directed by the entire research team (all authors). (2) The intervention (sensory-art space) was designed and created by BC. (3) Data gathering was carried out by (BC). (4) Analysis was carried out by BC and supported with regular peer review by the other authors (CJ, KH and ML). (5) Preparation of the manuscript was directed by BC and supported with regular peer review by the other authors (CJ, KH and ML).

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent Not required.

  • Ethics approval Ethical approval was granted by the Human Research Ethics Committee at the university (Approval Number H-2016–0214).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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