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Hey, everyone. It's Cardiff. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY.
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GARCIA: Economics is partly the study of scarcity, how we can make the best use of scarce resources. And one resource of a kind that has become more scarce due to the pandemic is the space that we have to move around in because with so many offices and bars and restaurants and movie theaters and other places either still closed or at least having their access restricted, there is quite literally less space in which we can work and see each other socially and just live our lives. So a lot of us have just been spending more time at home. And we might soon be spending even more time at home with fall and winter coming up.
Emily Anthes is a science journalist. And by complete coincidence, when the pandemic struck, she had just finished her new book called "The Great Indoors," which is all about the science behind how we design our indoor spaces, including our homes. And it explains how we can get the most out of that increasingly scarce space, even including some lessons from outer space. Today on the show, a conversation with Emily Anthes.
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GARCIA: Emily Anthes, welcome to the podcast.
EMILY ANTHES: Thanks so much for having me. It's great to be here.
GARCIA: So, Emily, let me start with this. One of the ideas in your book is that to make the indoors more hospitable, more tolerable, it's a good idea to make the indoors a little bit more like the outdoors. How can we do that, and why should we?
ANTHES: Absolutely. And so the underlying idea here is that we evolved out in the rough and tumble of nature. And so we function best when we're surrounded by it. And so one really good way to make your home and your indoor spaces healthy is to try to bring in elements of the natural world. And that can be plants, like actual, living plants - house plants. But it doesn't have to be real, live nature. It can be photographs of nature. It can even be nature sounds. And there is a huge scientific literature now that demonstrates that the benefits of bringing nature into your indoor space are almost endless. So we know that exposure to nature can reduce our stress. It can boost our immune system, which might be particularly important these days. It can even boost our focus and concentration and help us be more productive when we're working.
GARCIA: Yeah. I got to say I was surprised to learn that the fake stuff, like fake plants, fake noises, also help and also have similar mental health benefits as real plants.
ANTHES: Yeah, though I guess if you think about sort of the evolutionary roots, you know, it makes sense, as well, because, you know, we experience the world with all of our senses, not just one. And so, you know, anything that sort of brings us back to that space, to that natural world - and, you know, maybe that's sound. Maybe that's the view of a landscape. That can all create some of the same benefits in our bodies and in our minds.
GARCIA: And, Emily, another surprising idea in your work is that by staying indoors more, we might be unwittingly exposing ourselves to more pollution. I hadn't thought of that. What's going on there?
ANTHES: Yeah. So something that surprised me and that I think might surprise a lot of people is that because our outdoor air has gotten cleaner over the last few decades, at least here in the U.S., a lot of us now get our main exposure to air pollution indoors. And it can come from all sorts of sources - you know, the products we put in our homes like our rugs and our paints and our furnishings. They all release air pollutants. But the activities we do in our homes create a lot of pollution, too.
So the process of cooking itself - the combustion and the use of equipment, particularly gas kitchen equipment, can release all sorts of pollutants into the air, so it can create particulate matter. So if you think about maybe a stir fry on the stove top, some of those particles of food and droplets of oil are being aerosolized and released into the air, and you can inhale them. Cleaning has some of the same effects. The compounds we use to clean, particularly things like bleach, can release ammonia and other gases into the air. And some of those gases can actually react with other surfaces in our home and other compounds in our home and create additional toxic compounds.
GARCIA: Is there anything we can do about this? I mean, a lot of people don't really have a choice but to do more cooking and cleaning at home.
ANTHES: Really, the key here is ventilation. I'm not suggesting that anyone give up cooking or cleaning, both of which are really important to daily life and which I am doing plenty of. But really, it's important to think carefully about airflow. So if you have a range hood or exhaust fan in the kitchen, make sure you're using it all the time when you cook, not just if you're creating something that's smoky. Open a window if you don't have a range fan. Maybe consider getting a window fan and setting it to exhaust. That's what we've done in our kitchen. It sort of pulls the polluted air out as you cook and the same thing when cleaning. You know, turn on a bathroom fan if you can. Crack a window. Even if it's just temporarily, it should help.
GARCIA: OK. And let me ask now about working from home, which, obviously, a lot more people are doing now. How do we redesign a space that was originally meant for something else, for just living in, so that we can actually get some work done?
ANTHES: Yeah. Well, one takeaway from the book is that there's no single environment or setting that is good for everyone or every task or every circumstance. There are studies that show, for instance, that blue lighting might be better for multitasking, whereas orange or amber-colored lighting might be better for creativity. And so I think one thing that might be helpful for people to do to the extent that they can in their work spaces is to create different kinds of microenvironments and to allow themselves to move between them as their tasks change, as their needs and desires change.
So you can imagine something like, you know, maybe you want to work standing up at a desk or at a kitchen counter when you're trying to sort of blast through a bunch of emails in the morning. But in the afternoon, if you want to brainstorm or you have a lot of reading to do, maybe you move to the couch. And that's a more comfortable place for that. So I'd encourage people to give themselves permission to try different settings and arrangements and places to work from their home and sort of figure out what works best for them for different kinds of tasks.
GARCIA: And then finally, Emily, there is this really intriguing bit at the end of your book. And it's about astronauts and the importance of privacy in indoor spaces. So what are the lessons that we can learn from the experiences of astronauts?
ANTHES: Yes. So there's a really interesting and robust literature that's sometimes referred to as the psychology of isolated, confined environments. And as you might imagine, being on the space station with a few other people for maybe six months is about as isolated and confined as you can get. And research shows that one of the big stressors in that scenario is interpersonal tension. You are cooped up with people that you may or may not like, who may or may not get on your nerves for weeks or months at a time.
And so obviously, in our homes, most of us are probably confined with people we've chosen or that we enjoy. But that doesn't mean that we don't also want privacy and personal space and alone time. And depending on the size of your home and what's going on there, that can be hard to achieve. But even there, space has some interesting lessons for us.
You know, in a space shuttle, there is not a lot of physical space to move around. Most of our homes are probably at least bigger than that. But there are other ways that we can create privacy. So it's not just being able to go into your own room and close the door, which is great. But you can think about something like maybe auditory privacy. So maybe you and your spouse are both in the living room, but you each have headphones on, and you're listening to your own music or your own podcast. That can create sort of a way to escape and create a little bit of a personal zone, even just psychologically.
GARCIA: Emily, thanks so much.
ANTHES: Of course. Thank you.
GARCIA: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable (ph) and Nick Fountain and fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. Our editor is Paddy Hirsch. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.
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