Americans are indoors about 90% of the time, on average, according to a 1989 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Generally, we sleep, eat, work, and relax with a roof above us—pandemic or not—so understanding the way indoor environments impact human health and well-being is crucial.
At the forefront of better understanding our time inside is the Well Living Lab, a collaboration between Mayo Clinic and international wellness company Delos, whose advisory board includes Deepak Chopra, Leonardo DiCaprio, and a wealth of influential C-suite executives.
Launched in 2016, the project has brought together a highly collaborative multidisciplinary team of scientific researchers, tech specialists, behavioral scientists, neurologists, and engineers.
“We think a lot about, ‘What are the unanswered questions in science that we can try to answer?’” says Barbara Spurrier, the Lab’s executive director.
At the very start of the COVID-19 pandemic, no one had answers, and the Lab’s research on indoor spaces became even more relevant. The team quickly collaborated with Mayo Clinic and researchers at the University of Minnesota, and introduced six studies covering air quality and human behavior.
The Lab came to the same conclusion as many others: The SARS-CoV-2 virus threatened us most via air, not surfaces. The Lab then launched its “COVID-19 & Beyond” initiative in June 2020 to identify gaps in knowledge about virus transmission and human behavior, and to prepare for future pandemics.
Directly across from Mayo’s Rochester campus, the Lab’s unique, 5,500-square-foot rearrangeable facility gives researchers endless possibilities for observing variables in simulated apartments, office spaces, classrooms, and more. Out of 19 studies published so far, the Lab has looked at how variables like air quality, exposure to natural light, changes in temperature, and sound affect us.
“A lot of times as a researcher, we conduct studies in a sterile lab. We look at one thing, and we focus on it. And often we ignore the environment completely,” says Kevin Mazurek, a researcher, neuroscientist, and electrical engineer at the Lab. “From a neuroscience perspective, the environment isn’t something that’s very often controlled for, but it’s very important.”
How can they control nearly every aspect of the environment? The Lab features 1,300 devices, including 454 sensors that measure light, sound, air quality, biometrics, humidity, and weather. The space is outfitted with robust HVAC systems, motion sensors, temperature controls, and tintable windows, among a host of other means of adjusting indoor variables. A team of tech specialists is at the ready to build whatever researchers need.
The team gets data directly from human subjects, too. With research-grade devices akin to a Fitbit or Apple Watch, they can measure brain activity and cognitive performance, and there are apparatuses that yield data on the particles participants breathe. Some studies also use self-report surveys to get a sense for how subjects are feeling, taking in variables like the environment’s impact on health, stress, sleep, comfort, performance, and resiliency.
“It’s a dream for our researchers to have a space where we can measure anything,” says Chi Lam, who, as the Lab’s director of technology, is responsible for leading the building of intricate sensors.
Findings from the Lab’s studies have influenced Spurrier, Mazurek, and Lam’s lifestyles. “We’ve really been trying to bring in as much light as possible while doing some remodels of our home, and more access to nature and biophilia. I’ve been thinking a lot about sound and acoustics, too,” Spurrier says. “I’m always trying to apply [the Lab’s findings] because we really see our own team as a group of guinea pigs, if you will.”
Since starting at the Lab, Mazurek has also added plants to his home—namely a giant potted palm. Before, Mazurek sometimes saw having plants as taking too much effort, he says, but now that the Lab’s science proves there are health advantages, he’s on board.
He’s been asking, “If there are benefits to being outdoors, how can we bring those benefits inside? And if it’s inevitable that we have to be inside 90% of the time, how do we make it better for us?”
Lam no longer uses an alarm clock. His daily wake-up regime starts with nature sounds gradually increasing in volume, a slowly warming controlled thermostat, and natural light through his window. He’s refreshed now, he says, and better for it.
“I’ve found it extremely interesting to see how [the Well Living Lab’s] model brings out the best in each domain,” Lam says. “It’s all about people working together to create science that is meaningful to all of us.”
Lab lessons for your home:
- Introduce plants (fake ones, too!) into your home and office. (And even better if you pair them with ambient nature sounds.)
- Use an air purifier.
- Make sure you are exposed to natural light throughout the day.
- Explore lighting options and see if blue-enriched LED lights make you feel more productive.
- Swap your conventional alarm clock for a more natural wake-up system.