Finding Calm in Ocean Waves and Galaxies

Researchers explore whether an immersive environment of calming imagery and sound can reduce stress.

An ethereal image of a jellyfish slowly makes its way along the walls of Ravenhill Chapel, its swirling tendrils moving seamlessly across the ornate architectural details and stained glass windows. A few minutes later, the chapel is transported to the milky way, a mesmerizing sea of stars and hues of pink and blue illuminate the people quietly observing.

Marian Gameli, a freshman at Jefferson gazes wondrously at the images above her on the high domes of the chapel.  “I needed a break from studying and this was the perfect way to decompress.” Her words are a whisper above the gentle instrumental music that permeates the room.

A silhouette in a corner of the chapel, only his face visible amid the glow of his computer screen, industrial design student Nate Godshall acts as deejay to this unique event. “I listened to various meditation and mindfulness playlists, and chose similar soothing sounds to accompany the visuals,” he says.

The installation “A Deep Dive into Calm at Ravenhill Chapel” took place last fall, and was motivated by one core question – can immersive arts improve well-being?

“Multiple studies have shown that art and music can reduce stress,” says Lyn Godley, MFA, a professor of industrial design and a prolific artist herself. “But most of that work has focused on art that is static, like paintings, prints or sculpture.”

Godley uses light to create movement and shadows in her artwork, allowing the art to become dynamic and offer different elements depending on the vantage point. When she first began to incorporate light in her artwork, she noticed a sense of calm and curiosity in the observer. She became interested in whether dynamic art could have potential benefits on well-being, particularly in a health care setting. This question is the underlying basis of the research conducted at the Jefferson Center of Immersive Arts for Health, for which Godley serves as director.

Lyn Godley, Director of the Center of Immersive Arts for Health at the Ravenhill exhibition.

The Ravenhill installation builds on a previous initiative called “Waiting Room” that featured dynamic art pieces framed in rooms that mimicked a hospital waiting room, where data was gathered on the viewer’s experience. The “Deep Dive into Calm” installation in Ravenhill Chapel took this one step further by using a technique called projection mapping to make images like the jellyfish dance across the pillars and walls without distorting their shape, and creating a fully immersive environment.

From the planning stages to execution, the Ravenhill installation was completely undertaken by students in Godley’s “Lighting as Public Experience” class. Each student mapped different parts of the chapel, researching imagery that can lower stress, like nature, sunsets, ocean waves etc. “It’s been such a rewarding experience to create something that might potentially impact another person’s well-being,” says Nate. “We don’t get too many opportunities to do hands-on research, it was an eye-opening process,” adds Cariah London, another industrial design senior.

Population health researcher  Rosemary Frasso, PhD and behavioral medicine specialist Virginia O’Hayer, PhD, who are both part of Center’s research team, along with a number of graduate student assistants, developed questionnaires that visitors could take before and after experiencing the immersive environment. It included a validated survey tool called the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) that is designed to measure mood and emotions like stress.

Wendy Ross, MD, the director of the Center of Autism and Neurodiversity and also part of the research team, brought some of her patients to the installation to understand how immersive experiences can be adapted to their unique sensory needs.

“My son can often experience sensory overload,” says Erica Daniels, who runs the non-profit Hope Grows for Autism and has worked often with Dr. Ross in raising awareness around autism. “But he was so calm in this environment. I wish we could replicate this at home.”

Dr. Ross heard similar observations from her other patients and their families. “It’s been shown that mothers of autistic children experience as much stress as combat soldiers  – immersive art experiences could change the way we care for neurodivergent patients and their support systems.”

Participants from Dr. Wendy Ross' patient cohort.

The data collected by the research team are currently being analyzed. The findings will inform new concepts and ideas for future immersive environments for well-being.

Godley and the Center are also installing dynamic light art in the newly opened Honickman Building at Jefferson Health Center City, and serve patients with a range of needs. This will be an opportunity to directly test the value of immersive art in a hospital setting.

“As the technology continues to evolve, we can really push the boundaries for adapting immersive arts to create spaces where people can just pause, and hopefully experience some calm,” says Godley.

Students Mason Meo and Nate Godshall looking at a computer screen.
Student Pooja Anil Bhoge working on computer under scaffolding.
Student Abigail Spraker and Lyn Godley looking at projection while Pooja adjusts projector.
Student Elijah Jones with projection mapping on window in background.
Mapping software on laptop screen with projection mapping in background.
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