The Three Rooms Experiment


Say there are three hospitals.

Hospital #1's fluorescent lights are flickering, the beds have dingy sheets, and the tool trays are rusted. There are no windows and nothing on the walls.

A little horrifying, right?

Hospital #2. This one is clean, with good lighting, new beds, and shiny tools. You breathe a sigh of relief, clearly this place is up to code.  

You might not use the word "inspiring," but it's clean and functional, so who are you to complain?

Hospital #3. This one’s clean too, but this time you are surrounded by nature photography: soothing water, green and inviting forests, bright and sweeping vistas.

You feel instantly uplifted, calm, thriving.  Rather than dreading every minute here, you think, yeah, I could stay awhile.

The intuitive benefits of art are obvious; we all want nice artwork on our walls. But isn’t high-quality art in a healthcare space just an extravagance?

No way. Evidence has shown over and over that nature images have an effect on the brain involving perception, emotion, and well-being. The takeaway? Better health outcomes for patients AND reduced cost of care.  

The real surprise is not the difference between hospital #1 and #2, but between #2 and #3.  Read on . . .


Though most of the science behind these benefits came later, a hint of it came from an interesting interior design experiment by the great psychologist Abraham H. Maslow run in the ‘50s. He and others created three rooms in a university:

  • The ‘ugly’ room – dirty, gray-walled, cluttered space with a bare mattress and mops and boxes everywhere.
  • The ‘average’ room – tidy, clean, office-like, with no distinguishing features.
  • The ‘beautiful’ room – large windows, soft lighting, a comfortable chair, and artwork on the walls.

Participants were asked to come into the rooms and assess pictures of human faces as to their levels of energy and well-being.

RESULTS: While in the ugly room, the faces were said to look tired and displeased. In the beautiful room however, these same images were said to be vibrant.

Okay, predictable so far. The twist ending comes from the average room. Counter to what we might expect, the responses in the average room were only barely better than the ugly one.

This suggests that ‘average’ or ‘functional’ is not enough. Just the essentials can’t deliver the incredible benefits that beauty offers – it can’t elevate a patient’s mood, lower blood pressure, or decrease the need for pain medication, for example.  The right art can.  


There was yet another effect: staff hired to run the experiment were not told of its purpose, but the effects could be seen in them too – in different levels of job satisfaction and performance.

When giving the interviews in the ugly room, they hurried the process, tended to snap, and spoke of being bored and tired.

Patient benefits get the spotlight, but don’t discount the effect of nature imagery on staff! Art in healthcare has been shown to improve job satisfaction, reduce absenteeism and turnover, and garner positive reviews from patients - all factors that affect the bottom line.

Far from an extravagance, good interior design that includes Evidence-Based Art is something you can't afford not to have.