Good interior design relies on the same principles that saved your ancestors from saber tooth tigers. It caters to your primal instincts.

Taste, curation, and art may appeal to your higher brain, but when I begin to design a kitchen or bathroom I focus first on your amygdala.

What is the amygdala? It’s your “lizard brain”, the part responsible for triggering emotional responses.

When I design a room, I’m trying to create a specific emotional response. Having the kitchen of your dreams or a bathroom you could take bubble baths in for hours depends on my ability to provoke the right response in your brain.

Here are some of the factors I consider when laying out a room to stimulate or appease your amygdala. Consider this a crash course in the psychology of interior design.

Ceiling Height

The high ceilings in this primary bathroom encourage bathers to think big. There’s no better place to day-dream and work out problems than in the primary bath.

living room with a high ceiling

The high ceilings in this primary bathroom encourage bathers to think big. There’s no better place to day-dream and work out problems than in your living room with friends and a nice glass of wine.

(Source: Fresh Home)

personal library with low ceilings

The low ceilings in this eclectic personal library helps the homeowner focus on whatever she’s reading.

(Source: Henrik Sorensen Photography)

Are you a detailed-oriented thinker, or do you tend to focus on the bigger picture? Higher ceilings make you more creative, while lower ceilings help you focus on minutiae.

Takeaway: If you find you do all your best thinking in the shower, consider elevating the ceilings in your bathroom. (You may also find that your shower singing gets a boost from the open acoustics!)

Consider lower ceilings in a place where you do tasks that take a lot of attention to detail and focus. Meditation rooms and home offices are good examples.


mid century modern kitchen

The natural light filling this kitchen creates a sharp and focused environment for culinary creativity.

(Source: Mosaik Design Kitchen Portfolio)

contemporary spa bathroom

Spa-style bathrooms are a great place for dim lighting. The shades on the window let in the perfect amount of natural light.

(Source: Mosaik Design Bathroom Portfolio)

Natural lighting helps improve circadian rhythms. Regular circadian rhythms make you feel alert and focused when the sun is shining. The extra sunlight can also help stave off depression and even improve cognitive function.

Dim lighting relaxes us and opens us up to interaction. It sets the mood for good conversation and interpersonal dynamics.

Takeaway: Nowhere is the need to control natural lighting more pronounced than the bedroom. Big windows with gossamer blinds can help wake you up in the morning naturally. Just make sure you can throw a heavier shade over the windows and dim the lights when it comes time to connect with the one you love.

You may also consider using dim rooms like basements to your advantage. If there’s a room in your house that doesn’t get a lot of natural light, turn it into a nice lounge for unwinding at the end of the day.

Visual Privacy

living room visual privacy

The seating in this open living space is tucked comfortably against the wall and divider within the room.

(Source: Interior-Design World)

Think back to your last visit to a restaurant. Did you notice that the seats out in the middle of the space don’t get filled as fast as booths or seats around the outside of the space?

People instinctively prefer sitting in a place where they feel protected. We feel a little uncomfortable when we’re in a space where people can see us, but we can’t see them.

Takeaway: Put yourself and your guests at ease by placing seating around walls or in front of a divider, like a book case. Don’t put seating (or your bed, for that matter) in a place where you can’t see the door.

This gives the room a natural sense of privacy, making you feel more comfortable and open.

Green Spaces

mid century kitchen green space

The green space in this kitchen helps the homeowners feel more alert and focused as they go about their days.

(Source: Mosaik Design and Remodeling Kitchen Portfolio)

green space bathroom

This bath brings a little bit of outside greenery inside. The hanging photo of the outdoors, the potted plants, and the window to the outside all contribute to a calming spa-style bathroom.

(Source: Wallpaper Gang)

We live in visually complex times. From the cities we live in to the websites we visit every day, our eyes and brains are processing more information than ever before.

As it turns out, the contours and colors of natural scenes have a soothing effect on our brains. They’re easy to recognize, and don’t require a lot of cognitive effort to enjoy. Taking a moment to look away from what you’re doing to gaze out the window at a natural scene may actually focus you rather than create a mental distraction, as was once thought.

Takeaway: Build spaces where you’ll be doing a lot of mental work around large windows facing natural scenes. If greenery isn’t immediately available in your line of vision, potted plants are a fine substitute. Just be sure to take care of them so they stay green!


sharp modern dining room

The owner of this modern dining room wants to keep their guests present and alert. The mirrored surfaces and sharp contours make this room a place for focusing on each other’s company.

(Source: Trendecoration)

eclectic basement space round contours

Soft, round, comfortable. This eclectic basement room puts your brain and eyes at ease.

(Source: Additional Featured Designs Portfolio)

The contours and textures we choose for a room can impact how alert or relaxed we feel when we enter the space.

Furniture with sharp points and crisp edges makes our lizard brain scream ‘danger!’. This signal makes more sophisticated parts of our brain more alert. Smoother edges and textures like metal, glass, and crystal cause us to pay more attention to our surroundings. Carpeted spaces with comfortable, curvy, plush furniture encourages our brains to relax.

Takeaway: What makes sense for the boardroom isn’t necessarily appropriate for the living room. Tile floors and desks with hard right angle corners may encourage focus when we’re trying to write an end of the year report at work. But when we get home and want to relax, nothing beats a cushy loveseat with a plush rug and some fluffy pillows.