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Should you be working in a cathedral?

We all probably know that the space and environment we work in is really important to how we feel, and that it plays a pretty big role in our productivity. But there’s more to the design of our surroundings than purely the objects we have in them, or how the space is decorated.

The Cathedral Effect describes the relationship between the perceived height of a ceiling and cognition. Or in other words, the height of the ceiling affects how we think.

Studies1 have shown that high ceilings promote abstract thinking and creativity, whereas low ceilings promote concrete and detailed-oriented thinking. It’s impressive when you think about it; depending on the nature of the problem/work, ceiling height can either undermine or enhance your problem solving.

Participants in studies2 have reported that their mood feels ‘freer’ in high-ceilinged rooms, compared to more ‘confused’ in low-ceilinged rooms. A reason for this might be to do with priming: The stimulation of certain ideas in your memory enhance cognition regarding associated or interconnected ideas. So, high ceilings prime ‘freedom’ and therefore enhance thoughts that you associate with being free.

Universal Principles of Design3 gives some really good examples of how we can use ceiling height to enhance our thinking and productivity: For creative tasks like design, we might favour studios with high ceilings, whereas for detailed-oriented work like surgery, operating theatres with low ceilings would be better.

Retailers can also use The Cathedral Effect to alter the behaviour of their customers. Shops where customers need to use their imagination, like home improvement or DIY, favour high ceilings to help creative thoughts develop. Shops or venues that want customers to stay inside for a long time, like a casino, tend to have high ceilings, too. In contrast, fast food restaurants prefer a quick turnaround, so use low ceiling heights.

Although it’s not practical to suddenly alter the height of your ceiling, the Cathedral Effect is worth remembering. Perhaps trying a different space for a few hours if you get stuck could help?