Why do we react positively or negatively to a space? Biological fundamentals hold some of the answers. When we first encounter a space or “setting” our eyes make the initial contact with it. What's interesting about our eyes is that they don't work the way they seem to: When we look at a setting we can see a window, a floor, walls, furnishings, etc., all of which appear to be smooth, stationary images. However, our eyes do not see in a smooth fashion. They actually make quick movements, known as saccades, which build up a mental map of what we are looking at.

In addition, our eyes see hierarchically, prioritizing what gets their attention first based on human survival drives for safety, food, and reproduction. These drives in turn create psychological states ranging from pleasure to displeasure.

Movement captures the eyes' interest first. Depending upon how movement is used in a setting, it can create a degree of interest or anxiety in the viewer. For example, movement — from a ceiling fan, a mobile, a swinging door, or even the impression of movement created by color, architectural elements, a view of activity out a window — will command the eyes' attention first and stir a subtle or overt feeling in the viewer.

The eyes focus next on contrast. If the eyes see extreme contrast in a single view, such as a bright and a dark area, high and low ceiling height, open space and contained space, the incongruity will cause the viewer to feel that there is something wrong.

The last thing the eyes notice is color. From a survival point of view, movement and extreme contrast in a setting communicate safety or danger. Imagine standing in an open field with a tiger moving toward you. Although we live where we don't have to worry about tigers charging us, our instinctual danger alert system is part of our biology and psychology. Taking it into account can help us be aware of the psychological impact that design choices have on our clients.

Katherine Grace Morris, Ph.D., is a depth psychologist and certified feng shui practitioner based in Chevy Chase, Md. She works on site and remotely with clients who want their homes to make them feel good psychologically. www.psychologyofsetting.com.