Neuroarchitecture: Could this movement lead to the architecture of the future?

Reading time: 9

Neuroarchitecture: Could this movement lead to the architecture of the future?

Reading time: 9

Have you ever felt uneasy or, worse, trapped within a room or building? Perhaps it was a long, narrow corridor with no discernible exit, or maybe it was a dimly lit room with a low ceiling or an oppressive feel. Better yet, have you ever felt a surge of awe and wonder when looking at or walking through a building? If you’ve visited any ancient architecture, from Rome’s Pantheon to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, chances are you know the feeling well.

Ancient builders and architects instinctively understood what lies at the heart of neuroarchitecture, even if they lacked a word for it or didn’t have the tools to measure it. Our reactions to the built environment date back to the beginning of humanity.
But what is new is that we can now measure how, and begin to understand why, we react the way we do. This is where neuroarchitecture comes in.
What is neuroarchitecture?
This movement stands at the crossroads of two very different disciplines: neuroscience and architecture. Using our growing knowledge of how our brains work, it aims to account for our responses to the built environment.
“What’s distinct about neuroarchitecture is that we’re now approaching a time when our understanding of brain function has progressed to the point where we can start to say sensible things about its relationship with architecture and design,” says Dr Colin Ellard, an author and professor of cognitive neuroscience in Canada, who measures how our brains and bodies respond to spaces and places.
What’s all the hype about?
Almost all the past movements and ‘isms’ in architecture and design have ultimately been informed by an aesthetic style or the philosophies that drive them. Neuroarchitecture, on the other hand, is less about architecture and more about the people who embody it.
This cutting-edge discipline within neuroscience is forging ahead to reveal answers about our complex relationships with design and architecture. Imagine being able to explain why we react to different spaces the way we do – this is why neuroarchitecture is a big deal.
“One of the really exciting things about this science is that we now have an incredibly strong set of tools that we can use to measure physiological responses to place,” says Dr Ellard says.

The human response to architecture is usually based on subjective emotions: I like that building, I hate this space; this room is so open, this office is oppressive. But something more nuanced is happening to elicit these responses. Neuroscientists have found that distinctive processes occur in our brains—consciously and subconsciously, cognitively and physiologically—from the moment we step into a space. These processes affect our emotions, our health, and even the development of memory.

Neuroarchitecture is a discipline that seeks to explore the relationship between neuroscience and the modern architecture design of buildings and other man-made structures that make up the artificially created environment that most human beings live within. Neuroarchitecture addresses the level of human response to the components that make up this sort of built environment. Is based on the premise that artificial element added by human have a significant impact on the function of the brain and nervous system. Considering this we elaborate all of our modern house plans.

Our physiological state has a huge impact on our health, so considering many people spend 90 per cent of their time indoors, “healthy” homes, workplaces and buildings are paramount to our wellbeing.

Antonio Ruiz
How are our responses to buildings measured?
Along with other neuroscientists, Dr Ellard conducts studies in virtual reality (VR) settings and real spaces, measuring people’s physiological responses.

“The advantage of VR is that we can build any kind of model we want, but the disadvantage is that, no matter how good the rendering might be, people know it’s not real and I suspect their responses are just pale reflections of how they respond to real places,” he says.

“But in both kinds of settings, we rely on a set of traditional psychological tools (that is, we ask lots of questions and administer many different kinds of tests) and on small, body-worn sensors that measure heart rate, body temperature and something called skin conductance, which is just a measure of sweat glands and tells us about arousal,” Dr Ellard says.

“In some studies, we also measure brainwaves (using simple visors that can even be worn on the street) and eye movements (using a set of glasses that contains a small camera that watches your pupil),” he says.

How do our brains and bodies react?
Special cells found in the hippocampal region of our brains are tuned in to geometry and how our spaces are organised. Whenever you enter a room, home or any environment, these cells are busy navigating and storing spatial information in the form of cognitive ‘maps’.
As an experiment, tune into a memory of how it felt to be in a space where you were uncomfortable and wanted to leave. Did your heart pump faster, your breathing quicken? That’s the hypothalamus in your brain telling your adrenals to release adrenaline and cortisol, the ‘stress’ hormones.
Were you edgy, alert? You can thank these stress hormones for enriching your blood with oxygen due to your fast breathing. Did you feel skittish or ready to burst into action? That’s your blood vessels constricting to divert this oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, which would have tensed in preparation to ward off the perceived threat (in this case, propel you out of that room or building as quickly as possible).

Our physiological state has a huge impact on our health, so considering many of us Brits spend at least 80 percent of our time indoors, ‘healthy’ homes, workplaces and buildings are paramount to our wellbeing.

But people respond to design individually, right?
Correct. There is no universal reaction to a singular space, and neuroscientists take this into account.

To complicate matters, our initial reaction to a space is often different to our subsequent reactions after that space becomes familiar. Add to this our experiences within these spaces and our reactions are affected even more – for example, your brain will respond very differently to the same room if you were hired in it versus fired in it.

Dr Ellard also suspects different demographics – such as age, cultural background and possibly gender – might dictate our preferences.

“We’ve seen how one’s level of physiological arousal varies as one moves from room to room,” Dr Ellard says. “Walk into an impressive, large, open space and your level of arousal will generally increase. But that’s an initial response to a space you’ve never seen before.

What’s probably much more important, and about which we know much less, is how the design of a home might influence you over the months and years of your life. That’s a much more complex and nuanced question and harder to get at with our probes and our VR models.”

What are we unconsciously seeking in a home?
Not everything on our wish list for the perfect home springs from biology, of course, though many things do and it’s these that neuroarchitecture examines. “Essentially, when we look at how humans respond to built spaces, we’re really looking at a very basic biological problem called ‘habitat selection’,” Dr Ellard says.

“In the further reaches of our evolutionary history, the problems we’d want to overcome would be much the same as those of a fox finding a good spot for a burrow or a bird looking for a good location for a nest,” he says. “What’s the spot that is going to maximise our resources and minimise the likelihood that we’ll become prey?

“Modern humans, and happily so, most often don’t have to think explicitly about those problems as much anymore, but those kinds of factors still exert pressure on our preferences,” he says.

What do people find pleasing in experiments?
Because personal preferences play an undeniable part, Dr Ellard cautions against the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach and instead focuses on common themes.

“We prefer locations in a space where we experience both high refuge (protection of some kind) and high prospect (the ability to sense our surroundings, to know what’s going on, to have vistas),” he says. “Even something like the perennial popularity of a wingback chair might be related to this. In home settings, small alcoves set into larger spaces are often the places people gravitate towards.”

Dr Ellard also highlights the importance of being able to inhabit different types of spaces within our homes.

“As we’ve shown in some of our work in virtual reality, people might like a grand, open space when they’re socialising, but a small, enclosed space when they’re dealing with a problem or with difficult emotions,” he says.

Dr Ellard’s research has also revealed that we’re strongly affected by building facades. “We’ve discovered that symmetric facades cause participants to indicate higher levels of pleasure and attraction,” he says.

Dr Ellard has also shown that we gravitate towards facades that are complex, interesting or ‘textured’ and shrink away from ones that are plain, monotonous or unvaried. In fact, when Dr Ellard’s students walked past a long, dark glass shop front in one of his experiments in Lower Manhattan, their moods and arousal decreased while their pace increased in an unconscious effort to accelerate past.

“I think it’s probably because of our craving for information,” he suggests. “For human beings, information is critical to survival and complexity signals information. I think it may be as simple as that.”

Dr Ellard believes his findings on ‘textured’ building facades can also be applied to our interiors. “In fact, we’ve studied this quite comprehensively in virtual reality settings and we do find similar results to those for the exteriors in field work,” he says. If you’ve never found minimalism appealing, this could be one reason why.

Dr Ellard is not alone in his discoveries about neuroarchitecture. Roger Ulrich, a professor of architecture in Sweden, has found that hospital patients with views of nature were discharged earlier than those surrounded by walls.

Scientists at the Salk Institute in the US have collaborated with architects and are unearthing fascinating findings about how different types of light in buildings (for example, blue-based morning versus red-based afternoon light versus artificial light) affects us cognitively.

And Oshin Vartanian, a professor of psychology in Canada, has observed we respond positively to curvature in architecture. “At a very simple level, it may just be that curved surfaces (compared, say, to jagged ones) are less likely to harm us on contact – again suggesting an ancient adaptive origin for these preferences – but I think there’s more to it than that,” Dr Ellard says.

“We also like curved walkways, for example, possibly because they generate something environmental psychologists call ‘mystery’ – the idea is that we like to be in situations of what you might call ‘unveiling’. We like settings where we are lured inward by the promise of further information. Again, information-seeking is a key here,” Dr Ellard says.

“One of the most robust findings in environmental psychology has to do with the profound impact of nature settings on psychology, physiology and health. Something as modest as an indoor plant or even a picture of plants can exert an effect.” When you consider that before buildings, human beings lived in natural settings – where our primitive instincts were first honed – it makes perfect sense.

What do architects think?

Dr Ellard says architects’ responses to neuroarchitecture have been “wildly mixed” since the discipline started gaining momentum a decade ago.

“With the formation of organisations such as the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture – which is a group of scientists and architects who hold a biennial meeting to communicate findings and advance the field – I think most architects have at least a passing familiarity with the notion that we might use principles from neuroscience to advance design,” Dr Ellard says.

“There are many who are quite excited about the possibilities for a field that’s just now beginning to define itself. I think there are others (and I’ve certainly heard from and met a few of them) who are much more sceptical – sometimes perhaps even a bit worried that this movement might represent a step backwards into a reductionist, perhaps even Corbusian [characteristic of architect Le Corbusier] view of architecture that has previously been tried and found wanting.”

How can I approach neuroarchitecture at home?
According to Dr Ellard, the key lies in understanding yourself and how your proposed design will impact the way you feel.

“Your personality will, to some extent, dictate your preferences,” Dr Ellard says. “For example, if you’re a strong introvert, you’re probably not going to be happy in a large, open-plan environment.”

Dr Ellard also encourages people to immerse themselves in the designs they’re looking to reproduce, and to hone their awareness of how they feel in these spaces.

“If you’re looking for a home, think carefully about your past experiences with residential spaces to get clues as to what might work for you,” he says.

“I can apply my sensors to tell me whether your brain waves suggest you’re relaxed and happy, whether your skin conductance response suggests you’re aroused or bored, but human beings are generally fairly good at being able to sense that about themselves,” he says. “It takes lots of patient and mindful attention to your feelings, and some trust in yourself.

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