Neuroarchitecture- From Neuroscience to Architecture and back again

Reading time: 9

Neuroarchitecture- From Neuroscience to Architecture and back again

Reading time: 9

Neuroarchitecture Area by ARK Architects

Tom Albright listed particular problems concerning architecture where neuroscience may be relevant:

  • Navigating through a complex space
  • Focusing attention on relevant aspects of a complex space
  • Assessing how the built environment influences social organization?
  • Effects of lighting on behavior and cognition
  • Learning, memory, communication in a developing child
  • What is beauty?


Albright sees architecture as an applied science of human biology. Here he contrasts basic research with the process of invention that yields applications of science, distinguishing the three endeavors of scientific discovery, invention, and validation. Consider, e.g., using knowledge of biochemistry and genetics to invent new drugs that must then be validated by the FDA.


To help people with memory problems, Albright worked with Sergei Gepshtein to invent signage that is context-, time -, and person-specific to jog memory. They now work with John Zeisel to validate this invention in homes for people with impaired memory. Zeisel is well-known for his pioneering work linking data from neuroscience to the design of such homes – see especially the neuroscience appendix linking hippocampus and memory in Inquiry by design: Environment/behavior/neuroscience in architecture, interiors, landscape, and planning (Zeisel, 2006).

Science explores nature at many levels. Albright stresses that in any applied problem, one must seek a level of explanation that may support a causal mechanistic account that has predictive power relevant to that problem. For example, to explain airplane flight, invoke Bernoulli’s principle, not quantum mechanics.

Similarly, for the many levels of neuroscience. To study navigation, study of ion channels may not be as helpful as higher-level analyses linking interaction of brain regions to synaptic plasticity. This relates to the observation that NfA must consider neuroscience in a broad sense – at times the appropriate level of explanation may lie within psychology or cognitive science rather than neuroscience. Harry Mallgrave noted that the Great Society programs of the 1960s aimed to eradicate poverty in a decade. However, the massive public housing projects they developed were abject failures. The problem may have been a failed sociological analysis – we need more research on patterns of community. Albright noted that Peter Barrett was asked to assess problems in the Manchester School system. Part of the problem was that two generations of people had been out of work.

Thus the issue was not only one of classroom design and so forth – a major issue was how to get such people to become active parents, invested in the design and practice of the school, engendering their pride in the place.

Q: Designing well-functioning cities is crucial, and mistakes are immensely expensive to correct. How might neuroscience help urbanists avoid some of these mistakes

Albright: It’s hard to do experiments on this. Juhani Pallasmaa stresses the importance of a humanist education to help architects better understand people – restoring cultural identity to architecture, linking science and humanism, not serving only developers.
Maybe Virtual Reality (VR) could also be useful, in a different way. Note the CAVE at UCSD. One application helped divers navigate through rebar. But architects need to understand how people interact with each other in buildings.

Eduardo Macagno stressed that neuroscience (including cognitive science) can identify principles of brain organization that may offer ideas for design and support evidence based design (as we saw in Whitelaw’s talk).

His aim is to develop a toolkit for evaluating user experience see third post. Conversely, he asks: What does architecture offer to neuroscience? He answers that it offers challenges for testing ideas on encoding space and place in our brains, noting Juhani Pallasmaa’s observation that spaces implicitly specify mental, emotional and physical states. In particular, he noted that “The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience: A Neurophysiological Perspective on Embodiment, Motivation, and Affordances” (Jelić, Tieri, De Matteis, Babiloni, & Vecchiato, 2016) emphasizes neuroscience as providing the biological basis for design in architecture, while architecture shapes human experience in ways that challenge neuroscience. Later posts offer further ways in which architectural issues can motivate new research in neuroscience.

Michael Arbib spelled out the difference between cognitive science and neuroscience of relevance to architecture: both seek mechanisms that explain the relation between experience and behavior, but only the latter invokes data that test hypotheses on the relation of those mechanisms to structures and functions of brains. Much work under the banner of “Neuroscience for architecture” is really “Cognitive science and evidence-based design for architecture.” As already noted, neuroscience experiments probe the brain at a multitude of levels from the social to the molecular. He also stressed that much can be learned about the human brain from an EvoDevoSocio approach: Exploring how biological evolution (Evo) yield brains and bodies that will develop (Devo) in an environment — physical, built and social – that is itself the product in part of the social forces (Socio) that shape cultural evolution (Arbib, 2019).
He distinguished three challenges for NfA:

  • Neuroscience of the experience of architecture.
  • Neuroscience of the design of architecture
  • Neuromorphic architecture

The first of these – as in the impact of a kindergarten lighting on children, or signage on Alzheimer’s patients – has been the primary focus of ANFA. Of course, the aim is to provide data that can inform the architect during design, but the issue of the brain processes engaged in the design process have received little attention, but see the fourth post. The third topic explores the idea (already in its early stages of realization) that future buildings will have sensors, effectors and “brains,” see the ninth post.

Sergei Gepshtein organized his analysis around different notions of space. Finding C.P. Snow’s notion of a bridge between the two cultures of science and the humanities inadequate, he offered a spectrum from science to architecture bridged by diverse intermediary studies, enriched by a selection of books that he had found relevant. He sees the spectrum stretching from the mind-independent reality of physics to socially constructed reality.

Physical space: Here he cites Max Jammer’s historical review of Concepts of Space. [All these concepts are socially constructed. In our Gifford Lectures The Construction of Reality (Arbib & Hesse, 1986), Mary Hesse and I sought to integrate her expertise in the history and philosophy of science, noting the role of the pragmatic criterion in social construction of a theory by a group of scientists, with my expertise in the ABC sciences of artificial intelligence, brain theory and cognitive science, assessing how each of us acquires the schemas that construct our experience of, and behavior in, the world around us.]

Psychological space: Here Gepshtein showed Mach’s drawing of what he sees, including the side of his nose, to insert the human viewpoint.
Psychophysics then links psychology back to ideas of physics. Books by Bela Julesz (1971) and David Marr (1982) were among those introducing further approaches to the mechanisms of vision.

Phenomenology: Sensory, motor and affective spaces are all different from “objective” physical space and this brings Gepshtein to Merleau-Ponty’s The World of Perception. He claims that this is far from the realm of science. Moving further along the spectrum he comes to instrumental space (he sees Linguistics fitting here) and poetic space. Citing Mikhail Bakhtin on the history of the novel and the notion of chronology he links this to narrative space, asserting that this “has nothing at all to do with physical space.” In every natural [or social?] situation, these very spaces are involved even if we focus on one or two at a time. He sees phenomenology at the break point between the scientific image of reality and the personal manifest image of reality. [One may compare the linkage of person-reality and ABC-reality in The Construction of Reality.]

The Kanitza triangle is a familiar optical illusion – three “pacmen” are arranged so that one sees the sides of a triangle even though no lines are there in the image. Physiological research may seek to explain the phenomenon of the apparent lines; bringing in physical accounts of perceptual organization, but for Gepshtein most architectural thinking is on the right side of the spectrum – ranging from phenomenology to narrative space and imagination. For architecture, he cites two books: Space in Japanese architecture (Inoue, 1985) defines space as space for movement [a view of the house akin to Lynch’s Image of the city (Lynch, 1960)?]. Dynamics of Architectural Form (Arnheim, 1977) yielded two relevant figures. One is a child’s view of a sequence of rooms, that captures the adjacencies in inhabiting the house rather than a Euclidean plan [the architect may combine both]; and a diagram by Portoghesi of forces of attraction and repulsion established by a building, invoking Gestalt theory’s metaphor of perceptual fields drawn from physics). [Portoghesi’s diagram reminded me of models of frog behavior in which the trajectory is shaped by a repulsive field representing a barrier and an attractive field representing the prey (Arbib & House, 1987).]

Gepshtein then invoked Salvador Dali’s painting of his wife Gala linked to Harmon’s Lincoln image. From afar, we see Lincoln, near we see Gala, and there is a transition zone as we approach. The painting organizes the space around it. A good example.

A scene in Venice has details apparent from afar while others can only be seen nearby. This led into exposition of a psychophysical study. As we vary contrast and spatial frequency of an array of bars, the higher the frequency the greater the contrast needed to distinguish the grating from a blank background of equal luminance (there is also a low spatial frequency effect). As we move through a structured space, spatial frequencies changes and so what we perceive changes – a form of narrative space. Visual perception offers a form of narrative. Architects could design for this. [Indeed, in Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, I was fascinated by the continual dynamics of the interplay between building structure and external views as I walked through the windowed spaces of the museum.] He thus distinguishes “the object” from “the phenomenology of an object as we move around a space” but I am not convinced that the gap between the two may be as large as he suggests.


Gepshtein and Albright both stress visual experience. Michael Arbib stressed that perception is action-oriented (Arbib, 1972) – it evolved in the first place to help creatures survive by sensing and responding to aspects of their environment relevant to their ongoing behavior. Perception is inherently predictive – the predator does not lunge at where the prey is now, but at where it will be when his jaws close. The action-perception cycle (Neisser, 1976)emphasizes that, far from being simple stimulus-response creatures, what we perceive is guided by our ongoing plans, our actions may be directed to extend what we can perceive or to act to move towards our goals. And as we act, our perception of the world, our relation with the world, and the state of our environment may change accordingly, and so the cycle continues. Our perceptions and actions are guided by our “internal models” or schemas for the world. The cycle is thus a learning cycle, too – as we act and perceive we learn both when our expectations are met and when they fail. Neural plasticity supports learning and memory. In humans, our reliance on language and our interest in passive enjoyment of the arts may obscure the importance of action, leading us to ignore the EvoDevoSocio perspective– these are highly evolved and almost uniquely human capabilities.

J.J. Gibson’s notion of affordances (Gibson, 1966) has become a major concept in these discussions. Gibson viewed “information pickup” as direct, denying the work of the brain, but he made the point that we may pick up information relevant to guiding action that may not need to enter our conscious awareness – as when we swerve to avoid a collision based on cues from peripheral vision before we are aware of who or what may collide with us, or we may duck when passing through a doorway whether or not we have made a conscious judgement about the height of the door. Thus the architect must in some sense have a narrative about who will do what in a building that is being designed, and factor appropriate affordances into the design accordingly. For humans, though, the aesthetic (in the sense, e.g., of appreciating beauty or atmosphere) complements the merely functional. Mallgrave noted that Gibson also distinguished habitat and niche. The former emphasizes where the animal or human lives, the latter is based on the way that an ecological niche impacts the biological of a group or species. The same notion is engaged in analyzing niche construction and its extension to cultural evolution (Iriki & Taoka, 2012; Laland, Odling-Smee, & Feldman, 2000).


Many speakers emphasized embodied cognition. The notion of the embodied mind emerged as a reaction to a privileging of cognition in separation from emotions and from the body. Certainly, architecture involves designing for the human embodied organism, whether our concern is with door handles, comfort, lighting or more. Embodiment is also relevant to understanding how the built environment socializes us, how we live in the environment, as Harry Mallgrave does in considering the importance of mirror systems and embodied simulation in the sixth post. However, I argue that the action-perception cycle is more fundamental: In architecture, the issue is not so much the embodiment per se as the range of actions to be performed and the affordances needed to support them. An aardvark’s brain in a human body would not be human; nor would a human brain in an aardvark’s body. Moreover, returning to the evolutionary perspective, our brains have evolved to go far beyond action, perception and embodiment in the here and now and to enter the realms of symbolism and abstract thought that may, but need not, have social significance.

On the morning of my talk (at 6:20 am on August 13th, 2019) I had an epiphany on the distinction between the body and brain. In my earlier years at USC (in the late 1980s), my expertise in the neural mechanisms of motor control somehow led to my becoming a “guru” for the two departments of Physical Therapy and Occupational therapy. Physical therapy traditionally focused on exercises designed to gain mastery over muscle movements, restoring or substituting “degrees of freedom” following a stroke or an accident or disease. Occupational therapy focused not so much on the muscles as such but on the tasks of everyday living, seeking to provide strategies that would be effective even if the effectors involved had to change. In each case, the focus was on manipulations of the body to improve function. My role was to help a transformation in practice and in research in which the findings of cognitive science and neuroscience could play a role, a transformation that has since been long embedded in the fabric of both departments. My epiphany was to realize for the first time that this aspect of my biography, one that had not entered my conscious mind for many years, was of special relevance to the discussion of how a subject like architecture could be enriched by neuroscience. The embrained and cognizant body.

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