The nascent field of neuroarchitecture seeks to identify the emotional and cognitive impact of visual forms and incorporate it into architectural design.
In 1970, Jonas Salk stood before a building. Made up of 29 tall, sturdy structures, the Salk Institute overlooks the Pacific Ocean. Sunlight fills each of the six floors of any given structure. Between the two mirror-image, concrete buildings that make up the bulk of the Institute, a courtyard with water cascading through symmetrical wedges in the concrete provides space for scientists to do their thinking.
The building was designed by Louis I. Kahn. He had been instructed to create a place that would drive inspiration and spark imagination – a place where scientists could do their best work. Most people agree that he succeeded.
The buildings we live and work in have an impact on the way we feel, the way we work, and the results we produce. Whether the aim is scientific discovery, an effective workout, or a relaxing day, architecture matters.
All too many people struggle to achieve their goals in buildings that are working against them instead of for them. To change this, we need a more scientific understanding of how architecture impacts our state of mind. When we can better understand how our environment impacts our lives, we can finally embrace architectural designs that support our goals in life and work.
The idea of unraveling how the human brain reacts to different forms and images is not new. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has long used images to elicit differences in brain activity. Of course, fMRI requires huge machines and an absolutely still subject. Moreover, these fMRI studies have concentrated on complete images. Flashing two-dimensional images before a subject in an fMRI machine is a far cry from the experience of the 3D experiences of architectural form and their interaction with light and air.
A 2012 article by architects Upali Nanda and colleagues is an example of the kinds of questions that are beginning to integrate the fields of architecture and neuroscience. Here they point to the body of research that visual stimuli can elicit different emotional responses, suggesting that understanding the emotional effects of the elements of visual stimuli such as the motifs, angles and curves can be used to inform architectural form. One can imagine that different kinds of curvatures and angles that are associated with positive facial expressions or motifs and angles of thriving nature may consistently yield more positive emotional responses or serve to reduce pain and fear. Different kinds of contours could have the opposite effect. The authors suggest that if we could identify such visual properties, they could be used in architectural form to design structures and interiors that elicit desired emotional responses.
A 2017 study that was a collaboration between Maryam Banaei and others from the School of Architecture and Environmental Design at the Iran University of Science and Technology and Klaus Gramman from the Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience at UCSD took these ideas one step further, simulating architectural experiences though virtual reality while using a mobile brain/body (MoBI) approach to record EEG. The authors take the approach that to understand the emotional impact of form you need to understand its viewing as a cluster of responses from multiple perspectives. To do this 40 people evaluated 75 rooms that formed 25 clusters based on feature dimensions of geometry, scale, location and angles. From this they looked at 17 clusters which were divided into two groups differing by reported pleasure and arousal. The researchers found that the anterior cingulate cortex, a region implicated in the regulation of emotion, to be heavily impacted by curvature geometry. Curvature, which was also more positively perceived, showed greater theta synchronization lending credibility to the idea that architecture really does impact our perception on a biological level.
Though novel approaches, these studies do not yet exploit what is possible with mobile EEG technology.
Using mobile EEG equipment, true neuroarchitecture study is finally possible. Though still in its infancy, and not yet geared towards architecture specifically, scientists are beginning to understand how we react to different spaces and places. In a 2017 study, for example, forty female students aged 17-30 were provided with mobile EEG devices and instructed to spend five minutes at three predetermined settings within walking distance of one another – a cafe, supermarket, and garden. EEG outcomes were recorded and participants were asked to complete a brief survey after the experiment. Alpha band power was higher in the cafe and garden settings while beta band power was higher in the supermarket. Though the differences between the cafe and supermarket or the cafe and garden were not statistically significant, the differences between the supermarket and garden were.
A similar experiment could easily be modified to concentrate on architectural design and form. Participants might tour round and square buildings, bright and dim buildings, or open-space floor plans and their more traditional counterparts. What might we discover about the spaces we live and work and how might that discovery impact our world? It is not impossible to imagine a future where we build our environment to optimize our joy and productivity.