Mind Wandering

Psychogeographic explorations into the built world.

The Neuroscience of Design

How can neuroscientists contribute to architecture and design

Last week, I had a wonderful opportunity to participate in a discussion that was advertised as an “adventure in neuroscience and architecture” at the Museum of Vancouver in Canada. The event, a part of a series called “Built City” was intended to promote general discussion of issues in architectural and urban design but with a specific focus on the question of how the kinds of answers generated by neuroscience questions might contribute to built design.  

Going into the event, I wasn’t really sure what to expect other than that, given the nature of the series, the audience would probably tilt heavily towards design professionals and students.  I felt it likely that I would be the only neuroscientist in the room (and if that wasn’t true, apologies to any neuroscientists who might have been there whom I didn’t get to meet).  So thinking about what might be useful for such an audience, I spent the formal part of my presentation talking about some of the work done in my lab—how we’ve shown some of the visual properties that underlie the so-called “restorative” effects of natural environments and how we’ve shown some relationships between the grammar and shape of spaces and how those spaces make people behave and feel.  What I was trying to do—and perhaps there was a bit of a defensive reaction in this—was to show that there were some interesting relationships between the things that we build and the ways that we behave in those things that derive from basic principles of biology, psychology and neuroscience.  I also wanted to try to convey that it might be difficult for a designer to really guess about those relationships or to learn them easily through the operation of intuition and intelligence.  I’m not sure how successful I was in making such a case, but, regardless, what ended up interesting me the most (and I think most other people there) was the free-form discussion that followed the formal talks.

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The prevailing sense that I got from the audience was one of guarded curiosity moderated perhaps by a soupçon of reluctance, or maybe even a bit of anxiety.  And it wasn’t so much that the audience didn’t believe what I was saying about some of the orderly relationships I’ve found between where we go and what happens to us when we go there, but more that there was uncertainty about how that information might be used in architectural design (or even whether it should be used.).  I’m not an architect—will never pretend to be and don’t know enough—but I’m definitely an archi-fan.  I’m lucky enough to have spent a decent amount of time with some utterly brilliantly creative people who have designed and seen built some extraordinary buildings, and I have only the vaguest notion of how such things are done—in one of my alternate lives in which I have free time I’d like to go be a fly-on-the-wall at a major architectural firm for a year or so, just so I can get a better sense of how a fantastic building emerges from the mind of an architect.  But I digress.

Returning to the discussion I had in Vancouver, the sense I got was that some architects (most?  all?) are motivated by the desire to defend their right to freedom of design.  I think their concern with people like me—life scientists who try to speak to design issues—was that we might try to make decrees about what constitutes good design based on the outcomes of our experiments, and that these decrees would eventually become codified, just as a building code might specify balcony widths, staircase proportions, or building setbacks. These kinds of decrees could be seen as just one more set of rules that would impose on the freedom of the architect.  Even as a non-architect, I can understand that fear of being bound by yet another set of codes.  But as a neuroscientist, I find this motivation to avoid addressing the fit between building and mind to be curious.  I presume that an architect wouldn’t balk about having to have a kitchen counter at a particular distance from the floor in order to accommodate average human heights, so why should they resist the findings of a science that suggests that, of two potential room shapes, one is more likely to promote feelings of comfort and security than another? A part of it, I’m sure, is that compared to human heights and countertops or doorknobs, specifying an emotional connection between a space and a feeling seems more ephemeral and uncertain.  Besides, which, who’s to say that the function of a space is necessarily always to make us feel happy or comfortable?  What about the Holocaust memorial in Washington, a brilliant space that makes people feel anything but happiness?  So is our leeriness about including neuro-scientific principles in the design of buildings born out of a more general fear that it may someday be possible to completely specify the brain states that are associated with the rich tapestry of feeling and thought that we treasure as the real stuff of humanity?  Maybe.

These are hard questions.  As our understanding of brain states advances, and as the tools that we can use to measure how our brains are functioning move out into the real world in the form of simple sensors for a variety of physiological measures, we may be able to characterize more closely how the shape, size, and surfaces of architectural spaces affect our minds, our bodies, our physiological states and even our long-term health.  The difficult conjuring act will be finding ways to accommodate those findings in designs without forcing the brilliant creativity of good architects into a set of stultifying patterns that produce homogeneous, boring, pattern-built designs.  That’s a task that will require discussion, negotiation, practice, and experiment.  We’re in for interesting times.

Colin Ellard, Ph.D. is the director of the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments at the University of Waterloo in Canada, and the author of You Are Here.

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