How the Brain Responds to Architecture

How we respond to the built environment.

Posted Feb 26, 2020

 Anjan Chatterjee
Washington Union Station, Washington, D.C.
Source: Anjan Chatterjee

When you get to the end of this paragraph, peel your eyes off the screen and look around. You are probably somewhere indoors. Like most people in materially developed societies, you probably spend 90 percent of your time in a built environment. Did you notice your surroundings as you entered the space? Do you think the space affects how you feel? Does it affect your brain?

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Interest in the intersection of neuroscience and architecture is growing. Architects are making forays into discussing neuroscientific applications to their craft (Eberhard, 2008; Mallgrave, 2013). Most of these discussions can be characterized as neuroscience and architecture (Alex Coburn, Vartanian, & Chatterjee, 2017). This approach typically involves mapping knowledge of the brain to the principles and practice of architecture. For example, one might think that our sense of touch does not receive enough attention in architectural design. One identifies properties of our tactile and haptic systems and then maps them on to how we interact with the built environment. Such maps might very well offer important insights. But how does one test these ideas? Is it possible to conduct a neuroscience of architecture, and frame these ideas experimentally?

As an example of experimental neuroarchitecture, we recently reported our findings on the psychological and neural responses to architectural interiors (Coburn et al., 2020). We started with 200 photographs of architectural interiors. These interiors varied on three basic features—high or low ceiling heights, curvilinear or rectilinear forms, and closed or open enclosures. These same images had been used in an earlier study (Vartanian et al., 2015; Vartanian et al., 2013) in which we showed that people’s experience of beauty of these interiors was correlated with neural activity within the medial prefrontal cortices. At the time, this finding was important in showing that the aesthetic experience of architectural interiors draws on the same reward systems that are associated with the pleasure we experience in gazing at beautiful faces as well as in satisfying primary appetites such as food and sex.

In the recent study, we asked nearly 800 people online to rate their experience of the images of these 200 interiors along 16 psychological factors. Our goal was to determine if these 16 factors could be reduced to a few key dimensions. To do so, we used two analytic techniques—principal component analyses (PCA) and psychometric network analysis (PNA). The PCA revealed that most responses (90 percent of variance) were characterized by three dimensions—coherence, fascination, and hominess. Coherence refers to the degree to which a scene is organized. Fascination refers to the richness of a scene and whether a viewer feels the urge to explore it. Hominess refers to the sense of comfort and personalness the viewer feels for a space. Our PNA confirmed that that viewer responses were characterized by these three dimensions. In another group of 600 or so participants, we repeated the experiment and found that these dimensions of coherence, fascination, and hominess explained most people’s reactions to architectural interiors.

Confident that these psychological dimensions were important to a diverse group of over 1,400 American online viewers, we tested the hypothesis that these psychological dimensions have imprints in our brains. We returned to our original study and reanalyzed those data that were derived from the very same images used in this study. To be clear, the original imaging study was conducted in Tenerife, Spain, while our work on identifying the three components was derived from American participants. If the original imaging data contained evidence of the relevance of these components, our claims would have generalized across disparate populations and somewhat different cultures. Furthermore, this is as close to a double-blind experimental study as we can imagine. At the time the imaging data were collected, we had not yet discovered these three components. Neither we the experimenters, nor the Spanish participants, knew that coherence, fascination, and hominess were relevant variables. In the scanner, the original Spanish participants were asked two questions as they looked at the images: Did they think the spaces were beautiful, and did they wish to enter the space?

What did we find? Our analyses demonstrated that, regardless of the question, the degree of fascination covaried with neural activity in the right lingual gyrus. By contrast, coherence covaried with neural activity in the left inferior occipital gyrus when participants judged beauty, and hominess covaried with neural activity in the left cuneus when deciding if they would wish to enter the space. The main point is that our visual brains harbor responses to these subjective psychological dimensions, of which we might not even be aware.

Keep looking around your environment as you move through your day. Is the space you enter fascinating? Does it feel coherent? Are you comfortable in it?

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