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We Are, Where We Are: Spatial Cognition Shapes Our Self-Hood

Scientists are exploring how enclosed versus open spaces affect human cognition.

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In their classic country hit, "Wide Open Spaces," the Dixie Chicks sum up the findings of a new study which found that the structural environments that surround us either restrict, or promote, our spatial cognition. Your environment strongly influences your self-hood in the present moment and cumulatively throughout your lifespan, according to the researchers.

We all know the feeling of oppression that is triggered by a claustrophobic space (such as sitting in an office cubicle, under fluorescent lights) versus the expansive feeling of standing in an architectural structure with limitless boundaries and abundant natural light. In my opinion, the new World Trade Center PATH station in lower Manhattan, designed by architect Santiago Calatrava—which was inspired by a sketch of a child's hands freeing a bird into the air—exemplifies the best of spatial cognitive design.

The Poetics of Space in the 21st Century

In 1958, Gaston Bachelard published The Poetics of Space which delves into the importance of architectural design—as well as the surrounding landscapes and infrastructure of buildings—on the human psyche. In his book, Bachelard presents a hypothesis that our minds thrive in spaces that allow us to daydream and stagnate in spaces that are depressing or oppressive.

Since Bachelard's seminal work, there have been very few studies on the relationship between architectural structures and psychological well-being. Now, a recent study from the UK has found that 'who we are' throughout our lifespan might be more integrated with 'where we are' spatially than previously believed. The researchers found that our minds are constantly mapping how our bodies integrate into the world around us. This brain mapping occurs at both a conscious and subconscious level. 

The May 2016 paper, “Where am I? Who am I? The Relation Between Spatial Cognition, Social Cognition and Individual Differences in the Built Environment,” appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

For this study, the researchers set out to address dynamic relationships between the human psyche and our spatial environments. With this in mind, the scientists investigated how the way we interact with space defines how we identify ourselves and our various capabilities.

The researchers believe that the physical spaces we create ultimately play a fundamental role in creating who we are at various stages of life and in the present tense. This research combines neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology, to argue that certain environments can promote well-being and affect your decision-making processes.  

This research also raises the question as to whether raising children in enclosed architectural spaces versus more open spaces results in differences in spatial and social cognition, as well as changes in psychological development.

Windowless Classrooms Are Linked to Lower Test Scores

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A January 2016 study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Department of Landscape Architecture identified that windowless classrooms are linked to lower test scores for high school students. The researchers also discovered that high school students perform better on tests if the classroom has a view of a green landscape, rather than a windowless room, or a room with a view of another building or a parking lot.

I wrote about these findings in a Psychology Today blog post, "Kids and Classrooms: Why Environment Matters." In that post, I spoke about my childhood education. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to attend The Park School in Brookline, Massachusetts. As the name implies, the pedagogy of the school is inherently rooted in the importance of being surrounded by a green environment. 

In the late 1960s, former headmaster, Robert S. Hurlbut, Jr., hired the architecture firm of Earl Flansburgh & Associates to build a new 'green' campus for Park. Mr. Hurlbut also conceived of a way to facilitate a “boundary-less” education by creating classrooms with moving walls to provide more wide open spaces. He was adamant that the school had to be surrounded by trees and green shrubbery so that students felt connected to nature. 

School environments and the poetics of space also have a huge impact on teachers' job satisfaction and ability to educate students. A study in Washington, D.C. found that the attrition of highly qualified teachers is a huge challenge for school administrators throughout the United States. This is especially a problem in large urban districts that often tend to lack the financial resources to maintain their school facilities or build new, and better, architectural structures.

Our Spatial Coordinates and Our 'Selves' Are Intertwined

pavel dudek/Shutterstock
The architecture of Santiago Calatrava optimizes the dynamic between environment and social cognition. 
Source: pavel dudek/Shutterstock

According to the recent UK study, we understand our environment differently depending on our unique personal experience. For example, navigating your way through a space using a map gives you a much different understanding of the space than navigating through trial and error. In a mapped environment, there is tendency to think of objects in relation to one another, whereas when you’re exploring a route without a map you tend to think more about the space in terms of its relation to you.

In a statement, the researchers said, "The built environment can restrict or promote spatial cognition, which can influence one's self-hood. Our spatial coordinates and our 'selves' are intertwined."

Similarly, the amount of time we are in our environments can change our understanding of ourselves. This also suggests that having unrestricted movement in the space can allow us to experience multiple paths and perspectives over time. 

Conscious and Unconscious Proprioception Are Tied to Spatial Cognition

Proprioception is your sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of your body and their position to objects in the space around you. The brain integrates information from proprioception and the vestibular system into its overall map of body positions to facilitate appropriate movements and muscular contractions. Proprioception is directly linked with exteroception which is how someone perceives the outside world using all of his or her senses.

When I initially read this new study, the first thing that jumped out at me was that in many ways the researchers are describing the conscious and unconscious impact of proprioception within our environments. Although, the researchers don't use this terminology... based on my extensive research on the role that the cerebrum (Latin for "brain") and the cerebellum (Latin for "little brain") play in both conscious and unconscious propriocepton, I couldn't help but connect these ideas to these brain areas. 

Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons
The cerebellum (in red) is responsible for unconscious proprioception and spatial cognition. 
Source: Life Sciences Database/Wikimedia Commons

In humans, neuroscientists make a distinction between conscious proprioception and unconscious proprioception. Conscious proprioception is communicated through various neural pathways to the cerebrum. On the flip side, unconscious proprioception is communicated through various neural pathways to the cerebellum.

A typical unconscious proprioceptive reflex, or righting reflex, is the automatic response that whenever someone's body tilts in a new direction, the cerebellum will automatically cock the person's head to keep the eyes level with the horizon. This reflex is observed in healthy infants as soon as they gain control of their neck muscles. Most muscular reflexes come directly from the cerebellum, which is responsible for balance, coordinating muscle movements, unconscious proprioception, and the spatial cognition required to keep track of where your body is in space throughout every millisecond of the day. 

To be clear, the latest UK research does not discuss proprioception or the cerebellum. However, because of my fascination (and decades of research on these topics) I have a hunch that the cerebellum may be playing a role in some of the observations noted in this study. Again, this link is pure conjecture and an educated guess on my part. 

Conclusions: Never Underestimate the Impact of Environment on Your Self-Hood

The researchers found that individual differences in cognitive and sensory abilities impact navigation throughout the environment. This ultimately impacts various aspects of the individual's sense of self, his or her spatial cognition, and how the physical environment affects self-hood.

According to the researchers, architectural structures can be designed to invite different strategies in navigation which might result in different perspectives of the self. As an example, the researchers encourage people to reconsider the impact of confinement. The lack of mobility and freedom of movement in physical space may also impair cognitive perspectives or the healthy development of the social and emotional self.

The UK researchers conclude, "This is a solid start, but could be extended with further consideration of the interactions of spatial cognition and ability, personality, and differences in cognition. Where we are might mold who we are, but given our ability to shape the environment, we can play an active role in the development of the self."

Hopefully, these findings will inspire urban planners, architects, and policymakers to think more about the impact of built spaces on cognitive function, well-being, and psychological development throughout a person's lifespan. 

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

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