We all know intuitively that place shapes our everyday experiences. From the colors of the walls to the amount of light in the room, how we design buildings affects how we think, feel, and behave. A growing body of research is examining how architectural design affects us on the neural level. And a new research paper issues a call to action to this emerging field of “neuroarchitecture” – seeking to ground the discipline in experimental work using a model of neuroaesthetics.
CNS spoke to Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania, senior author on the new paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, about the link between architecture and neuroscience and its link to health and well-being, and the recent advances that are changing the field.
CNS: What is the connection between neuroscience and architecture?
Chatterjee: We spend a lot of time within and around built environments. These environments affect our mood, mental state, and sense of well-being. The link between our personal experience and the built environment is at the root of the connection between neuroscience and architecture. Our brains evolved long before the extraordinary growth of towns and cities and dense urban environments and long before we had exquisite control over the conditions of the spaces we inhabit. The obvious question is, how do we best fit the built environment to our brains for us to flourish?
CNS: The paper mentions a burgeoning interest as it relates to health and well-being, but can you give a specific example of this in action?
Chatterjee: Natural environments are often experienced as restorative. A walk through nature can decreases anxiety, rumination and negative feelings as compared to a walk through urban environments. The hypothesis that nature is restorative informs the design of many contemporary buildings that bring nature indoors with the judicious use of plants and interior gardens. Attention to such features can also have a direct impact on the recovery of patients in the hospital. In a classic study, Ulrich reported that surgical patients recovered more quickly when they could see trees from their hospital rooms than when could only see a brick wall.
Spaces that focus purely on functionality risk dehumanizing people as mechanical cogs in a building machine.
CNS: How do you define neuroaesthetics in this context (architecture) and why is it important to you?
Chatterjee: Neuroaesthetics refers to our brain’s response to beauty, including the beauty of landscapes and architectural spaces. Aesthetic experiences are central to our well-being. We choose what clothes to wear, objects to buy, and decorations to display. Most of us have less choice about which environments to inhabit. Yet, our environment undoubtedly affects us. Eastern design traditions such as the vaastu shastra and feng shui focus on the effects of architectural harmony on people. The current popularity of the Danish notion of hygge reinforces the importance of how spaces make us feel. Spaces that focus purely on functionality risk dehumanizing people as mechanical cogs in a building machine. By contrast, focusing on the experience of people as central to the design of a structure would better allow people to flourish as agents.
CNS: Can you outline the major principles you are proposing to underlie experimental neuroscience research around architecture?
Chatterjee: Interest in neuroscience and architecture is growing. To date, this approach has predominantly applied principles of neuroscience to architectural experiences. For example, we know a lot about the neuroscience of navigation. Ease of navigation and movement is clearly important in designing urban landscapes and architectural interiors. It follows that our understanding of the neuroscience of navigation would be relevant to design principles. However, an approach of mapping knowledge from neuroscience to architecture is a first step. Like any science, we need to move to an experimental framework in which architectural experience itself is the object of inquiry using neuroscientific methods. To get a conversation started, we proposed that our model of aesthetic experience that is comprised of sensorimotor, emotional, and semantic interactions could also apply to architecture and serve to ground experimental work.
CNS: There are a lot of fields, industries, etc., right now that insert “neuro” in front to gain credibility. Can you explain how this effort around architecture is different? What is the research scaffolding that will take this new field to the next level?
Chatterjee: There is certainly a proliferation of the neuro prefix in many domains. The media commonly makes reference to neuroscience when nothing in the report relies on neuroscientific data. When it comes to architecture, the logic for a neuro prefix is clear. Built environments have direct effects on our brain and some environments are better suited than others in allowing humans to function optimally, whether that is in a school or office or airport or hospital. Having a theoretical framework from which to deconstruct architectural experiences and doing the hard work of conducting experiments and testing hypotheses is critical for this field to move to the next level. Technological developments, such as the use of VR or mobile EEG, which would allow neural data collection in immersive experiences will be critical for the field to move forward.
CNS: How are you able to account for individual differences in aesthetic experiences in understanding the neural basis for optimal architectural experiences?
Chatterjee: Individual differences are critical in considering people’s responses to architectural spaces. Cognitive neuroscientists deal with individual differences all the time, whether it is in the realm of emotions, language, or decision-making. The research strategy and questions posed in neuroarchitecture are no different. Are there fundamental principles to which we all respond? Do these responses vary by context? Can we identify systematic parameters that contribute to individual differences?
Like the investigation of any complex domain, the challenge is to identify components that are tractable to scientific inquiry.
CNS: What do you hope this paper will spark within the neuroscience community?
Chatterjee: I hope that neuroarchitecture evolves the way that neuroaesthetics did over the last 15 years. In neuroaesthetics, theoretical frameworks were proposed, modified, and refined. These models anchored ongoing experimental work. I hope this paper will spark similar discussions and refinements of frameworks relevant to neuroarchitecture and generate more experimental data. I hope the paper will also encourage deeper conversations between neuroscientists, psychologists, and architects to inform the field.
CNS: What’s next for your research?
Chatterjee: Like the investigation of any complex domain, the challenge is to identify components that are tractable to scientific inquiry. We are investigating how elemental features that cut across different interiors affect people’s psychological responses. For example, do people react differently to high or low ceilings, curved or rectilinear interiors, and open or crowded spaces? Analogously, do humans have fundamental psychological responses to architectural spaces? Can we map elemental spatial properties of interiors to fundamental psychological responses and identify their neural correlates?
-Lisa M.P. Munoz