Neuroscience & Architecture

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NEUROSCIENCE & ARCHITECTURE A Survey of Emerging Neuroscience Research for Designers


NEUROSCIENCE & ARCHITECTURE A Survey of Emerging Neuroscience Research for Designers Margaret Sledge



This project sought to answer the question of how neuroscience research can help architects to create healthier and more meaningful spaces for occupants, whether through providing insights into how humans perceive the built environment, or describing aspects of the creative process of design itself. Through workshop and conference attendance in the summer and fall of 2018, and the examination of some of the projects of neuroscientists, architects, and researchers, the author collected information about current efforts to connect neuroscience and architecture. The investigation uncovered several key themes about the most impactful concepts that architects can keep in mind when designing spaces for humans. These include the importance of connection to natural rhythms, the role of perception of control in sensory inputs, the impacts of stress, the social component of spaces, the influences of memory, culture, and previous experiences, and the increasing interest of the architectural community in the potential for neuroscience research to influence the way we design buildings and urban spaces.

“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” - Winston Churchill

KEYWORDS Neuroscience, Environmental Psychology, Biophilia, Evidence-based Design.

Increasingly, scientific evidence supports the assertion that our environment has a tremendous effect on our health and well-being, and that much of this has to do with how our brain and senses interact with the spaces we inhabit. As architects, how can we use this scientific evidence to support or inform our design decisions, so that we can create healthier, more meaningful places? Neuroscience may provide an answer. The scientific study of the human nervous system, neuroscience is a multidisciplinary branch of biology that combines physiology, anatomy, molecular biology, developmental biology, cytology, philosophy, mathematical modeling and psychology. It is a “reasoned investigation of the causes and structure of human experience.” The researcher Thomas Albright makes a straightforward case for why architects and neuroscientists should engage with each other: “The design, production, use and appreciation of, and engagement with, works of architecture necessarily rely upon human sensation, cognition and behavior” [1]. As it turns out, the collaboration of neuroscientists and architects is not a new 3

phenomenon; there are explicit connections drawn between architecture and the senses in the ancient Hindu Vedas from the late Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In the 17th century, the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Christopher Wren, collaborated with Thomas Willis, a British physician, who coined the term neurology and was the first anatomist to theorize how the brain transfers information [2]. Lake|Flato has always produced buildings that are sensitive to their context and the natural environment. After several decades of practice, we started to apply more rigor to the design process, to test our assumptions about daylighting, energy use, thermal comfort, and material safety, among other metrics. This rigor allowed us to tweak our design practice to produce buildings that perform better, and have less adverse impact on the environment. Now, we have the same opportunity to apply neuroscientific rigor to our design process. Increasingly, clients are asking for their buildings to influence specific outcomes for their inhabitants such as increased collaboration, lower anxiety, better cognitive function, and behavioral changes. At the same time, multiple areas of environmental psychology and neuroscientific research have in recent decades focused on how the brain is affected by the built environment, in response to the reality that we now spend the great majority of our time inside buildings. Given this reality, it is more important now than ever that architects pay attention to the interplay between the brain and the built environment. Lake|Flato has an opportunity to improve the effectiveness of its buildings and the design process by learning more about the brain mechanisms of how we perceive space.

BACKGROUND & METHODOLOGY In an effort to understand how we might take advantage of recent research to improve our practice and by extension the built environment that results from our efforts, I have spent the last few years in dialogue with the communities that are dedicated to connecting neuroscience and architecture. I have sought out articles, lectures, and research groups that focus in this area, attending conferences and workshops. I have also looked to other architecture firms to understand how their designers are using the research findings. I have learned that neuroscientists and architects are still struggling to connect, to find a common language, and to collaborate. What questions do we ask? What can we measure, and what does it mean? This project proposed to tap more deeply and purposefully into these resources in an attempt to begin to answer these questions. I hope this investigation will develop into a more robust understanding of the opportunities, which will in turn lead to more Lake|Flato engagement, such as: • Using data and research findings to help clients understand potential impacts of design decisions • Incorporating research into best practices for design decisions • Influencing the processes we use to interact with each other and with clients • Enhancing creativity in our practice • Including biometric measurements in post occupancy evaluations

Opposite page: The Salk Institute, by architect Louis Kahn in partnership with Jonas Salk and others. Neuroscience research is attempting to explain why this place is so magical. 4


Above: a cross-section of the human brain. From Edelstein, Eve. Neuroscience for Architecture and Urban Design. 15 Aug. 2018, New School of Architecture & Design, San Diego. Opposite page: diagram of vision and perception. From Albright, Thomas. Towards a Neuroscience for Architecture and Design. 16 Aug. 2018, New School of Architecture & Design, San Diego. 6

• Partnering with neuroscientists and psychologists using our buildings as case studies • R&D projects in-house The following sections summarize the two parts of the proposed project, which are informed by a week-long workshop at the New School of Architecture and Design in San Diego in August 2018, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture bi-annual conference in September 2018, and the development of office resources to connect current research with our practice.

EXECUTIVE COURSE, NEW SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN, SAN DIEGO The New School of Architecture and Design summer course is provided every year to anyone interested in connecting neuroscience and architecture, but it is tailored to architects, and provides AIA continuing education credits. Most of the

people in attendance in August of 2018 were practicing architects or academics. The lecturers and instructors included researchers from the Salk Institute and various universities, as well as Billie Tsien, Juhani Pallasmaa, and other design practitioners and theorists. The lectures and related workshops could be divided into three main categories: biology of the human brain and senses, neurophenomenology, and the urban experience. Rusty Gage, Eve Edelstein, and Thomas Albright focused on the biology of the human brain and senses. Thomas Albright, a researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, demonstrated how the human body is a design constraint, and that architecture can be seen as an applied science of human biology. Architecture has always bowed to biology, and is concerned with how to improve the performance of a biological organism; consider the doorknob, a chair, or the dimensions of a stair. Through Albright’s research into the mechanics of the sense of sight, he demonstrated how the


visual environment has measurable statistics, and the brain has highly specific organizational properties for representing those statistics. Memory combines with visual stimuli to influence how we perceive space. Rusty Gage is the President of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and is a professor in the Laboratory of Genetics, where he studies the adult central nervous system. He explained that while it used to be thought that adult brains did not create new neurons, it is now believed that new neurons are constantly created in the hippocampus. The external environment can change the rate and quantity of cells being created or differentiated, and stress can block the proliferation of cells. Living in a complex and variable environment enhances the rate of cell creation: physical activity affects cell proliferation, and the complexity of the environment affects cell survival. Like Albright, Gage reminded us that information that comes into the brain is being evaluated in light of previous experiences and memories. Eve Edelstein is research director of the Human Experience Lab at Perkins + Will, where she works with project teams and clients to integrate clinical and scientific data in the design process. Her lecture introduced the fundamentals of the brain and nervous system anatomy, before describing the research process, and the necessity for patience when striving to understand the human brain. She reminded us that we do not know everything about the human brain and likely never will, but that studying the influence of the environment on the human experience is critical: “understanding why it’s magic helps us make more magic.” The second category of lectures focused on 8

“neurophenomenology”. This is a scientific research program that combines neuroscience with phenomenology to study experience, mind and consciousness. The lecturers representing this mode of enquiry included researchers from the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, UC San Diego, the University of Southern California, and architectural theorists from around the world. Sergei Gepshtein, a scientist at the Salk Institute, investigates visual perception and visually guided action; he described two ways to talk about reality. There is the physical world described by the natural sciences; it is objective, public, and mind-independent. Then there is the experiential world, understood through philosophy; it is subjective, private, and mental. Juhani Pallasmaa, the Finnish architect and prolific author, described how science and art both approach the mysteries of the world; architecture mediates the lived experience. Eduardo Macagno, a research professor at UC San Diego, explained how the evocation of certain emotions is an established goal of the built environment, and emotions influence behavior. Alberto Perez-Gomez, an architectural theorist, reminded us that perception is something we do, not something that is done to us. He described imagination as a linguistic, narrative language, and that architectural space can be best understood through narrative, incorporating time and movement. Michael Arbib, a professor at the University of Southern California, unites biology and technology. His lecture reminded us that movement is the measure of space, and the action-perception cycle is a learning cycle. What we perceive influences our behavior.

A representation of measurements of arousal mapped in Mumbai. From Ellard, Colin. Neuroscience for Urbanism. 15 Aug. 2018, New School of Architecture & Design, San Diego.

The final category of lectures described the urban experience. Richard Louv, author and inspirational force behind the Children & Nature movement, explained how science has a hard time defining “nature” because of the challenge of measurement outside of the lab. He observed that “it is no accident we have left the definition of nature to poets.” He posited that “anything fundamental to our humanity should be considered a human right,” and that the human connection to nature and natural systems is one of these things.

Colin Ellard, an experimental psychologist at the University of Waterloo, seeks to find answers to the question of how to build a psychologically sustainable city, to mitigate the challenges of stress, crowding, traffic, acoustics, and loneliness. Ellard’s research measures psychological responses to urban environments to understand how different aspects of the environment influence our well-being.


Architect Billie Tsien spoke about her work, which pulls together cultural, personal and ecological histories, together with a thoughtful deployment and manipulation of tactile materials to create inspiring yet relatable buildings. Her design work takes into account movement and the passage of time to make spaces that take advantage of changing light qualities and weathering of materials. In panel discussions and workshops we were introduced to some of the tools and techniques used for measuring brain activity and psychological responses. We pondered many questions: how do neuroscientists work together, find a common language? What is the end goal? How might we expand our impact as designers by heightening senses other than vision? Is it possible to “go too far” with the science, and not appreciate that there is some “magic” that is impossible to measure? We acknowledged that data is replacing the trust that people used to have in the profession of architecture, and that neuroscientists and architects have the social responsibility to be careful about interpreting data [3].

ACADEMY OF NEUROSCIENCE FOR ARCHITECTURE CONFERENCE The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was created “to promote and advance


knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses to the built environment” [4]. Every two years, ANFA host a conference at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies; it is structured as a scientific conference, where researchers display posters and give short summaries of their research projects. The conference also features several longer keynote lectures and panel discussions. The opening panel discussion in September of 2018 addressed the issue of how to measure human responses to space, and how to measure space itself. Most of the tools we use to measure space are static and visual, like proportion and scale. Panelists questioned what it is about space that

gives us a sense of awareness about self. They suggested that the difference between “space” and “place” is that place is defined by the individual and the collective: architectural parameters plus sensory parameters plus culture and shared history. Many researchers presented their lectures, and the following list summarizes some of those that were most relevant to our work. Huda Akil, University of Michigan, and other experts on solitary confinement: This group has focused their research on stress and the environment. They demonstrated the importance of social

Above: study participants were asked to rate images based on their qualities of “naturalness”. Coburn, Alexander, et al. “Psychological responses to natural patterns in architecture.” 2018. Opposite page: Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project” (2003) at the Tate Modern in London. The work consisted of an artificial sun inside a fog that created an extraordinary atmosphere. Image from Pallasmaa, Juhani. Between Art and Science. 14 Aug. 2018, New School of Architecture & Design, San Diego. 11

context. Akil described the function of the hippocampus as the “concierge” of the brain, as it is the interface between the outside world and brain functions, deciding what to information to code, and where in the brain to code it. Satchin Panda, Salk Institute for Biological studies: Panda’s talk described how circadian rhythms are the daily timetable of chemical rhythms encoded in our DNA; they are triggered by the inputs of daylight, sleep, food, and physical activity. Disruption to circadian rhythms is linked to many common diseases. Bill Browning, Terrapin Bright Green: Browning has focused his research on biophilia (the human connection to nature), fractals and visual response, and psycho-acoustics, which is the filtering mechanism of the human auditory system. Alex Coburn, independent researcher: Coburn and a team of researchers investigated psychological responses to natural patterns, measured through subjects’ ratings of architectural images. The team found that buildings with higher scaling and contrast are aesthetically preferred because they are innately perceived as natural-looking. Stephanie Park, WeWork: WeWork recorded user response and feedback through sensors and utilization prediction models to measure interactions between people in a work environment. They found that collaboration and community reinforce a sense of purpose. 12

Study participants were asked to view VR environments so that their physiological and psychological responses could be measured. Image from Gepshtein, Sergei. Parts of Space. 13 Aug. 2018, New School of Architecture & Design, San Diego.

Marianne Halblaub Miranda, Maria Ustinova, Technische Universität Darmstadt: This research team created a game that could be used on a mobile device for children to evaluate their school environment. Response data was mapped in plan view. Robin Mazumder, University of Waterloo: This lab measured physiological and psychological responses to building height and tree canopy through digital images of VR environments. Their results were counter to their predictions [5].

the lens of neuroscience and psychology. The Rosetta Stone project is described as a “translational tool for researchinformed practice” [6]. The CID collects research articles, and popular press case studies and translates them into research briefs (or white papers) related to different design elements and value cases. The design elements are daylight, view, water, biophilia, materials, indoor air quality, thermal comfort, acoustics, and equity. The value cases are outcomes like physical health, mental health, and satisfaction. The

WHITE PAPERS, ROSETTA STONE My original R+D proposal included – as a second phase the development of a resource database that Lake|Flato design staff could turn to for more information about current research in neuroscience and architecture. I proposed to start to compile a set of whitepapers on topics most beneficial to our current work. Each whitepaper would summarize current research on a topic related to the built environment or the design process. Potential topics included creativity and the brain in the design process, the effects of daylighting and circadian rhythm on health and human performance, biophilia, acoustics, and thermal comfort. In early 2019, in the course of developing ideas about how best to facilitate the organization of the research, I learned the Center for Integrated Design at the University of Washington in Seattle, partnered with local design firms, had been developing a project that was essentially the same database I had envisioned for Lake|Flato, though without

Diagram of the Rosetta Stone, developed by the Integrated Design Lab of University of Washington. Image from Burpee, Heather et al. Discovering the Rosetta Stone: Translating Research for Design Decision Making. 7 June 2019, AIA Conference on Architecture 2019, Las Vegas. 13

CID organizes the research into a searchable database, providing an organizational framework for the development of the briefs, and serving as a dissemination mechanism. A database user can access the information at multiple levels of detail and granularity, from broad talking points and research briefs, to specific primary research reports. After learning about the Rosetta Stone project, I shifted my focus to speaking with the Center for Integrated Design to understand how Lake|Flato might integrate with this effort. This portion of the project is ongoing as of the winter of 2020.

CONCLUSIONS AND NEXT STEPS “A great building must begin with the immeasurable, must go through measurable means when it is being designed, and in the end must be unmeasured.� - Louis Kahn Based on the research presented at the executive summer course at the New School of Architecture and Design, and the ANFA conference in 2018, as well as the related panel discussions and student Q&A, I collected the following conclusions and themes. People have more positive responses to their environments

Our current way of life is unhealthy in part because of our disconnect from the natural rhythms we evolved with. Image from 14

This graphic demonstrates all of the ways neuroscience can inform the human experience. From Future Cities Catapult. “Neuroscience For Cities - A Playbook.� Future Cities Catapult, 19 July 2018. pp. 10-11.

when they feel they have control over some aspects of them, and when the sensory inputs are voluntary (ie a fan can be turned off, or a light turned on). They also have more positive responses when sensory inputs are based on natural processes (ie daylight, color temperature changes).

Our current way of life is unhealthy in part because of our disconnect from the natural rhythms we evolved with. Circadian inputs are light, food, physical activity and sleep. The best thing we can do as architects is to try to connect building inhabitants with natural rhythms by using daylight and color temperature, and by encouraging physical 15

movement. Another important design consideration is to try to connect building users to the outdoors: a more immersive experience is better. Stress is serious: long term stress can cause brain damage, and everything from light colors and levels, to material choices, to acoustic conditions can contribute to environmental stress. Not all stress is bad; how do you identify what is the right amount? It is a challenge to interpret measurements of “arousal”, since some arousal is desirable (such as awe), and other arousal is detrimental (such as fight or flight response). As architects, we ought to engage with psychologists and neuroscientists to continue to study stress and learn what are the spatial qualities that affect stress responses. Humans are social beings: we are always looking for faces in our environments. However, we are not all alike: we don’t all experience spaces the same way because of our differences in biology, culture, and memory. Perception depends on memory and previous experience. Because of the strength of these inputs, the built environment does have limitations on its ability to affect change. The potential for inquiry is as vast as the human nervous system: we will never know everything there is to know. Neuroscientists and architects are looking for ways to work together and find a common language. Together, we must be deliberate, and know that we have a social responsibility to take care in interpreting and applying the data. There is a tremendous amount of interest in this line of inquiry; and at the start of a new decade, we have the potential to be on the cutting edge of research and practice.

CITATIONS Cover image: The human brain (ventral view) drawn by Christopher Wren. From Gazzaniga, Michael S., et al. Cognitive Neuroscience: the Biology of the Mind. W. W. Norton, 2019, p. 4. [1] Albright, Thomas. Towards a Neuroscience for Architecture and Design. 16 Aug. 2018, New School of Architecture & Design, San Diego. [2] Gazzaniga, Michael S., et al. Cognitive Neuroscience: the Biology of the Mind. W. W. Norton, 2019, p. 4. [3] Multiple lectures. 13-17 Aug. 2018, New School of Architecture & Design, San Diego. [4] Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture website: www. [5] Multiple lectures. 20-22 Sept. 2018, Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture Conference, San Diego. [6] Burpee, Heather et al. Discovering the Rosetta Stone: Translating research for Design Decision-Making. 7 June 2019, AIA Conference on Architecture 2019, Las Vegas.

RESOURCES Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA): An organization whose mission is to promote and advance knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses in the built environment.

Members include neuroscience researchers, academics, and practicing architects. ANFA hosts a conference every two years.

firms with more modest research efforts. They host an annual conference. Members have access to publications and other resources that benefit the profession.

Building Research Information Knowledgebase (BRIK): An information portal to professionally reviewed research in the built environment. ANFA has a partnership page with this resource:

Architectural Research Centers Consortium (ARCC): Members are primarily academics in Environmental Design and Architecture programs across the US. They host an annual conference, and publish a journal that is double blind peer reviewed and is open access. The AIA is a member organization.

Informe Design: Launched in January 2003, InformeDesign is a resource for evidence-based design content, resources, people, and tools. Learn the basics of how the brain’s 100 billion nerve cells are born, grow, connect, and function. Society for Neuroscience: The Society for Neuroscience is the world’s largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA): Members of this organization include academics in Environmental Design and Architecture programs across the US (including some international members), large firms with dedicated research departments, and some mid sized

American Institute of Architects (AIA): The AIA supports participation in research, and offers annual grants to firms and individual members to pursue research projects. From their website: “The AIA has identified areas of research need and is calling for expanding investment in architectural research, it’s prioritization within the architecture culture, and the continued dissemination and exchange of finding.”

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