Oshin Vartanian: The wellbeing of a person is central

Oshin Vartanian

Oshin Vartanian received his PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Maine. He is the Co-Editor of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, and past Editor of Empirical Studies of the Arts. His co-edited volumes include Neuroaesthetics, Neuroscience of creativity and most recently The Cambridge handbook of the neuroscience of creativity. His main areas of interest include the cognitive and neural bases of aesthetics and creativity.

We spoke to Oshin about his path towards studying people in relation to architecture and the knowledge he gathered. We wanted to know what architects and urban planners can learn from his and his colleagues’ research. During our conversation, we also discussed whether architects truly know their own tastes and what is today’s meaning of beauty.

VL: How did you get to study architects in the first place?

Since about the 1950s, psychologists have been trying to understand the scientific basis of creative thought. In those early days, researchers were looking at what would be ideal creative professions to study, and one of the first groups, studied at UC Berkeley, were architects.

The researchers made a list of world-renowned architects, including Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn and others, and invited them to UC Berkeley to study. There, they were tested by psychologists extensively and assessed on their intelligence, personality, perceptual skills and divergent thinking, among other abilities and aptitudes. Many years later, and after early fMRI studies had been conducted involving visual art, paintings, sculptures and faces, we turned to architecture.

VL: We’ve seen your studies on lines and contours you’ve been doing using fMRI, where you’ve been studying responses to architecture. Can you tell us something about them?

Yes, but for our first foray into this area we purposefully focused on people with no expertise in architecture, because we wanted to understand brain function unaffected by formal education, as a baseline condition. This is because expertise is a very strong factor influencing reactions to architecture. There had already been interesting fMRI research about this effect by my colleague Martin Skov and colleagues from Denmark. They looked at students of architecture, and were able to show that when they look at buildings, as compared to faces, this activated their hippocampus, which is heavily involved in processing places and spaces. We could see that even very early in architectural education, there are the differences in brain function in response to processing built spaces.

fMRI studies allow us to peek inside people’s brain and reveal its activity. Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

VL: What would you say these results mean? What are the consequences for architecture? We’ve seen research that architects have different taste than non-architects, for example.

This is one of those million dollar questions–the precise way in which expertise affects taste. When you take a look at different studies of aesthetic judgement, time and time again expertise is one of the strongest factors affecting preference, and architecture is no exception.

Prior to conducting our studies in architecture we did a big historical survey of studies about aesthetic preference, and one of the main factors to emerge was contour or curvature. Some of the best work was done well over 100 years ago. People were brought into psychology labs and were asked to choose designs they liked or objects they found the most soothing. This early work had already shown that when presented with a choice between curved and angular shapes, people preferred the curved ones.

Curves make people feel good.

Another amazing insight coming from this early work, which has since then been confirmed by behavioral and fMRI work, is that this is an affectively-driven effect. Curves make people feel good. Studies have since looked at car interiors and found the same effect, airport designs, same effect, interior design, same effect. Even great apes at the zoo showed preference for curved designs. This is an example of a bottom-up, deeply rooted process. It’s so universal that there is probably an evolutionary reason why people like it.

Wooden curves
We prefer rounded shapes and are repelled by sharp angles. Photo by Aaron Burson on Unsplash

There is an important set of studies done by Moshe Bar and colleagues, where, apart from confirming this preference for curves, they found that looking at angular designs activated the amygdala. The amygdala is the quintessential center for threat perception in the brain. If you were suffering from arachnophobia and I were to show you a picture of a spider, this would be the region that would be activated.

They made a strong evolutionary case that there is something in our evolutionary past that has associated sharpness with threat. And that we like round things maybe not necessarily because they are appealing, but because we are repelled by sharp objects. But we now also know that we have a tendency to approach things that are round, so both processes could be at play.

So in our study we showed angular and curved architecture to people in the fMRI scanner. We found that when people are asked to judge the beauty of spaces, looking at rooms with curved designs activates the anterior cingulate cortex. This region does many things, but it’s also heavily involved in emotions and reward. In combination with the behavioral data, we inferred that emotions are driving the reactions to what people were seeing.

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And then we showed these results to architects. Many said that it’s true that people at large might like curved design, but that it’s not representative of their own preference. Many said that they in fact liked angular objects and designed angular forms. So I thought, let’s take a look. Lo and behold, we got the same results with architects. They also reacted more positively to the rounded shapes when judging beauty. Judging by the results of the research done, we think that these effects might be so prevalent that they might be affected little by training, although training certainly has an effect as well.

Cathedral arches
High ceilings make us think in a more abstract way. Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

VL: What would then be the reason that architects still design angular forms, even when they seemed to prefer round shapes?

There could be a few different reasons. One is individual differences. When comparing averages and groups, people prefer curves, but there are still lots of individual differences. In other words, some architects and non-architects prefer angular forms. The second one is that the effect is very sensitive to the specific question you ask. For example, you don’t get the same effect when you ask architects about approach behavior rather than beauty. There are even differences between judging nature and landscapes vs. man-made objects.

VL: So what’s going on with the concept of beauty? You say there are some universalities or is it very subjective and subject to change?

In psychology and neuroscience, we have not yet scientifically agreed upon a definition of beauty. The idea comes to us from philosophy. We work with it as a judgement elicited in our experiments, but we don’t define it for the participants. At a very individual level, we suppose that every person has a template for what is beautiful.

But there are a few studies that have looked into the concept of beauty and what contributes to it systematically. One of them, done a few years ago, was on facial attractiveness. The findings showed that the shared variance was about 50 percent – that’s our common understanding of what constitutes a beautiful face, and the other 50 percent was unique to the individuals. This shows that there is some general agreement on what is beautiful in faces, but that we also have our specific and individual tastes in that regard.

And then there is an important study led by Ed Vessel from the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics. He showed people images of different objects classes – natural scenes, faces, architecture and visual art, and collected preference ratings. He found that when we look at natural scenes and faces, you see much more shared variance between people than when we look at paintings and architecture. So our preference for naturally-occurring objects such as scenes and faces appears to be more consistent across people than man-made objects, perhaps pointing to their evolutionary relevance for survival.

As long as there is a commitment to be open-minded and to allow your design process to be infused by the best evidence available, then you’ve done justice to the craft.

Another common theme in the psychology of architecture is that it’s difficult to design a space that will work for everybody. It really depends on who the user is. And when we understand the end user, we can tailor the features to suit them. My colleague Letizia Palumbo from Liverpool Hope University and I did a study where we looked at whether we can repeat the effect of curvature with people with autism spectrum disorder, and we didn’t find the effect. This again demonstrates that individual differences are important.

VL: So do you think we are forever doomed to never satisfy everyone when building public buildings? Or can we find some universal principles?

I feel like the best we can do is to go with the best evidence we have. As long as there is a commitment to be open-minded and to allow your design process to be infused by the best evidence available, then you’ve done justice to the craft. In the last 10 – 15 years, I sense a lot of openness in the design community to work with psychologists and neuroscientists, to have this dialogue.

When I looked at the manifesto you had published, I read it with much interest. I thought it was brave and good that you did it. There were a couple of principles that resonated with me the most. One of them was the commitment to take the wellbeing of people into consideration when designing. And this should be the first principle in design.

And I also liked the fact that the tenth principle was to be open-minded. This is because you can start with all kinds of principles, but this being a scientific domain, things can and will change. In psychology, every 10–15 years, we tend to have minor and major paradigm shifts. We have to be open-minded.

The Salk Institute
The Salk Institute. Photo by Collin Hardy on Unsplash

It’s even more complicated in an interdisciplinary area like architecture. The number one requirement should be that the wellbeing of the person is central. That principle can unite all researchers and practitioners. In addition, being open-minded, when a particular insight emerges, we can modify our thinking accordingly.

VL: Colin Ellard (an environmental psychologist) said that “it’s about finding the right constellation of elements which can trigger positive emotion in the environment”. What could be, based on your findings, the most important elements in this constellation?

We are beginning to have some answers to this. Curves, as I have already mentioned. Also ceiling height, people tend to prefer rooms with higher ceilings. People like to be in rooms with higher ceilings than what’s typical today. This even impacts how you think. When people are in a room with higher ceilings, they tend to think more abstractly. And when the ceiling is low, they tend to think more concretely. So with the environment, you can influence the thought process of people.

We also looked for neural correlates of this. We found that when people are looking at rooms with high ceilings, the areas of the brain that are activated more are those that are involved in visual-spatial exploration. The reason why you like rooms with high ceilings more could be that they allow you to visually explore the space more.

One of the most reliable effects that we found and which showed a large replicability across studies was whether the space is open or closed. What’s been referred to as visual permeability – you can see through, or locomotive permeability – that you can visualize moving through that space.

What we found is that enclosure doesn’t only impact beauty judgement – “I find open spaces more beautiful”, but it also impacts approach-avoidance decisions, “I want to enter that space.” Research has shown that there are a lot of evolutionary reasons for this. Because you want to have a scanning ability in the environment and know how to move through it.

There was a study done in Denmark, published in 2014, where they wanted to look at the impact of perceived enclosure on people’s stress response. They looked at cortisol, a stress hormone, in the saliva. They induced stress by a public speaking task – people were to do a mock interview in front of a panel.

They were able to make the room appear more enclosed or open by design. When the space seemed enclosed to the participant, there was an elevation in cortisol reading. So perceived enclosure can increase a person’s stress level, and would therefore be another important factor. But perceived is the important word here. In other words, a space doesn’t need to be physically or structurally open, but it needs to offer visual permeability. People tend not to like being in spaces they can’t see through.

VL: A more general question. What do you think about this paradigm of science-informed architecture or evidence based design?

This is the one area I feel strongest about. People spend around 90% of their time indoors. And it’s not just in North America, but also in other countries. Most of the other 10 percent is spent commuting between those spaces. The physical environments we live in affect how we think and feel, so it is important to optimize these spaces.

Open plan living room
Visual permeability helps us feel comfortable in stressful situations. Photo by Francesca Tosolini on Unsplash

The important part of working with architects is to be open about the interaction. I’m careful not to approach someone with a set of design principles that need to be followed. But I do find that when the information is presented in an open-minded way and we have a bi-directional discussion about what it really means, then there is a real opportunity there.

When we give seminars, for example on how the brain responds to a particular architectural feature, it may seem very definite. But actually, fMRI data are impacted by all kinds of things. I see principles of evidence-based design rather as hypotheses, points of thought. And I go to design people and ask them what they think those results actually mean.

People who build the places also come into play. They can give you insights into the economics of design. Architects might formulate a design idea and there might be a lot of curvature in the design, but then they sit down with the user and they sometimes find that the place needs to have a different functionality. They must also address issues involving the physical manufacturing of the space,  with its own set of considerations about materials and economics. Ultimately the table has to include everyone. People who design things, people who study the design process, people who build things, and you also have to be aware of who the users of the space are going to be.

We have lots of tools to learn about users, excellent tools in environmental psychology to gauge people’s preferences and what they want to do with a space. If you want to do justice to that, then you should use those tools to learn about your end users. Overall, I think we are moving in the right direction.

VL: Could you give us an example of a place you think is well designed when it comes to implementing the scientific evidence we have today?

The Salk Institute. It incorporates a lot of the principles we have discussed, especially this idea about openness and visual permeability. It’s a super popular example, but it’s popular for a reason. But actually I find most of the good buildings while walking through cities, and it’s usually those small, interesting buildings that fit a context they are in, that capture my attention the most. 

The Salk Institute
The Salk Institute. Photo by Adam Bignell on Unsplash

It’s not typically the large-scale iconic designs, but designs that take cues from the environment and are designed to work well where they are. Sometimes you may even not notice them. You pass by it, then you come back to have a second look, because it fits so well. Those I like the most. There are of course lists of great buildings, such as a big survey done in the US by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) about America’s favorite buildings. But in our daily lives, it’s the little ones in our neighborhood that work because they fit the environment and the context so well. Those often go underappreciated.

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