When Brains Meet Buildings

when brains meet buildings
Michael Arbib: When Brains Meet Buildings

When Brains Meet Buildings: A Conversation Between Neuroscience and Architecture is a book published by Oxford University Press in August 2021.

In recent years, there has been an upsurge of interest in understanding how we are affected by the built environment, on various scales from rooms to buildings, all the way up to the largest cities.

When Brains Meet Buildings argues that cognitive and neuroscience can greatly increase that understanding – learning through both neuroscience in its strict sense of the study of brains and through cognitive science, the study of mind and behavior without a necessary concern for “how the brain does it.”

The book offers a riff on a famous speech by John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “Ask not only what neuroscience can do for architecture, but also what architecture can do for neuroscience.”

It aims to help architects deepen their understanding of what science has to offer, and to help neuroscientists understand ways in which architecture may entice them to move beyond the laboratory – and also to appeal to a broader public interested in both brains and buildings.

Ask not only what neuroscience can do for architecture, but also what architecture can do for neuroscience.

Neuroscience embraces a vast array of subtopics. For example, an expert on the auditory system who might help with an acoustics problem would be unable to address memory problems relevant to design of a home for Alzheimer’s patients. Architects go broad; scientists go deep (though of course they will be aware of many findings from outside their own lab).

I come to this effort with decades spent exploring how brains – both human and non-human, natural and artificial – can mediate the linkage of perception with ongoing behavior within a variety of environments, with action-oriented perception as a unifying theme.

Further work on spatial navigation, memory and imagination laid the basis for exploring what is it about the biological and cultural evolution of humans that allows us to master the gift of language, an example of that part of neuroscience that concerns social interaction.

What Lead to Creation of the Book

The trigger for explicitly linking my neuroscience efforts to architecture came from the work of two computational neuroscientists, Rodney Douglas and Paul Verschure, who led the team that created an “intelligent space,” Ada, that interacted with visitors at the Swiss Expo in Lausanne in 2002.

Ada Intelligent Space at Swiss Expo in 2002. Image: Paul Verschure on Ada

This led me to have my students at the University of Southern California conduct projects on “intelligent rooms” whose intelligence was based in part on brain operating principles. Thus “Buildings with ‘brains’” provided my rather off-center entry-point into the linkage of architecture and neuroscience.

However, after these course assignments, this linkage remained dormant for almost a decade, until I attended an event hosted by the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) in which the emphasis was on how one could measure the (neuro)physiological state of people as they experienced architecture.

In the discussion session, I suggested that “brains” for buildings could also be a worthy target for ANFA, and on this basis I was invited by Eduardo Macagno to join the ANFA Board, and “neuromorphic architecture” became part of my professional concern.

Soon thereafter, Eduardo’s successor as ANFA President, Alison Whitelaw, nominated me to Sarah Robinson to give a talk at Taliesin West where I shared the platform with Juhani Pallasmaa, the Finnish architect and architectural scholar.

Discussions with Juhani have been crucial in extending my conversations to emphasize the experience and design of the built environment, marking the beginning of the many friendships and intense and informative discussions and debates with architects that have helped inform the book.

How Architecture Connects to Science

Architects and neuroscientists think about the world in very different ways and I have sought to exemplify the excitement and challenge of learning much that is new because of these differences.

The book aims to catalyze further conversations by enriching the shared vocabulary of all concerned, with diverse examples linking particular buildings to the scientific principles that illuminate them and that can be illuminated by them in turn.

Here is a sampling of the interleaving of architectural examples with related cognitive concepts:

  • Peter Zumthor’s Therme at Vals introduces the action-perception cycle of the users of buildings, as well as affordances for action and the multi-modality of perception, but also gets us thinking about the relation between the physical construction of the building and the mental construction involved in its design. 
  • Lina Bo Bardi’s Sao Paulo Art Museum introduces the notions of wayfinding and cognitive maps, but also gets us to consider the extent to which architects engage with scripts for how people will behave in buildings of a certain type and yet can defy those scripts in innovative ways. 
  • Discussion of the Parthenon and various works by Le Corbusier illustrates the challenge of integrating “engineering aesthetics” and “architectural aesthetics” as a variation on the form-function theme. It also leads to a discussion of how a particular style of architecture can be considered a language, and ways in which it should not.
temple garden kyoto
Temple garden in Kyoto. Image: David Emrich on Unsplash
  • A temple garden in Kyoto and the Castle in Edinburgh help introduce the notion of atmosphere and extend the notion of affordances as perceptual cues for action from the realm of practical action to the realm of mood and emotion.
  • Libraries in Stockholm, Berlin, Los Angeles, and Seattle are used to further our discussion of wayfinding and cognitive maps, but also to introduce the role of symbolism in architecture – leading us to assess the relationship between such symbolism and the use of symbols in conveying meaning through language.
  • The interactive space Ada, mentioned earlier, was designed to interact with visitors in a manner driven in some sense by its “emotions.” This leads to the discussion of neuromorphic architecture, of “brains” for buildings more generally.
sydney opera house
Sydney Opera House. Image: Tyler Duston on Unsplash
  • WOHA’s Kampung Admiralty in Singapore emphasizes the role that buildings can play in creating a sense of community, exemplifies biophilia by bringing nature into the urban environment, and views architecture as creating systems of systems.
  • Finally, detailed case studies of Jørn Utzon’s design of the Sydney Opera House and Frank Gehry’s design of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao set the stage for exploring the linkage of spatial navigation, visual perception, action, memory, and imagination in architectural design.

How Science Connects to Architecture

Such cognitive-level concepts may suffice for architects seeking practical insights directly applicable to design, while work in artificial intelligence (AI) may power most progress in neuromorphic architecture. Nonetheless, the study of the brain enriches understanding of these concepts and our existence as embrained, embodied social creatures. Again, just a few examples:

  • One insight, surprising to many architects, is that study of the human brain does not exhaust what we can learn from neuroscience. For example, contrasting the visual circuitry of frogs and mammals leads us to consider two very different strategies for action-oriented perception, and leads us to complementary approaches to visual aesthetics.
Pathways lnking visual cortex to circuits controlling arm and hand movements. Image: Author’s archive.
  • Complementing Pallasmaa’s classic treatment of The Thinking Hand, we look at two pathways linking the visual cortex to circuits controlling arm and hand movements in monkeys and humans and discover that, via these pathways, affordances can support both the conscious assessment of affordances (the “what” pathway: shall I grasp that mug by the rim or the handle?) and the subconscious use of details to set motor parameters (the “how” pathway: shaping my hand to match the size, shape, and location of the handle). This perspective extends to the ways we interact with the built environment.
  • Recording electrical activity of individual neurons in monkey brains revealed the existence of mirror neurons — neurons active both when a particular type of action is performed by the monkey and when it recognizes a similar action being performed by another. Such neurons support part of the brain’s capacity for action recognition and also for empathy (as suggested by human brain imaging, which probes relative activity of brain regions rather than single neurons). This neuroscience introduces a discussion of how motor systems, and not just visual perception, may play a key role in the aesthetic appreciation of art and architecture.
  • The study of atmosphere and empathy leads us to consider neural mechanisms that support motivation and emotion; the study of Ada invokes efforts to compare neurobiology with efforts to endow robots with aspects of emotion.
  • Discussion of the Todai-Ji temple in Nara and Notre-Dame de Paris leads us into a brain imaging study that seeks to probe the underpinnings of contemplative architecture.

Studies of the hippocampus in rats and humans showed that it plays a crucial role in navigation and episodic memory, respectively. We accept the challenge to assess how in humans both these and also imagination are supported by the interaction of the hippocampus with other brain regions. This enriches our efforts to chart the beginnings of a new cognitive neuroscience of design.

The book offers a double payoff – not only raising the level of interaction between architecture and cog/neuroscience but also in providing an accessible introduction to the interplay of brains and buildings for anyone who thinks about buildings and is intrigued by ongoing attempts to unravel the brain’s mysteries.

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Michael Arbib. Image:

Michael A. Arbib is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, Former and Founding Coordinator of the ANFA Advisory Council, and Emeritus (University of Southern California): University Professor, and Professor of Computer Science, Biological Sciences, Biomedical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Neuroscience, and Psychology.

His first book, Brains, Machines, and Mathematics (McGraw-Hill, 1964), set the course of his career in both computer science and neuroscience. His current research has two main themes, and he is constructing connections between them.

One builds on a paper on language evolution published with Giacomo Rizzolatti, leader of the group that discovered mirror neurons, called “Language in our Grasp.” He has since developed this in How the Brain Got Language: The Mirror System Hypothesis (OUP, 2012) and the edited volume How the Brain Got Language: Towards a New Road Map (Benjamins, 2020).

His involvement with neuroscience of the experience and design of architecture, and neuromorphic architecture has found extended expression in When Brains Meet Buildings (OUP,2021).