We now know that the way we design places can influence how attached people will get to them. Multiple factors take part in this. For example, the meaning of the place for a specific person, the level of emotional connection, and the quality of what we call “cognitive maps”.
These maps are built in our mind through physical exploration of an environment and the activation of “place cells” within the hippocampal formation, located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. Cognitive maps are both the basis for our understanding of spatial relationships and drive our ability to navigate our environment.
In people with Alzheimer’s disease, neurodegeneration leads to the decreased ability to encode and retrieve new information, resulting in spatial memory impairment. In healthy people, the cognitive mapping process can be supported or disrupted depending on the environment design and external cues.
In this article, I will suggest a tool that can be implemented in the design of a place to help improve cognitive mapping and so increase people’s place attachment.
Wakeful Rest Builds Cognitive Maps
Laboratory studies of rodents have long shown that cognitive maps are strengthened during sleep through the neuronal replay of recently traveled routes.
Recent research in humans has shown that the same neurophysiological rhythms found in sleep are present during wakeful rest, marked by the increase of slow oscillatory EEG rhythm and decrease in alpha activity. This state correlates with improved reactivation and consolidation of memory in the hippocampus.
Furthermore, the brain uses periods of wakeful rest as an opportunity to internally explore never-before-experienced routes or possible shortcuts in the environment. In other terms, resting helps us form better cognitive maps.
In one virtual reality study, participants were asked to explore a new environment. Immediately afterward, half of the group spent ten minutes in wakeful rest and the other half completed an unrelated perceptual task. The group that rested showed improved accuracy on a subsequent cognitive map test.
Phenomenologically, memory was improved during these virtual reality studies when the individual’s mind was allowed to wander rather than focus on a specific task or external stimuli.
This mind-wandering is a form of taking the brain offline and allowing the neural mechanisms of memory consolidation to activate.
On the other hand, the integration and consolidation of new memories can be disrupted through the introduction of new information from external stimuli, as seen in the group that completed a perceptual task immediately following their exploration of the virtual environment.
Designing for Wakeful Rest
I would propose that these results can inform our understanding of how the brain forms cognitive maps and thus impact how we should design our built environment.
If an environment offers places that allow and encourage pause and rest, spatial memory can be strengthened. This will lead to the formation of better cognitive maps resulting in increased place attachment.
Our urban and architectural environments tend to mimic our daily lives, bustling, destination-driven, and often uninspired. A bench is often an afterthought, added mechanically to the floor plan.
This research suggests we should be designing places of pause strategically into our built environment. This is especially relevant in places where users would benefit most from familiarization, for example where children and the elderly visit.
Architects and urban designers who wish to develop attachment between the environment and its users should also consider these research findings. There are many ways of creating places of pause. These can be window seats, hallway nooks, social stairs, and places of individual prospect and refuge.
The incorporation of places of pause should be considered in both indoor architectural spaces and outdoor urban areas. These places intentionally encourage mind-wandering which, as shown in these research studies, can benefit spatial learning and provide cognitive rejuvenation.
If architects and urban planners implement design techniques that encourage inattentive rest or pause, then their buildings and cities will become more memorable and easy to navigate on return.
- Place attachment is an important factor in how connected people feel to a space and, in turn, how good they feel in it.
- Cognitive maps are virtual representations of a place in our brain. The better our cognitive map, the better our understanding of it.
- Having well-built cognitive maps can increase people’s place attachment.
- Resting helps our brain to build better cognitive maps.
- Designing places with wakeful rest in mind can thus lead to increased place attachment.
- For this, designers can use elements such as alcoves, nooks, window seats, benches, social stairs, or places of prospect and refuge.
This article was first published in its original form at The Centre for Conscious Design.
Miriam Hoffman is an architect and design researcher at Impronta and The Centre for Conscious Design, operating at the intersection of architecture and neuroscience. She seeks to examine and inform a more human-centered architecture through researching how the brain and body are impacted by the physical environment.
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