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Understanding the Experience of Architecture, Part 1

Image: Kai Dahms on Unsplash

This article was originally published in Polish language, in the IARP magazine (Chamber of Architects of the Republic of Poland), issue Z:A 86.

The twentieth century was a time of progress in structural engineering. It resulted in taller, more solid, and technologically innovative buildings. However, recent decades have seen an increased interest in the human experience of space.

Today, people spend about eighty to ninety percent of their lives indoors. This fact makes it crucial to investigate the relationship between the experience of architecture and its impact on human health and well-being.

Until recently, the study of the effects of architecture on humans was the domain of environmental psychology. But in the past few years, we have gotten new tools to study the neural mechanisms underlying the perception of art and architecture.

The overarching goal of this interdisciplinary approach to architecture is to build a living environment, and spaces contributing to the flourishing of humans.

Among these tools were advances in neuroscience and the development of imaging techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG).

The combination of neuroscience and architecture offers new insights into spatial design and helps us to understand how buildings affect the biology of our bodies, especially the nervous system.

After all, it’s the part responsible for cognitive functioning, the synchronization of our biological cycles, coordination of internal organs, secretion of hormones, and the functioning of the immune system.

The overarching goal of this interdisciplinary approach to architecture is to build a living environment, and spaces contributing to the flourishing of humans.

Portable imaging methods like this EEG cap are making it easier to measure the brain’s responses to real environment. Image: cognionics.com

Since 2003, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) has been operating globally from the United States. This pioneering organization brings together researchers and practitioners interested in the relationship between neuroscience and architecture. ANFA organizes workshops and conferences connecting these two areas.

However, applying neuroscience research to architecture is still new to the design world. Still, research groups are popping up every year. For example, there’s the Lise Meitner Group at the Institute of Human Development, Max Planck in Berlin, the Environmental Neuroscience Lab at the University of Chicago (USA), and the Urban Realities Laboratory, led by Colin Ellard at the University of Waterloo in Toronto (Canada). Basic research in these laboratories will create theoretical foundations for this new field.

The world’s first consultancy firms specializing in applying this knowledge are also emerging. They translate neuroscience and behavioral research into architectural design language to increase users’ well-being.

In addition, many architectural theorists draw from the discoveries of neuroscience and combine research findings with design theory. We can mention names like Sarah Robinson, Juhani Pallasmaa, and Harry Mallgrave.

The team of the Environmental Neuscience Lab at the University of Chicago. Image: uchicago.edu

The first educational programs were created in the last decade in this field. For example, the New School of Architecture & Design in San Diego (United States) organizes a four-day course on Neuroscience in Architecture. The IUAV University in Venice, one of the oldest architectural schools in Italy, also created a complete master’s degree program in Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design.

Apart from neuroscience in architecture, there’s also the new field of “neuroaesthetics.” The term was coined by Semir Zeki, a world-renowned neuroscientist at the University College of London.

He devoted several decades to studying neural correlates of beauty perception. Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University (USA), says: “To put it simply, neuroaesthetics is the study of how our brain and biology change when exposed to art. “

The terms “neuroscience in architecture” and “neuroaesthetics” are often used interchangeably. However, the scope of neuroscience in architecture is broader, as it covers issues related to perception, emotions, and cognitive aspects of architectural experience and topics such as decision-making processes, building navigation, and design for user groups with specific needs. 

Experience In Motion

To illustrate the main factors of architectural experience in neuroscience, we use a model called the “neuroaesthetic triad,” proposed in 2017 by three neuroscientists: Alex Coburn, Oshin Vartanian, and Anjan Chatterjee.

This model assumes that architectural experience is a product of three physiological systems: sensorimotor networks, the knowledge and meaning system, and the emotion and evaluation system. Of course, this neuro-aesthetic triad, like many other scientific models, is a simulation of reality and will probably evolve with the progress of basic research. Let’s take a closer look at each of its elements.

Diagram showing the neuroaesthetic triad. Source: A. Coburn, O. Vartanian, A. Chatterjee, Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2017, 29 (9)

1. Sensomotoric Networks

The first element of the triad is sensorimotor networks, which can be considered “keepers” of architectural experience.

The built environment stimulates our external and internal senses. Traditionally, architecture has attached great importance to visual experience. Juhani Pallasmaa, Finnish architect and architectural theorist, writes about the “hegemony of sight.”

The non-visual experience of architecture is shaped mainly by information flowing through sensory channels such as hearing, touch, and smell.

The sensorimotor network. Image: Bi, Bo & Che, Dongfang & Bai, Yuyin. (2022). Neural network of bipolar disorder: Toward integration of neuroimaging and neurocircuit-based treatment strategies. Translational Psychiatry. 12. 143. 10.1038/s41398-022-01917-x, CC BY 4.0

During our contact with architecture, however, other internal senses are involved. For example, there’s the “vestibular sense” – the sense of balance or the “sense of proprioception” responsible for the so-called depth feeling, transmitting an impulse about the body’s position in space.

The experience of architecture is dynamic, so to understand it, we need to understand the relations between the senses and the human motor system.

And from the point of view of “embodied cognition,” a paradigm used in cognitive science, human cognition is always the result of an interplay between the senses and the body’s motor skills. How we perceive the world depends on the context in which we find ourselves. This is its dynamic character.

2. The Knowledge And Meaning System

The neuro-aesthetic triad’s second component is the knowledge and meaning systems based on personal experiences, culture, and education. They shape our interactions with the built environment. 

It’s known, for example, that expertise affects our aesthetic experience. Results of studies using fMRI (magnetic resonance) suggest that when architecture students look at buildings, different areas of their brains light up than in students of other disciplines.

Another experiment showed that architects, compared to non-architects, showed greater activation of the hippocampus (a part of the limbic system essential for memory and learning) when looking at buildings. However, when they looked at human faces, this area didn’t activate. 

This finding suggests that education and work experience contribute to developing strong emotional responses to architecture. And that architects and designers need to be mindful of this difference. The architecture users rarely have architectural education, after all, and their reactions to it will differ from industry peers.

The architecture users rarely have architectural education, after all, and their reactions to it will differ from industry peers.

Cultural significance can also shape expectations and change the experience of space. For example, people tend to give a higher rating to expensive buildings designed by famous architects, to those perceived as “green,” or to objects related to a specific historical period, event, or style.

Knowing the intended function of a building can also influence the expectations of experience – preparing for a visit to a hospital puts us in a different state of mind than the anticipation of entering a Gothic church.

Another way our brains change through experiencing spaces is the creation of so-called “cognitive maps.” As we experience and move around a space, our mind creates cognitive maps by activating site cells and mesh cells in the hippocampus.

Creating these maps helps us navigate more efficiently when we come back to the same space in the future and becomes the basis of some learned responses to the built environment.

3. System Of Emotions And Evaluation 

The neuro-aesthetic triad’s third element is the emotion and evaluation system. This system handles the feelings and emotions evoked by buildings and urban spaces.

People’s emotions in the presence of architecture, such as beauty, seem to be caused by the activation of the reward centers and circuits in the brain. Research findings suggest that building interiors with curvilinear (curved) elements are judged to be more beautiful and pleasing than those with rectilinear (angled) geometric lines.

Interiors with smoothly curved elements seem to be judged as more beautiful and pleasing than those with sharp-angled elements. Image: Jason Wang on Unsplash

The limbic system in the brain, responsible for the regulation of emotions, then influences the secretion of hormones and the action of the so-called “autonomic nervous system.” This system innervates the organs of our body, and we can’t control it consciously. This means that the emotions we experience because of architecture can affect how our bodies work.

The close interaction of the limbic system with the autonomous nervous system is responsible for the stress response. This is how we know chronic exposure to an unsuitable built environment can adversely affect health.

In the second part of this article, we will look at how architects can use this knowledge to design spaces that enable human flourishing. We will touch upon the topics of biophilic design and designing for neurodiversity and look at inspirational examples of applying these approaches.


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Marta Wierusz

Marta Wierusz is an Architecture and Town Planning graduate at the Łódź University of Technology. She studied Art Therapy at the Academy of Special Education in Warsaw and received an Erasmus scholarship at the Fachhochschule Mainz in Germany. Marta is a laureate of the competition “Good Innovations,” organized by Zamek Cieszyn, and runs the interior design team at APA Wojciechowski architectural studio. She specializes in sustainable and inclusive design, especially for neuro-divergent people and the elderly. Her purpose is to expand and promote knowledge in the field of design that puts people in the center and positively impacts users’ health and well-being. She cooperates with the A / typowi Foundation dealing with neurodiversity.

Natalia Olszewska is a Researcher and Practitioner in Neuroscience Applied to Architecture. Being a graduate in medicine (Jagiellonian University & Tor Vergata), neuroscience (Sorbonne Université & ENS), Brain and Mind studies (UCL) and ‘Neuroscience applied to Architectural Design’ (IUAV university) she works between disciplines and creates insights for people-centered environments.
At work, she combines her deep care for people and their well-being with her passion for architecture and design. Natalia is a co-founder of Impronta, behavioral science and neuroscience consultancy for architecture.

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