Designing for Creativity: What Does Neuroscience Say?

Image: Jr Korpa on Unsplash

This article was originally published in the Architecture Snob magazine, issue December 2022.

Today, we spend about eighty to ninety percent of our time inside buildings. We now also know that our brains and bodies are affected by contact with architecture, and the interest in understanding the environment’s impact on human wellbeing is growing.

There are many new studies on this topic released every year, and architectural studios are employing the services of human experience researchers and consultants.

Scientists are still in the process of identifying which environmental factors are most important for optimal human performance. However, many studies already show that so-called “environmental enrichment” benefits mice and rats, which are quite similar to humans in terms of DNA.

Enriched environment for research mice. Image:

Enriched environments with enough cognitive, somatosensory, motor, and social stimulation not only influence the behavior of rodents but also promote the formation of new neurons (neurogenesis) and new neuronal connections (neuroplasticity).

Architects still don’t recognize that the buildings they design change the brains of those who use them.

One of the scientists researching these topics is Professor Fred Gage, a world-renowned neuroscientist, and president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Gage’s research focuses on the central nervous system and its ability to adapt. As he emphasizes, architects still don’t recognize that the buildings they design change the brains of those who use them.

The Beginnings of Neuroscience in Architecture

Assisi, Italy. Image: Achim Ruhnau on Unsplash

But the dialog between architecture and neuroscience has been going on for a couple of decades now. Basic research at the intersection of these fields is being carried out using tools such as wearable sensors and non-invasive brain imaging. They allow us to study the neural mechanisms underlying the perception of art and architecture. 

It’s said that the history of the marriage between neurobiology and architecture began with Jonas Salk, an American virologist and one of the researchers who developed the polio vaccine. In the 1950s, Salk spent several weeks in Assisi, Italy, working on the vaccine. The scientist later referred to his stay in this charming place: 

“The spirituality of the architecture there was so inspiring that I was able to do intuitive thinking far beyond any I had done in the past. Under the influence of that historic place I intuitively designed the research that I felt would result in a vaccine for polio. I returned to my laboratory in Pittsburgh to validate my concepts and found that they were correct.”

Jonas Salk

Years later, when Salk was already a well-known scientist, he decided to invest in the creation of a research center in La Jolla, San Diego, nowadays known as the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. In the early 1990s, shortly before his death, Salk reportedly suggested to researchers at a conference at the institute that they take steps to better understand the impact of architecture on the human brain. 

In 2003, almost a decade after his death, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was founded. John Eberhard, architect and founder of the institution pointed out that knowledge of neuroscience could help architects design hospitals where people recovered faster, schools where students memorized information more easily, and offices where people collaborated better.

Creativity and Architecture

So how can neuroscience inform the design of spaces that foster creativity? In the western tradition, creativity is often defined as the ability to “generate ideas”. Conclusions from many studies show that creativity is related, among other things, to:

  • The appropriate level of psychophysical arousal – moderate levels of stimulation enhance creativity, while too high or too low levels inhibit it
  • Fun and surprise – creative thinking is facilitated by, for example, humor
  • Ambivalence – people who experience ambivalence tend to recognize unusual relationships between concepts
  • Curiosity and the search for new stimuli  – novelty positively influences our ability to search for and generate ideas

In addition, modern neuroscience research suggests that an individual’s ability to create new ideas depends on the quality of the functional connections within three brain networks:

  • Executive control network – responsible for mental skills such as attention, working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control
  • Salience Network – responsible for organizing information
  • Default Mode Network – related to imaginative thinking

Conditions conducive to creative thinking should be dynamic. They should help us to shift our attention from the environment inwards and the other way around. These spaces should be enriched environments stimulating users sensorily, cognitively, physically, and socially. 

Default Mode Network. Image:

The feeling of ambivalence and surprise, and often also positive emotions, is associated with the use of art objects, artistic installations, or interactive elements in the design of space. The operation of such elements is based on evoking emotions that, in turn, provoke thinking, intrigue, and break the routine. 

Similar ambivalent and creative feelings accompany the users when they come across unusual, surprising solutions in the space, which are different from what the user would usually expect for a given function, as well as non-obvious and different behaviors and emotions than expected.

Greenery, Serendipity, and Movement

Using greenery or other biophilic design elements and motifs imitating nature can also impact creativity and is related to the Attention Restoration Theory. It was proposed in the 1980s by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. It is based on the notion that people can focus better after interacting with nature. Scientists have noticed that after prolonged brain activity and intense focus, even a short time spent in contact with greenery restores the ability to concentrate. 

The benefits of contact with nature inspire biophilic design. Image: Irina Iriser on Unsplash

Another aspect of contact with nature is experiencing organic forms, smells, sounds, textures, and structures, which, combined with the accompanying relaxation, inspire and stimulate thinking and creativity. When stimulating creativity, it is not only about using biophilic design in architecture and interior design. It is also about creating views of greenery from windows and green surroundings of buildings.

Spaces supporting creativity also need to enable social interactions and contact between people with different points of view. An interesting phenomenon stimulated by properly designed architecture is the so-called serendipity – accidentally running into someone, starting a conversation, joining an ongoing conversation in a non-committal way, and feeling inspired under the influence of such a meeting.

International Sharing School, Oeiras, Portugal. Image: Kim Wendt / Rosan Bosch

Designers can also encourage movement and changing postures. Being in one unchanging position causes fatigue and a decrease in concentration. From the point of view of neuroscience, this phenomenon is associated with the vestibular-proprioceptive system, which affects balance, awareness of space, proper muscle tone, coordination, and fluidity of movement. 

In the workplace, various types of seats, desks, and tables can be used to support posture change from sitting to standing, rocking, spinning, or sitting in an unusual way. Users’ movement can also be triggered by solutions that allow them to modify the space, like by moving walls, furniture, or panels.

Playful Learning

Knowledge about stimulation of creativity through motion is a part of the concept of playful learning, which is based on discovery and experimentation. These principles are used by, among others, the Danish designer Rosan Bosch, who, in the ARKUOS project, a center of innovative educational experiences in Langreo, Spain, used several design solutions that stimulate the creativity of users through activity. 

ARKUOS, center of innovative educational experiences in Langreo, Spain. Image: Kim Wendt / Rosan Bosch

Open and adaptable spaces create a flow between the interior and actions and reactions to it. It is a place where children and young people play to learn based on innate curiosity, an intrinsic part of human development. 

Another architectural studio whose designs are based on the principles of playful learning is the Swiss studio ZMIK. Their Basel primary school features multifunctional common spaces that give the users the freedom to spend time, relax, and learn simultaneously.

The corridors are divided into five zones – two locker rooms, two educational landscapes, and one central recreation area. Each learning landscape has interactive and inspiring elements, such as jumping platforms, lockers, slides, and viewpoints. It is a space where children want to explore and move around. 

Primary school in Basel. Image: WEISSWERT / ZMIK

Neuroscience applied to architecture shifts the focus from visual aesthetics to the multisensory and embodied experience of architecture. It also helps designers consider different perspectives (cognitive, behavioral, sociological) of specific populations directly affected by the project whose needs are difficult to determine intuitively (children, adolescents, neurodiverse people, or the elderly). 

Finally, the scientific quantification and interpretation of human experience through the use of portable neuroimaging instruments and biosensors is becoming a way to assess the impact of design on users, and improving the efficiency of the design process itself. Designed human experience becomes measurable and tangible.

Creating interdisciplinary teams with specialists who understand neuroscience and psychology, and architects specializing in translational research from neuroscience, we increase the likelihood that properly designed spaces based on research findings will support creativity.

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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.

Selected References:

Baas, M., De Dreu, C. K. W., & Nijstad, B. A. (2008). A meta-analysis of 25 years of mood-creativity research: Hedonic tone, activation, or regulatory focus? Psychological Bulletin

Filipowicz, Allan. (2010). From Positive Affect to Creativity: The Surprising Role of Surprise. Creativity Research Journal 

Schubert, Emery (2021). Creativity Is Optimal Novelty and Maximal Positive Affect: A New Definition Based on the Spreading Activation Model. Front. Neurosci.

Ting Fong, Christina. (2006). The Effects of Emotional Ambivalence on Creativity. Academy of Management Journal

Schubert, Emery (2021). Creativity Is Optimal Novelty and Maximal Positive Affect: A New Definition Based on the Spreading Activation Model. Front. Neurosci.

Beaty et al. (2018). Robust prediction of individual creative ability from brain functional connectivity. PNAS