Anjan Chatterjee: We are constantly responding to our environment without being aware of it

Anjan Chatterjee. Image: Archive of Anjan Chatterjee

Anjan Chatterjee is a Professor of Neurology, Psychology, and Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and the founding director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics.

He received his BA in Philosophy from Haverford College, his MD from the University of Pennsylvania, and his neurology residency from the University of Chicago. Formerly Chair of Neurology at Pennsylvania Hospital, Dr. Chatterjee’s research interests include neuroaesthetics, spatial cognition, language, and neuroethics.

Anjan is the author of The Aesthetic Brain: How we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art.

Natalia Olszewska: Anjan, could you tell our readers about your background?

Anjan Chatterjee: I’m a neurologist and a cognitive neuroscientist. For over thirty years, I’ve studied spatial attention, language, and the relationship between language and space. I’ve done work in neuroethics because advances in neuroscience have ethical implications for how we live.

I have also been working in neuroaesthetics for over twenty years. When I started in the late nineties, there was almost nothing in the scientific literature on this topic. If you look at the publication rates in neuroaesthetics and neuroarchitecture, there was an inflection about ten years ago where the field started to take off.

We’re now reaching a tipping point where architects are becoming interested in neuroscience.

We’re now reaching a tipping point where architects are becoming interested in neuroscience. However, the relationship hasn’t been symmetrical. There aren’t many people from neuroscience interested in architecture, which is unfortunate.

I distinguish between descriptive neuroaesthetics and experimental neuroaesthetics, and the same goes for neuroarchitecture. There are people who talk about neuroarchitecture, and what they’re doing is taking information from neuroscience and then mapping it onto concepts in architecture. Nothing is wrong with that, but it lends itself to making big claims that are largely untested.

For this field  to mature and have a solid foundation, it needs to be grounded in experimental research where people are doing experiments and not just saying, “This is how the visual system works” or “This is how spatial navigation works, and we should apply this idea to the built environment.” That’s fine, but the field will wear itself out in the long run if not animated by a robust research program.

Publication rates about neuroaesthetic are rising sharply. Image: Google Ngram Viewer

When talking to designers, I often make a point – a prominent idea in neuroscience right now is the concept of “prediction error,” which is a core mechanism of how we learn and create models of the world. You make a prediction, then information comes in, and your model is either confirmed or not confirmed. If it’s not confirmed, you make adjustments.

Architects and designers predict how occupants will feel and function in the spaces they create and design. They may be correct, they may be brilliant, and have fantastic intuition, but they don’t know if their predictions are accurate unless they collect post-occupancy information.

When the job is done, most designers and architects wipe their hands and move on to the next thing. Very few go back to learn about how their designs work in practice. I can imagine why.

It could be threatening because if the residents do not enjoy what you have created and do not live up to your prediction, it could be bad for publicity. However, if you want to learn and adapt your design practice, you have to gather information from the users.

Architecture is a Public Health Measure

Natalia: When I was studying medicine, I wasn’t delighted for several reasons, and at that time, I became interested in the Eastern approach and Chinese concepts of what health and illness are. Many Eastern cultures are more interested in prevention, and Western medicine is disease-oriented. Only in the last few decades have we in the West started to talk more about prevention through exercise and diet.

Recently, we are hearing that buildings and urban design could also become a pillar of public health as a means of prevention. What do you think about this? Do you believe that by integrating human sciences into design, we can make a difference and support people’s wellbeing and health?

If you want to learn and adapt your design practice, you must gather information from the users.

Anjan: Yes, definitely. Within psychology, the positive psychology movement started about twenty-five years ago at the University of Pennsylvania.

Historically, psychology looked at pathology – it used to ask, “What’s wrong with people, and how can we fix them?” In the same way, medicine is very much about disease and pathology models.

But positive psychology introduced the idea that aspects of human flourishing can be nurtured in the absence of overt pathology. It asks: “What is it that makes us feel good? What allows people to flourish? And can those factors be guided and encouraged?”

Other parts of the world have historically been more sensitive to human flourishing, and I would put aesthetics in that general category. I have a guest appointment in Guangzhou, China. Aesthetics is more integrated into the culture in China in a way that it is not in the US. Even in Europe, it is integrated  more so than in the US.

The US tends to be a very practical and technology-driven culture – if we have a problem, technology should be able to solve it. And the idea of slowing down and paying attention to our environment, especially the aesthetics of the environment, is often seen as a luxury for the wealthy.

The idea of slowing down and paying attention to our environment, especially the aesthetics of the environment, is often seen as a luxury for the wealthy.

The pandemic forced people to confront the idea because for two years, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when people were confined to their homes indoors, they realized how their built environment affects them. In a way, it’s made presentations easier for me because people have an intuition about what I’m talking about from their own lived experience.

To your question, there are undoubtedly practical things about the health effects of the built environment. In the US, there’s a conversation about gas stoves and how healthy it is to have them in the home. But there’s also the issue of the attractiveness of the environment.

We can go back to the Vitruvian triad of architecture. Vitruvius was very clear about “aesthetics” as something different from “utility”. But in the first half of the 20th century, utility was conflated with aesthetics, and only now are we realizing that there is a distinction.

Surrounding ourselves with beauty and an environment that positively affects our mental state is essential. And most of us in the materially developed world spend ninety per cent of our time indoors and in urban space. There’s no other single factor that affects us for that much of our time.

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

Michal Matlon: Some people in design practice say: “Well, how can we talk about beauty if beauty is subjective?” What is your answer to that?

Anjan: People will say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as a metaphor for how subjective the reaction is, and my response is usually “beauty is more in the brain of the beholder than in the eye, and our brains are more similar than different”.

In empirical aesthetics, if you think about the different beauty domains, you can think about people, faces and bodies, natural landscapes, built environments, architecture, and art.

There is a continuum of how consistently people respond to beauty. People are quite consistent in which faces and bodies they find beautiful. People are also reasonably consistent with natural landscapes. When it comes to human artifacts, people become much more variable.

Our assumption is that we all have the same evolutionary heritage in our brains, and we’ve evolved to respond to certain features, so there’s more inconsistency when it comes to things people make than with natural kinds.

Together with Oshin Vartanian, I have written about the  Neuroaesthetic Triad, which involves sensory-motor features of anything you’re engaging with, and there is an emotional reaction to it. 

Beauty is often pleasurable, but it can also evoke more nuanced emotions, such as fear, joy, or wonder. There can also be anger, frustration, all of which can become aesthetic emotions in the right setting.

Finally, there’s a semantic component, a meaning and knowledge component, where much of the variability comes in. The way we talk about the world influences our aesthetic experience. We all have different educational backgrounds, so there will be variability.

We have been finding and spreading the idea that there are at least three core psychological dimensions of how people respond to the environment:  

  1. Coherence – how organized is a space, how legible it is
  2. Fascination how informationally dense is the space, how interesting is it, and whether it makes you feel like exploring it
  1. Hominess – whether you feel comfortable, as though you belong there
Three core psychological dimensions of people’s response to the environment.

There’s much more work to be done, but our intuition is that these three components apply to everyone, no matter where you grow up. The specific nature of what you find fascinating or homelike may vary depending on your background and culture. Still, the underlying sense is that you need security and nourishment, expressed in these components.

The way these components are weighed can vary in different groups. In the case of people on the autism spectrum, fascination didn’t have the same importance as it did for neurotypical people in one of our studies.

In the first half of the 20th century, utility was conflated with aesthetics, and only now are we realizing that there is a distinction.

This is because fascination is about something that is informationally dense and complex, and becomes overwhelming for people on the spectrum.

On the other hand, we now have two studies showing that people trained in design value coherence more than those not trained. So if you’re a designer, you need to be aware of that difference and adjust your design to meet the needs of the people you’re designing for.

This is a very long answer to a simple question. Yes, there is variability. All of our educational backgrounds, the time and history that we’re living in, and where in the world we’re living bring that variability. At the same time, there are more abstract dimensions underneath that we all share.

How to Align Architecture and the Public?

Michal: The general public’s preferences are often quite different from what architects prefer and how they design. If we want to change that to create a better environment for people, do architects need to understand these dimensions and the differences you talked about? Do we need to start talking about specific changes in how we design? Many people are discussing the importance of biophilic qualities like symmetry and fractals, for example.

The difference between people’s preferences and built architecture comes up in polls. Image: Americans’ Preferred Architecture for Federal Buildings

Anjan: It’s early days, and I don’t want to be prescriptive because we want to be open to exploring everything. I want architects to at least know about the three components I mentioned so that it becomes part of their thinking.

I am very clear when I give talks – I’m not an architect or a designer. I’m not telling you how to design, but there are things that we know about the human experience that should be incorporated in your framework.

You can imagine that if you’re designing a sports stadium, you want the fascination to be high. You want people to be excited, which is very different from designing a library, and it’s helpful to have those constructs in mind.

One question arises: “Do you know what the public wants?” The public comprises many different kinds of people, and often the public doesn’t know what they want, or they only know after the fact. For example, people go to art museums and say: “I don’t know why this is art. Why is that Jackson Pollock on the wall? My kid could do that.”

There could be something similar in architecture. Someone looks at a building, and because it is unfamiliar, the first reaction is, “That looks terrible”. At the same time, there needs to be education of the public, to help them be aware of their own experience and feelings around buildings.

Surrounding ourselves with beauty and an environment that positively affects our mental state is essential.

I’ll make an analogy. In our work in the arts we are developing a vocabulary, a taxonomy of how to even look at entirely unfamiliar art and ask yourself what you are feeling. I give the example of any complex sensory experience, like wine tasting or whiskey tasting. 

People might have a first impression that they like it or don’t like it. But if you go beyond that, if an expert says, “There are hints of vanilla, and then I can sense some cardamom, and it has a leathery finish,” you hear those words, and then you start to experience those tastes.

You start to realize how complex this is. The experience can be broken down, and you better understand what you’re experiencing and what you like. It’s a process of self-discovery. The same thing could happen in architecture: people could be given some tools to get a sense of what they like even before the fact.

That is why the iterative process of post-occupancy evaluation is essential. What are people experiencing? How do you use that to guide the thinking of the architects and designers and the thinking of those who occupy those spaces? 

There needs to be education of the public, to help them be aware of their own experience and feelings around buildings.

Michal: I appreciate how you approached the topic of public education because often, when people from architecture talk about educating the public, they usually want to explain to the public why a specific building or style is good.

But you are saying that we need to educate people to be sensitive to their own experiences and feelings and be able to think about them. This seems to me like a sensible approach to educating the public.

Natalia: You talked about the complexity of sensory and aesthetic experiences. It reminds me of my experience as a panelist discussing a movie about the architecture of Wolf Prix. He belongs to architectural deconstructivism and he creates what some people might perceive as crazy buildings.

When I first saw the movie I thought that his architecture was terrible, that this was not how we should approach architecture in the 21st century and his buildings are so divorced from human experience. 

When I saw it again, I started to appreciate the details of his buildings, and I realized that they fascinate me. There’s so much novelty in them, and I love novelty. I often feel that starchitects are entirely disconnected from the users, and favoring just art and experimentation isn’t the best way to design for people. But part of me was fascinated by his experiments and approach to shapes, forms, and abstraction.

Why is Neuroscience so Alluring?

Natalia: But I wanted to ask you, why are we so obsessed with neuroscience or the prefix “neuro”? Is it because we live in the age of biology? Do we want to validate everything with biological underpinnings? Is it a form of rationalization?

Anjan: There was a paper published in 2008, called “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations”. Let me give you an example from my lab. Every few months, we ask, “What is the added value of neuroscience?” “What does neuroscience give you that a good behavioral or psychological study doesn’t?” And the answer is usually not very much.

The Aesthetic Brain

Neuroscience can sometimes give you confidence that hidden brain responses are going on that you are not aware of. The built environment is a classic example of this because we are constantly responding to our environment without being aware of it.

There is a kind of seduction to neuroscience, especially for people suspicious of psychology. If somebody says, “But it’s in the brain,” then people feel more confident that this finding is somehow real and psychology isn’t real.

In my lab, we believe that an excellent behavioral experiment will give you most of what you want. The neural data can confirm that and point you in new directions. You can’t do a good neuroscience experiment if you don’t have a handle on behavior. Neuroscience findings might generate novel hypotheses that would then be worth pursuing. 

People often ask me if I can just put someone in a scanner and get something useful out of it. The answer is no unless you have a question that is rooted in behavior, and another mantra in my lab is: “The question is the question. “ Unless you know what question you’re asking, you don’t have a good experiment, and to know what question you’re asking, you have to have some handle on behavior.

Natalia: John Eberhard, one of the founders of Academy of Neuroscience For Architecture (ANFA), used to say in his early publications that if we applied the knowledge of neuroscience to architecture, we could design classrooms where some of the cognitive functions of students could be supported, hospital rooms where people would recover more quickly. He was very specific about his vision. What do you think about statements like that? 

Anjan: First, it’s great that people think at that level of detail and granularity, so I applaud that move. You mentioned biophilic design. Everyone in design is now talking about it. As you know, there are two main ideas around biophilia: “attention restoration theory” and “stress reduction theory”.

Biophilic design. Image: Jonathan Borba

These ideas always come up, so we decided to test their validity. We used test rooms in our lab that are like a box, rooms with no windows because you don’t want distractions, and people in front of a computer just doing tests. 

We redesigned one of the rooms according to biophilic principles and tested students in that room. There was a control group in our experiment, so some students went into the standard testing room, and some went into the biophilic design room.

We had the students do tests of attention, creativity, and mood questionnaires, and we found no differences in the test scores between the two rooms. They all said that the biophilic room was higher on coherence, fascination, and hominess, so they responded positively to the environment. Still, we found no evidence that their attention, performance, creativity, or mood changed.

Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí. Image: Jonathan Ford

Why is that? There are many reasons why we might not have found an effect. One is that they only came in for forty-five minutes. If you take a pharmacological analogy, that may not be the correct dose, and they need to inhabit the space  longer.

These were students at an Ivy League university in America. They’re a highly selected group, so maybe there’s not as much room for their cognition to improve because they’re already at a very high level compared to the general population.

There are several reasons why, even if the theory is true, we had a null result. Then you have to do the hard work of trying to figure out why your prediction was not confirmed.

So how do you go from there? I don’t think the idea is wrong, but I think these are complicated things, and the quick response to say: “Oh, if you have a fractal pattern on the wallpaper, then everything will be fine,” is not going to work. It’s not quite that simple.

Sagrada Família by Antoni Gaudí. Image: Li Meng

Michal: Could you give us a positive example of a place where you think that these principles and knowledge have been applied?

Anjan: I usually give the example of being in Barcelona. One morning I went to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. I thought I would do my two hours there and then see other places, but I stayed there all day. I didn’t leave until it closed.

I had no reason to leave that space all day. The way the light changed as it moved from east to west, there’s so much fascination in that kind of environment. Even though there were many people, it didn’t feel crowded, and the people seemed irrelevant to me.

Returning to biophilic design and mental health, we are now designing refresh rooms in a facility for people recovering from addiction and for the staff who work there. Hopefully, we will show how such design principles help reduce stress in this vulnerable population.

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