In a study well timed for the northern summer, researchers Overbury, Conroy and Marks from the University of Bath reviewed the research on open water swimming. The short version: it can be as good for our brains as it is for our bodies.
The research team identified 14 published studies on open water swimming that met the inclusion criteria for their review. They searched the databases PubMed, PsychNet, Web of Science Core Collection, and Embase, as well as references from the articles they found.
Studies of interest looked at associations between open water swimming and mental health or well-being and focused on swimming in any natural environment. Therefore, articles reporting data only from indoor pools were not included.
Cleo Valentine is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on examining the impact of architectural form on neuroimmunology and neuroinflammation. Cleo received her MPhil in Architecture and Urban Studies from the University of Cambridge, MSc in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford and Bachelor’s in Urban Systems and Economics from McGill University and the University of Copenhagen.
She has worked as a computational systems designer at Open Systems Lab (formerly Wikihouse), has held positions as the Neuroaesthetics Fellow at The Centre for Conscious Design and as a guest tutor at the Royal College of Art and the Architecture Association in London. She is currently an associate at Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd., where she provides consultancy services on public health and architecture.
Natalia Olszewska: I’m excited to talk to you because this is going to be a conversation where we can dive deep into human physiology and how it relates to architecture. What brought you to neuroarchitecture in the first place?
Cleo Valentine: My interest in neuroarchitecture comes from both my academic and personal experience. I first studied at McGill University in Montreal, where I did a program called Urban Systems.
It was at the intersection of urban studies and human geography, examining how people move through space and how urban environments evolve over time. It gave me an interdisciplinary approach to studying architecture and cities.
While at McGill, I had the opportunity to study at the University of Copenhagen on an exchange program. I became interested in going there after watching ‘The Human Scale’.
There is hardly anything more difficult to quantify in architecture than beauty. How can I quantify beauty in a market where values are controlled by capital? How can I give an emotion not only a value, but also a price? How can I trust people to feel with their hearts and not just reason with their brains in a world where the greatest trust is placed in data and digital?
To me, beauty is an art, not a science. You can’t catch it, you have to follow it. I will not put a price tag on beauty, and I will not talk about numbers and formulas.
Instead, I have decided to share my very personal ten criteria for beauty. These are neither complete, nor do they pretend to be the absolute. Since I have taken the liberty of doing this in a very personal way, I will outline them not only theoretically, but also practically. I will do this based on projects I have designed myself or personally collaborated on.
Suppose after years of marriage, one partner calls for divorce only because they want someone younger. In movies, we’re supposed to be disgusted with this person for abandoning their loved one, even though nothing is wrong. Yet this situation describes analogously our relationship with many consumer products.
We constantly want the newer (younger) model. On average, people abandon their cell phones for a newer one every year and a half. Computers tend to be replaced every three to five years. People, on average, replace a car every 8.4 years. These replacements often have nothing to do with whether the old one is broken.
When brand new, people croon over the glory of these objects, and they keep buying them because they “can’t live without them.” However, they can and do live without them; any given model is expendable once the new one hits the market. Architecture is not immune from this cycle. People consume and keep consuming.
Working at the intersection of architecture and neuroscience, Tye Farrow is a world-recognized pioneer tackling how what we create gives or causes health. With award-winning projects around the globe that enact salutogenic design – design that actively incites health – he is the first Canadian architect to have earned a Master of Neuroscience Applied to Architecture (University of Venice IUAV), has a Master of Architecture in Urban Design (Harvard University), and a Bachelor of Architecture degree (University of Toronto).
Natalia Olszewska: You’re the first Canadian architect who studied neuroscience applied to architecture in Venice. What pushed you in this direction?
Tye Farrow: It started with our practice, Farrow Partners, which involves work with knowledge organizations, health organizations, and value-based companies with a clear purpose.
Early in my career, I began understanding the relationship between architecture and its effects on people and health on different levels. Health, for me, is like a table with four legs. And its four legs represent different ways design impacts life around it.
First is design’s impact on the natural environment. We designed some of the first and largest LEED projects in Canada, of their typology. Then we began to understand design’s impact on our physical body. You may know the New York City Active Design Guidelines describing how buildings can encourage you to move and be physically active.
More than half of the world’s population lives in cities. And urbanization is only accelerating. By 2050, it is estimated that seven out of ten people will live in urban areas.
In ancient times, outdoor spaces were designed primarily for community activities and rituals. They were social and religious spaces, part of an individual’s identity. But today, we are witnessing a deprivation of public space that creates boundaries and aggravates social inequalities. We experience urban space differently than before.
We increasingly see discussions about a “denied city” caused by non-inclusive policies and designs. In such a city, it’s increasingly difficult to find common spatial goods that belong to everyone. The question is – how do these conditions affect human well-being?
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.
Susan is the founder and executive director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, a pioneering neuroaesthetics initiative from the Pedersen Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Her work lies at the intersection of brain sciences and the arts and how our unique response to aesthetic experiences can amplify human potential. She is the co-author of Your Brain on Art: How the Arts Transform Us with Ivy Ross, Vice President for Hardware Design at Google.
Susan is also the designer of the Impact Thinking model, an evidence-based research approach to accelerate how we use the arts to solve problems in health, wellbeing, and learning. In addition to her role at IAM Lab, she also serves as co-director of the NeuroArts Blueprint project in partnership with the Aspen Institute.
Natalia Olszewska: What’s your story, Susan? When did you start to think about the brain, art, and architecture?
Susan Magsamen: When I was little, my twin sister had a farming accident where she almost lost her leg. We were always close, and it was very traumatic for us both. It separated us because she had to stay home for a year, and I had to go out into the world without her. And what was crazy about that is that I’m an introvert, and she’s an extrovert, so our roles were reversed.
Before the accident, my sister wasn’t an artist, but she started making art partly because she was bored. She also realized that she had a deep fear from trauma stuck inside of her. And she couldn’t talk about it because there were no words to express it. At that time, fifty years ago, we didn’t know much about Broca’s area of the brain and how it can shut down because of trauma.
I grew up in my grandmother Ramona’s house. She was a happy and outgoing person. The house was always full of people. In the morning, it was filled with neighbors who took a few minutes on their way to work to have coffee with her, and in the afternoon, the house was filled with friends, children, grandchildren, and nephews. It was a house full of energy and memories of the past.
At the age of 75, my grandmother began to confuse the names of the people who visited her, and it was then that her children realized it was due to dementia. My father, Gildardo, who lived next door to my grandmother, cared for her. He helped her keep track of her medications, stock the refrigerator with food, and ensured she always had what she needed.
My grandmother’s home was a significant part of her life. It was a place where she felt safe and comfortable. It was also a place where she could connect with her memories. She had many pictures and belongings from her life on display. These things helped her remember her past, family, and friends.
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.