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Architects, Neuroscientists Meet to Discuss Film,
Explore How Human Brain Perceives Design
Before Jonas Salk's breakthrough discovery of the polio vaccine, the research in his windowless, Pittsburgh laboratory was not going well. Frustrated, he traveled to an abbey in Assisi, Italy. The change of scenery had radical implications for global health.
According to "Beyond Intuition," a new film screened December 3 at AAAS, Salk later said that the "spirituality" of the architecture in his new environment had allowed him to think intuitively. These intuitions enabled him to conceive of the experiments that would later lead to the vaccine.
Architects and neuroscientists filled the AAAS auditorium Wednesday evening to watch the film and discuss how research on the human brain (neuroscience) might provide new knowledge about human experience with architectural settings.
The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the Society for Neuroscience, in cooperation with the American Institute of Architects, co-presented the film and panel discussion.
"It seems fitting that AAAS, whose motto is 'advancing science, serving society,' should agree to host a showing of our film," John Eberhard of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture told the AAAS Office of Public Programs.
According to Fred Gage of the Salk Institute of Biological Sciences, who was one of the five panelists, new experiences and environments physically change the human brain by stimulating new connections among brain cells called neurons. By better understanding how the brain responds to certain aspects of the spaces in which we work, play and live, Gage proposed that architects could design "spaces that allow people to reach their full potential."
For example, several participants in the discussion cited findings that hospital room windows with views of natural settings promote patients' healing. It's also generally accepted that classroom windows help children's ability to learn. Understanding why windows affect children's learning abilities is one way that neuroscience may help architects achieve better classroom designs, explained Eberhard, who was also a panelist.
In many cases, architects are already aware of the principles that underlie how we experience architecture (hence the film's title, "Beyond Intuition). Knowing why these experiences arise could be "another tool in architects' tool chest" according to panelist Allison Whitelaw of Platt/Whitelaw architects.
The effort to explore the nexus of neuroscience and architecture is just getting off the ground. Whitelaw predicted it would be years, or even decades, before these sorts of science-generated "tools" became available.
Some audience members questioned how useful this information would ultimately be to architects. One architect wondered whether it would lead to a "paint-by-numbers" approach to designing buildings. Another asked whether the public might generally be too skeptical of scientists to welcome their influence on architecture.
Eberhard took a historical perspective on the matter.
Today, understanding basic physics is fundamental for architects who design new buildings. But, "100 years ago, if architects had been asked by physicists, 'how can our science help you design better buildings' there wouldn't have been any answer," he said.
8 December 2003