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Experts Explore the Impact of Architecture and Design on the Brain

Buildings with façades that resemble the structure of a human face can put people at ease, said urban planner Justin Hollander during his presentation. | Edgar El/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

The design of cities, buildings and rooms can affect humans on a neurological level, said experts during a discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington on March 15.

The study of the brain can be used to inform architects and other designers looking to create spaces and structures that people find to be efficient and enjoyable.

“When we change our environments, they change us,” said Eve Edelstein, research director in Chicago-based architecture firm Perkins+Will’s Human Experience and Gadget labs. The study of the brain’s ability to change over time, known as neuroplasticity, “is driving us toward understanding the impact of design,” she said.

Edelstein was one of three speakers to explore the effects of architecture and design on the brain during the latest event in the Neuroscience and Society lecture series, a collaboration between AAAS and the Dana Foundation, an organization which supports brain research through grants and educational programs.

Discussing her interest in the impact of design on the brain, Edelstein recalled standing in a hospital with her newborn son, who was born two months before his due date. Startled by the glaring lights and noise of the neonatal intensive care unit she noticed that the facility offered no places of rest or recovery for the newborns, their parents or care providers. “Looking around, I thought that someone has to design this better,” said Edelstein.

Studies have reported that exposure to daylight can have a positive impact on workplace performance by improving sleep quality among employees, making them more focused and alert at work. Edelstein noted that it is important, therefore, for doctors and other medical professionals to have access to natural light in medical facilities.

“I want my surgeon to be fully alert and aware,” said Edelstein.

Such design innovations can be informed by the work of scientists who have studied the effects of light and sound on humans for decades, she added.

“If what we do is translate this research into design principles,” said Edelstein, “we have a better way of understanding how the conscious mind and the subconscious brain change how we respond to design.”

During the event, experts discussed how buildings and rooms can be designed in a way that improves the lives of the people using them. | Stephen Waldron/AAAS

Insight about the human response to architecture and design can be gleaned by examining people as they interact with buildings, said urban planner Justin Hollander during the event.

“Urban planners want to know how we create great cities. You have to look at where the eye goes,” said Hollander.

Using eye-tracking software, researchers can follow the gaze of a person as they look at a photo of a building or space.

People tend to “extract patterns from the noise,” said Hollander, a phenomenon known as pareidolia. Hollander cited eye-tracking research which has found that people respond positively to buildings that mirror the structure of a human face, with two windows and a door to represent eyes and a mouth, respectively.

When people recognize these patterns, Hollander said, “we connect to them and on some level, it puts us at ease.”

Eye-tracking studies also determine how long it takes a person to find the door of a building, information which Hollander said is critical for architects to know. By analyzing these studies, architects and designers can develop spaces and structures that people find aesthetically pleasing and easy to use.

Designing buildings or rooms for people with neurological deficits like dementia present additional challenges.

Margaret Calkins is the chair of the board at the IDEAS Institute, an organization which aims to improve the lives of older adults through applied research. During her presentation, she outlined the effects of certain neurological conditions and appropriate solutions designers can use to compensate for these factors.

“When we look at individuals living with dementia, we know how their brains are changing and how that changes how they interact with the world,” said Calkins, an architect and gerontologist.

Shrinking of the brain’s hippocampus, a common feature found in the initial stages of dementia, can make it difficult for a person to perceive and process new places and events. To respond to this issue, Calkins suggested designing familiar living spaces with archetypal structures, such as a fireplace or a front porch with a swing. Such additions, she said, can increase a person’s sense of comfort.

Neurological conditions can also result in degeneration of the brain’s anterior occipital lobe, which can lead to memory decline that renders some unable to visualize locations once familiar. Calkins said designers can compensate for this by including cues and other landmarks to make it easier to navigate.

In a study focusing on communities for people living with dementia, Calkins arranged a glass case next to each resident’s room that contained photographs of their family and other mementos. She found that, for people in the mid-level stages of dementia, these cues improved their ability to find their way to their room.

Whether such design innovations create safe living spaces for people with dementia or help surgeons stay alert, they can have significant impacts. During Edelstein’s presentation, she said that understanding the relationship between buildings, brains and behavior can yield benefits for all people.

“This matters not just to those of us who design and delight in the beauty of form,” said Edelstein, “I argue that design saves lives.”

[Associated image: Graeme Churchard/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]