Neuroarchitecture: Our brains and the built environment

According to the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), current advances in brain science hold as much potential for the built environment as physics breakthroughs that enabled scientific analysis of light levels and structural stability. Founded in 2003 by the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the nonprofit organization promotes interdisciplinary research and knowledge sharing.

ANFA president Thomas Albright, who is also the director of the Salk Institute’s Vision Center Laboratory, and board member Eduardo Macagno, a professor at University of California, San Diego (UCSD), spoke to us about the organization and its work.

Neuroscience and architecture are two fields that most people wouldn’t automatically associate. What’s the connection?

Albright: As long as people have been building buildings, there’s been an interest in optimizing them for the mental well-being of the people who live there. In ancient Hindu society, there are the Vedas, ancient and practical texts on the subject of life in Hindu society. There’s one called the Vastu Veda about building dwellings and temples, and how to improve the psychological health of a person who uses that space.

Thinking about the psychology of buildings is not new. The thing that is new is the modern field of neuroscience. The more we understand how the human brain works, the better we can use that knowledge to improve human environments.

Macagno: There’s actually quite a natural connection between what architects do and what neuroscientists do. Once you start thinking about the fact that human beings interact with space through their brains, you want to know more about the brain, just as you want to know more about the space.

What are some of the results you see from ANFA’s efforts thus far?

Albright: The people doing neuroscience research need to be familiar with the problems of designing an architectural space, and vice versa. We’ve done this through a number of different mechanisms. We had a workshop a few years ago on designing educational spaces, a workshop on healthcare spaces, and a workshop on what are called sacred spaces.

We held our second major conference in September. About 250 people attended, architects and neuroscientists, and there were extensive discussions and presentations about topics such as emotion, visual processing, and wayfinding.

What are some of the most interesting ideas you’ve heard coming out of this field lately?

Macagno: One session at the recent conference was about new technologies and their possible applications to architecture. It included a discussion of virtual reality and how we look at the activity of a brain by putting sensors on a scalp. That happened here at the Qualcomm Institute.

Another session that I organized was about wayfinding, which is more along the lines of what I do for research.

Here at UCSD, I’ve been using very large immersive virtual reality environments to test how people respond to different designs. I’m very interested in how we navigate buildings: what kind of cues and landmarks are important, whether we can respond to them or ignore them, and how you create landmarks that we don’t ignore so we don’t get lost.

First a couple of neuroscientists talked about how we navigate in space. Certain cells in our brain called place cells or grid cells allow us to have a sense of space. Professor Jill Leutgeb gave a wonderful summary of where we are as far as understanding how cells in the brain create a sense of space for us.

Then a colleague of ours discussed how people with dementia deal with the loss of a sense of place that we are all dependent on. The conversation went on to how we should be creating spaces for the changing demographics of our society: older people, neurologically impaired people, people who lose their ability to make maps.

It was a very vigorous conversation on how architecture should be focused not just on a good building that has a minimal impact on the environment, but also on making buildings for the people who are going to use them — a demographic which is changing.

Where do you see research in those areas continuing?

Macagno: Being a scientist, I like the idea of evidence-based design. So the question is, what is the evidence? How do we know that some design works? When you talk about something like the LEED criteria, we have sensors for temperature, we have sensors for change within the environment; we can say whether the building works by what resources are required.

If we take into account that there is a neurologically diverse population, how do we know that something works for different groups? I think the biggest challenge in terms of creating criteria to determine how a building works for the user for which it is designed — schools for young children, a hospital for people who are ill — is figuring out how to measure. We need to develop tools that are easy to put on a person that allow us to see how the person is physically and psychologically responding to the environment.

Albright: I work with a fellow at the Salk Institute by the name of Sergei Gepshtein. We’re doing experiments to test hypotheses about the relationship of the organization of the visual cortex and perception of architectural spaces. These elements feed into a theory of the brain aspects of aesthetics — what is it about certain elements of your brain that causes certain experiences to be beautiful and others not? There are testable hypotheses there.

An application that our organization has taken a particular interest in is the design of school buildings. Early primary education is a critical time of development. The history of school design in most of the world has been a random walk through a bunch of different ideas, very few of which are actually evidence-based. By understanding how the human brain acquires information, we can design space that optimizes learning.

If you can measure properties of lots of different schools and get data on academic performance, you can do a correlation study. There’s an investigator at Salford University in Manchester, England, by the name of Peter Barrett, who’s done exactly that kind of study. They measured a bunch of very simple things: the amount of light, the direction of the light, the airflow, the ambient noise, the color of the walls, the carbon dioxide levels in the room, and so forth. And in Britain, every kid gets the same standardized test several times a year, so you have a standardized method of measuring academic performance. It doesn’t imply causality, but the correlation is a starting place.

There’s also a large body of research in recent years on the topic of representations of space in the hippocampus, which is critical for learning and memory. Over the past 25 years or so, there have been a number of discoveries about how neurons in the hippocampus represent visual space. There are cells that have been classified as head direction cells, which represent where you’re headed in space. There are so-called place cells that represent where you are in space, while grid cells represent coordinate points in space. We had a couple of presentations at the conference on that topic, interleaved with discussions about wayfinding and people.

This body of work on the hippocampus reveals those neuronal cell populations which are critical for you to find your way around. You go into an airport — airports and shopping malls are often confusing, and sometimes deliberately confusing, to cause you to run into things you might not want to — but you find your way. You navigate. With a better understanding of those structures called the brain’s GPS, we’re in a better position to advise architects to optimize spaces for people to navigate.

The Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded in the beginning of October for that body of work.

What areas do you see this joint discipline exploring in the future?

Albright: This sort of follows on the heels of the discussion of designing schools. Schools are designed for a special population. There are many types of special populations in our society. One that’s becoming increasingly important in the coming years is people with dementia. How do you design a space that’s optimal for people with particular disabilities in their brains?

A big problem in Alzheimer’s facilities is that when you leave your room you walk out into a generic hallway where everything sort of looks the same. In many of these facilities, the very design actually makes it harder for someone with Alzheimer’s to figure out where they are.

There are a number of behavioral things you can do to make that simpler. In one direction, for example, there’s a fireplace — you know that’s the direction you go if you want to sit down and talk with someone. In the other direction, there’s a bookcase — that’s a key that in that direction is the library. You’re immediately given cues about what’s in different directions in space. This capitalizes on what we know about brain representations of space. In order for you to orient yourself, there have to be visual cues.

Another thing impacting elderly populations: circadian rhythms are synchronized by light. There are a number of physiological challenges that cause that synchronization to fail. As people get older, they wake up multiple times during the night and they fall asleep multiple times during the day. You can compensate for that by including lighting of particular intensity at appropriate times of day, combined with drugs that might elicit sleep at certain times of the day.

Macagno: One of the reasons to create a joint field like this is to try to collect everything that we know. That is one of the things a scientist will do: create a database of relevant effort so students who are interested in this area can go and do research.

For example, if a student is interested in how to interact with light, there is lots of research on both sides. From the neuroscience side, there is a huge amount of research on our visual systems, how they change with time, how we’re able to discern patterns and colors, and so on. We need to have that literature in a database that can be consulted by neuroscientists or architects or neuroarchitects.

Albright: In most biomedical research, the purpose is obtaining better understanding in order to add clinical value. The only reason you would study the kidneys is to try to improve clinical treatment of people with kidney problems.

That’s true of much research on the brain. I think it’s not fully appreciated how often our brains fail. A better understanding of the brain and how it develops will lead to better understanding of brain pathologies.

But the brain, unlike everything else in the body, is actually involved in the control of behavior, so neuroscience research also has the potential to inform how we use our minds to interact with the world, with other members of our species, to make decisions, and to design the spaces that we live in.



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