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The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience: A Neurophysiological Perspective on Embodiment, Motivation, and Affordances


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Over the last few years, the efforts to reveal through neuroscientific lens the relations between the mind, body, and built environment have set a promising direction of using neuroscience for architecture. However, little has been achieved thus far in developing a systematic account that could be employed for interpreting current results and providing a consistent framework for subsequent scientific experimentation. In this context, the enactive perspective is proposed as a guide to studying architectural experience for two key reasons. Firstly, the enactive approach is specifically selected for its capacity to account for the profound connectedness of the organism and the world in an active and dynamic relationship, which is primarily shaped by the features of the body. Thus, particular emphasis is placed on the issues of embodiment and motivational factors as underlying constituents of the body-architecture interactions. Moreover, enactive understanding of the relational coupling between body schema and affordances of architectural spaces singles out the two-way bodily communication between architecture and its inhabitants, which can be also explored in immersive virtual reality settings. Secondly, enactivism has a strong foothold in phenomenological thinking that corresponds to the existing phenomenological discourse in architectural theory and qualitative design approaches. In this way, the enactive approach acknowledges the available common ground between neuroscience and architecture and thus allows a more accurate definition of investigative goals. Accordingly, the outlined model of architectural subject in enactive terms—that is, a model of a human being as embodied, enactive, and situated agent, is proposed as a basis of neuroscientific and phenomenological interpretation of architectural experience.
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published: 31 March 2016
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00481
Frontiers in Psychology | 1March 2016 | Volume 7 | Article 481
Edited by:
Isabella Pasqualini,
Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de
Lausanne, Switzerland
Reviewed by:
Robert J. Lowe,
University of Gothenburg/University of
Skövde, Sweden
Cor Baerveldt,
University of Alberta, Canada
Andrea Jeli ´
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Cognitive Science,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 01 September 2015
Accepted: 18 March 2016
Published: 31 March 2016
Jeli ´
c A, Tieri G, De Matteis F,
Babiloni F and Vecchiato G (2016) The
Enactive Approach to Architectural
Experience: A Neurophysiological
Perspective on Embodiment,
Motivation, and Affordances.
Front. Psychol. 7:481.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00481
The Enactive Approach to
Architectural Experience: A
Neurophysiological Perspective on
Embodiment, Motivation, and
Andrea Jeli ´
c1*, Gaetano Tieri 2, 3, Federico De Matteis 1, Fabio Babiloni 4and
Giovanni Vecchiato 5
1Department of Architecture and Design, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy, 2Department of Psychology, Sapienza
University of Rome, Rome, Italy, 3IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia, Rome, Italy, 4Department of Molecular Medicine, Sapienza
University of Rome, Rome, Italy, 5Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy
Over the last few years, the efforts to reveal through neuroscientific lens the relations
between the mind, body, and built environment have set a promising direction of using
neuroscience for architecture. However, little has been achieved thus far in developing
a systematic account that could be employed for interpreting current results and
providing a consistent framework for subsequent scientific experimentation. In this
context, the enactive perspective is proposed as a guide to studying architectural
experience for two key reasons. Firstly, the enactive approach is specifically selected
for its capacity to account for the profound connectedness of the organism and the
world in an active and dynamic relationship, which is primarily shaped by the features
of the body. Thus, particular emphasis is placed on the issues of embodiment and
motivational factors as underlying constituents of the body-architecture interactions.
Moreover, enactive understanding of the relational coupling between body schema
and affordances of architectural spaces singles out the two-way bodily communication
between architecture and its inhabitants, which can be also explored in immersive virtual
reality settings. Secondly, enactivism has a strong foothold in phenomenological thinking
that corresponds to the existing phenomenological discourse in architectural theory
and qualitative design approaches. In this way, the enactive approach acknowledges
the available common ground between neuroscience and architecture and thus allows
a more accurate definition of investigative goals. Accordingly, the outlined model
of architectural subject in enactive terms—that is, a model of a human being as
embodied, enactive, and situated agent, is proposed as a basis of neuroscientific and
phenomenological interpretation of architectural experience.
Keywords: enactive approach, architectural experience, embodiment, body schema, emotion, motivation,
affordances, virtual reality
Jeli ´
c et al. The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience
The unique cultural position of architecture as an existential art—
an art that scaffolds human life—has been openly advocated ever
since the earliest architectural writings surviving from ancient
times. Through the centuries, this architecture’s double task of
“showing and serving” (Leatherbarrow, 2009, p. 8) has been
recognized as the value of architecture for human well-being.
On the one hand, architecture enables the physical comfort of
basic sheltering and everyday functionality, while having the
capacity to emotionally move the human soul and nurture
people’s identities by articulating the wider cultural and societal
conditions. As anticipated by Neutra (1954) in his definition
of architects as gardeners of nervous growth, this relationship
between architectural space and the human mind and body is
acknowledged today through the explicit link of neuroscience
and architecture. The intersection of the two disciplines explores
the possibilities of shaping the human experience and well-being
through a neurobiological approach to design (Sternberg and
Wilson, 2006; Eberhard, 2009;Figure 1).
From historical perspective, architects’ interest in human
behavior is by no means a recent phenomenon—in fact, the field
of architectural psychology has attracted continuous attention
ever since Lynch’s (1960) seminal study on imageability and
wayfinding in urban environments. More recently, this ongoing
environment-behavior research has been boosted with the novel
hypotheses from neuroscientific discipline. As a result, current
efforts have been following multiple lines of investigation—from
the studies exploring connections between visual perception and
spatial geometry to inquiries about embodiment and emotional
impact of different environmental characteristics. Hence, for
instance, one line of research investigates premises based on
combined insights from information-processing approaches to
visual perception (e.g., contour preferences, Bar and Neta,
2006) and classical architectural psychology theories (e.g., habitat
theory (Appleton, 1975), informative environment theory,
(Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989), and attention restoration theory,
Kaplan, 1995). Such recent endeavors include: an exploration
FIGURE 1 | Connection between neuroscience and architecture. The
study of the human being through neuroscientific methods provides
quantitative measures and theoretical explanation for biological bases of
design. At the same time, architecture influences human mind, physical
well-being and behavior by shaping human experience.
of neural correlates of restorative design elements as a way of
providing the building occupants with the cognitive and affective
resources necessary for adequate human functioning (Martínez-
Soto et al., 2013), an examination of emotional responses
to specific visual properties like contour in the context of
architectural form and approach-avoidance decisions (Nanda
et al., 2013; Vartanian et al., 2013), and a study of emotional
reactions and preferences of architects and non-architects to
various three-dimensional spatial geometries (Shemesh et al.,
2015). To date, the limits of these approaches is reflected in
the emphasis on interpreting architectural spaces in terms of
objects with quantifiable properties, thus tackling only one
aspect of a more complex atmospheric qualities of space (and
not necessarily a decisive one for the overall architectural
experience). Moreover, because the physical properties of spaces
are quantified independently of perceiver as bodily subject,
he/she is transformed into a disembodied observer.
Similarly, a number of studies have aimed at understanding
the relations between visual perception, preferences, and
configurational features by intertwining neuroscience and
cognitive psychology with the Space Syntax methodology
for spatial analysis1. The distinctiveness of space syntax
methodology resides in the capacity to quantitatively map
configurational and visual properties, such as building layout
complexity. Although such spatial analysis have returned
consistent results regarding the perceived spaciousness and
orienting clarity of a particular environment (Dzebic et al., 2013),
the capacity of this methodology to directly link emotional and
aesthetic responses to other than configurational (topological)
properties has been somewhat limited (Skorupka, 2010; Kuliga
et al., 2013).
In parallel, there is an increasing interest for studying
perception of architecture in terms of multi-sensory and
embodied experience, understood in the context of late-
nineteenth century empathy theories and inspired by recent
conceptual and experimental neuroaesthetic framework by
Freedberg and Gallese (2007). Accordingly, initial studies
investigated how spatial features modulate bodily self-
consciousness (Pasqualini et al., 2013) and explored the
possibility to understand neurophysiological correlates of
architectural perception pertaining to cerebral circuits involved
in embodiment, sensorimotor integration, and spatial navigation
(Vecchiato et al., 2015a,b). As elaborated later on, the proposed
enactive approach for understanding architectural experience is
directly based on this closely related line of research dedicated to
the study of embodiment in art experience.
Taken together, the results of these initial efforts suggest that
there is a possibility of developing a new neuroscientifically
informed stance toward the human being as an architectural
1The architectural theory and methods of space syntax (Hillier and Hanson,
1984) emerged as an attempt to understand the relationship between space and
society, emphasizing the co-dependency of (pedestrian) movement patterns and
spatial configuration. Space syntax methodology of structural analysis of space is
primarily aimed at quantifying the spatial relations in terms of visual accessibility
(or vistas available to users) and the connectivity of its parts. To date, collaborations
between space syntax researchers and cognitive scientists have yielded compelling
results in the study area of wayfinding and navigation in the built environment
(Montello, 2007; Dalton et al., 2012).
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Jeli ´
c et al. The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience
subject that can be endorsed in user-centered design. Most
importantly, such results directly support the recent “experiential
turn” among architects (i.e., the idea of human-centered design),
proposed as a way to address some of the crucial contemporary
architectural problems—such as the dominance of vision and
intellectualization of designs manifested in the phenomenon of a
disembodied architectural observer (Pallasmaa, 2005; Mallgrave,
2011). For this reason, it is important to note that although
understanding of complex phenomenon such as architectural
experience necessarily requires a well-thought fragmenting of
research questions, any research perspective which is to yield
results applicable to user-centered design should be formulated
in accordance with the broader architectural discourse on
experience (Jeli´
c, 2015). Therefore, in order to replace the
disembodied model of architecture user with the more accurate
biological approximation of the human body as experiencing
subject, there is a need to develop a systematic and coherent
framework for theoretical and experimental investigations for
this replacement to be constructively implemented in the design
In this context, the enactive approach is proposed as a guide
to studying architectural experience for two key reasons. Firstly,
the enactive account places emphasis on the situated nature of
perceptual experience, which makes the issues of embodiment
and relational embeddedness in the world vital to understanding
people’s engagement with architectural environments. This
suggests that the way in which we perceive, experience, and
engage with architecture depends on the particular kind of body
we have and the possibilities for body-environment interactions
that are inscribed in terms of the motor or skillful knowledge as
potential for action. On the other hand, this posits a hypothesis
of a two-way dependence: architecture is an expression of
man’s embodiment, while the way architecture is embodied
influences the human mind, physical well-being, and behavior.
The second incentive resides in the fact that enactivist perspective
has a strong foothold in phenomenological thinking, which
corresponds to the existing phenomenological background in
architectural theory. Specifically, the enactive understanding of
architectural experience corresponds to the phenomenological
conception of architecture user as an embodied experiencing
subject—as a body (capable of) moving in space resulting in
enmeshed experience. As highlighted by numerous architects it
is the body itself that acts as a measure of architectural quality
(Zumthor, 1999; Holl et al., 2006). In this way, it is possible
to identify and test hypotheses already present in architectural
discourse and thus, to provide evidence-based grounding to
architectural theories and design approaches that are commonly
a thoughtful result of accumulated professional experience
and yet, which are potentially dismissed as unconfirmed and
Therefore, as elucidated by Mallgrave in the Architect’s
Brain (Mallgrave, 2011), it can be proposed that one of the
advantages of neuroscientific investigations of architectural
experience is the possibility to verify a link between architect’s
intuitive understanding of phenomenal body and articulation
of built spaces. In fact, by identifying hypotheses already
present in architectural literature and in the form of designer’s
knowledge, it is possible to construct a strong frame of
reference for comparing neuroscientific results with examples
of well-designed spaces, like in the case of documented
experiential quality of architectural masterpieces. Most
importantly, it can be argued that the dialogue between
neuroscience and architecture is less aimed at responding
to scientific questions as it is a search for systematic
structure underlying architect’s design manipulations. For
this reason, the common background based on the large
body of knowledge from both neuroscience and architecture
is proposed to be utilized through the enactive approach
as a possible interpretation of architectural experience as a
way of empowering architects to confront design tasks with
an increased awareness of our biological and phenomenal
We start from the premise that architecture can be described
as a designed interaction between life and form. Accordingly,
the enactive approach to architectural experience brings together
the biological perspective on the human being through the
concepts of embodiment and motivation on the one hand,
and affordances as an artificially designed possibility for
interaction, on the other. These ideas are developed in the
following sections first by sketching the enactive approach to
cognition, emotion and experience, and explaining perception
as action-oriented. Then, emphasis is placed on the role of
the body schema and bodily perspective in understanding
architecture, as well as on the concept of affordances as design
intentions in order to describe architectural experience as being
fundamentally an interaction. Finally, we discuss virtual reality
environments as practical and valuable tools to investigate
perception and action in architectural spaces. These issues will be
outlined from the phenomenological and neuroscientific points
of view.
As phenomenologists like Merleau-Ponty (1962, p. 129, 1964)
have firmly established, “the body is our general medium for
having the world” and therefore, our mode of experiential
access to the world of architecture. Accordingly, in order
to investigate how people experience built spaces it is first
necessary to rethink in enactive terms the nature of perception
and the related phenomenological concept of the lived body.
Particular emphasis is thus placed on the situated character
of perceptual experience and the importance of our embodied
manner of being in the world. In the following section we
outline the key principles of the enactive approach for providing
an interpretation of the architectural subject as experiencing
and perceiving agent that can be of relevance for user-centered
The Enactive Approach to Cognition and
Experience: General Framework
Varela et al. (1991) conception of cognition as enactive and
embodied was primarily elaborated as a criticism and an
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Jeli ´
c et al. The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience
alternative to the traditional cognitivist model of the mind
as an information-processing device. In order to overcome
the shortcomings of this disembodied cognitive model in
which the mind and the world are considered as two pre-
given and independent entities, Varela et al. emphasized the
profound connectedness of the organism and its environment,
accomplished in an active and dynamic relationship. Starting
from this premise, they established the enactive approach, where
the term enaction signifies a concept that a living being is an
autonomous agent that actively generates and maintains its own
cognitive domain through continuous reciprocal interactions of
the brain, body, and the world (Varela et al., 1991; Thompson,
2007). Today, more than 20 years after the milestone work The
Embodied Mind (Varela et al., 1991), there is an abundance of
models and explanations that potentiate the coupling relation
between the organism and environment and that are grouped
together under the recently coined heading of the enactive,
embodied, embedded, extended, and affective, i.e., the 4EA
approach to cognition (Ward and Stapleton, 2012; Vörös, 2014).
Although these variations currently do not amount to a unified
theory of cognition (Menary, 2010; Shapiro, 2011; Di Paolo and
Thompson, 2014), several attempts have recently been made to
indicate that such possibility nevertheless exists. For instance,
as argued by Ward and Stapleton (2012), if cognition is indeed
enactive, then it is also embodied, embedded, affective and
(possibly) extended. Their argument is based on the fundamental
premise—first posed by Varela et al. (1991)—that perception and
cognition essentially depend upon the organism’s interactions
with its environment. In other words, perception and cognition
are constrained and shaped by conditions of embodiment of
that cognizing bodily agent. In a similar fashion, Di Paolo
and Thompson (2014) advocate that if embodied cognitive
science is to offer a genuine alternative to more traditional
cognitivist view, the notions of “body” and “cognition” and their
relationship should be defined in accordance with the enactive
For these reasons, the enactive approach as it is here used
to describe architectural experience is understood as a unified
position which primarily follows the embodied-enactive view of
the mind as envisaged by Varela et al. (1991) and Thompson
(2007). In addition, emphasis is placed on the affective dimension
of experience following the increasing amount of empirical
evidence and theoretical models which highlight the fundamental
role of the affective component in cognition and the perception-
action cycle (Colombetti and Thompson, 2008; Bower and
Gallagher, 2013). Importantly, this line of enactivist thinking
is compatible with the understanding of the body and lived
experience in architectural tradition based on the shared
phenomenological interpretation of embodiment by Merleau-
Ponty (1962, 1964).
Based on the description of key tenets of enactivism as
provided by Thompson (2005, 2007) and with moderate
simplification for the purposes of architectural discussion
(Figure 2), it can be argued that there are three fundamental
themes underlying the enactive approach: sense-making,
constitutive relatedness (through embodiment), and embodied
action (as sensorimotor coupling of perception and action).
FIGURE 2 | The schematic account of enactive approach to
architectural experience. The enactive approach to architectural experience
describes through the concepts of embodiment and affordances the
interactive interface between body and architecture. Such interface is
composed by three layers which dynamically participate in the architectural
experience: the constitutive relatedness describes the living-lived body
relationship between cognitive activity and experience; the embodied action
defines cognition as bodily interaction with the environment through
sensorimotor coupling of perception and action; the sense-making represents
cognitive beings as self-individuating and sense-producing systems thanks to
their bodily organization. These three aspects influence the human being
through his/her body schemas and affective component, as well as
architectural affordances.
Originating in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and Varela’s
biological research, the idea of sense-making epitomizes the
deep continuity between life and mind: what makes living
organisms cognitive beings is their (bodily) organization as
self-individuating and sense-producing systems (Thompson,
2007; Thompson and Stapleton, 2009; Di Paolo and Thompson,
2014). Firstly, living beings are considered to be autonomous
agents that actively generate and sustain themselves and
thereby instantiate their own cognitive domains. Secondly, they
engage with the world in such manner that these interactions
transform the world into a place of salience, meaning, and value
(Thompson and Stapleton, 2009). As Colombetti (2014) argues,
this is because all living systems have a fundamental “lack of
indifference” to the world, which can be termed primordial
affectivity. From the enactive viewpoint, emotion is accordingly
understood as inherent constituent of the perception-action
cycle, in such way that perception and emotion are treated
as interdependent aspects of intentional action, which is thus
always endogenous or generated from within (the organism) and
is directed outward into the world (Thompson, 2007; Colombetti
and Thompson, 2008). For this reason, the organism as a whole
is understood as a vehicle of meaning because the significance
and valence in the world is created by the organism itself, and
therefore, sense-making can be more accurately described as a
bodily cognitive-emotional form of understanding (Colombetti,
By being a vehicle of sense-making activity, the body thus
has a fundamental role in constituting the way (human)
beings enact and understand the world. In other words,
whatever a being is able to experience, know, and practically
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c et al. The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience
handle is determined and shaped by the particular features
of that being’s body (Thompson, 2005, 2007). The crucial
consequence of such understanding of the body and mind is
the possibility of relating the objective body/brain, observed
from (neuro)scientific perspective, and the perceiving and
experiencing body, understood from the embodied first-person
phenomenological perspective (Thompson, 2004). Therefore,
by drawing from Merleau-Ponty’s view of human existence as
“doubly” embodied—on the one hand, as a living, objective
body or a physical context of cognitive activity, and on the
other, as a lived body or a bodily subject—this living-lived body
relationship can be described in terms of the intrinsic constitutive
relatedness between cognition, body, and the world. What this
means in enactive terms is that a cognitive being’s experiential
world is “a relational domain enacted or brought forth by
that being’s autonomous agency and mode of coupling with
the environment” (Thompson, 2007, p. 13). This fundamental
relatedness is possible because cognition is defined as a form
of embodied action—that is, an exercise of skillful know-how
by an embodied and situationally embedded agent (Thompson,
2007). Cognition is thus conceived as constitutively dependent
upon the conditions of embodiment and it is modulated by the
way of sensorimotor patterns that are “exercised” through the
bodily interactions with the environment. This line of reasoning
is also evidenced in the particular structure of the human
nervous system, which evolved as a link between movement
and continuous stream of sensory activity. More specifically,
this sensorimotor intertwining is organized in such way that
“what the organism senses is a function of how it moves, and
how it moves is a function of what it senses” (Thompson and
Varela, 2001, p. 424). Therefore, it can be argued that the
perception-action cycle is crucial for enabling the organism to
be a situated cognizing agent—that is, to exist in a meaningful
relation with the environment—and which thus emphasizes the
role of the body as a “vehicle for being-in-the-world” (Merleau-
Ponty, 1962).
The enactive approach considers perception as “an embodied
coping with the environment” (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2008,
p. 99) and therefore, as essential to the organism’s manner of
being and knowing the world. Accordingly, grasping perceptually
the world and things in space presupposes the existence of
egocentric spatial frame of reference which can be acquired
through spatial relations between perceived objects and the
body. These are always defined by virtue of the orientation
they have to our perceiving and acting (i.e., moving) bodies
(Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Thompson, 2007; Gallagher and Zahavi,
2008). From phenomenological point of view, the body functions
as “an absolute indexical ‘here”’ (Thompson, 2007, p. 248) or
a “degree zero of spatiality” (Merleau-Ponty, 1964, p. 178),
meaning that the space a person inhabits is constituted in regard
to the referencing zero-point which is always a lived, perceiving
body. Because the world is perceiver-dependent, our existence
can be described as inherently spatial, where this spatiality
is an expression of the sensorimotor coupling between the
organism and its environment (including the built environment).
Hence, this co-constitution of the perceiving agent and the
world (or more specifically, architecture) can be made apparent
by understanding the modes of embodiment of the human
being as a living-lived body, which requires a rigorous scientific
and phenomenological analysis, as envisaged by the enactive
Sensorimotor Theory of Perception and
Experience of Architecture
Alongside the enactive approach as a broad framework for
studying cognition, there is a more focused line of investigation
dedicated specifically to the enactive theory of perception, better
known as the sensorimotor (contingency) approach. This field
of inquiry was initially launched by O’Regan and Noë (2001)
with their proposal for the sensorimotor account of visual
perception. In their words, visual experience is the activity of
exploring the world which is mediated by the knowledge of
sensorimotor contingencies—that is, by understanding implicitly
the regularities in which sensory stimulation changes with
movement (O’Regan and Noë, 2001; O’Regan et al., 2005). The
novelty of this view lies in the shift away from the “passive
snapshot” toward “active exploration” concept of vision, which
emphasized the embodied-enactive understanding of the mind
and (conscious) experience as brought forth by the agent’s way
of interacting with the world (Bishop and Martin, 2014). In
short, perceiving is understood as a way of acting: perception is
not something that happens to us, or occurs inside us, but it is
something we do (Noë, 2004). In addition, the important upshot
of Noë and O’Regan’s sensorimotor theory is the understanding
of differences between modalities of perceptual experience,
i.e., seeing, hearing, touching, and so on, as originating in
laws of sensorimotor dependencies that are unique for each
sensory system. The sensorimotor patterns depend on sensory
contingencies—that is, the particular characteristics of the
sensory apparatus (e.g., sense anatomy), as well as the features
of the world to which the apparatus is sensitive (e.g., light,
odor, sound waves etc.)—and on the other hand, on motor
contingencies that differentiate sensory experiences by virtue of
responding to particular movements (e.g., eye, head, or other
bodily movements) (O’Regan and Noë, 2001; Shapiro, 2011).
In the spirit of the enactive approach, it is significant to
ward off some of the typical concerns regarding the nature of
sensorimotor knowledge. Specifically, the ability to know what
is being perceived (e.g., what shapes I am looking at) consists in
the practical mastery of the regularities governing the ways of
exploring the world (e.g., the shape is given experientially as a
sensorimotor pattern). This mastery of the sensorimotor rules is
not a kind of propositional, explicit knowledge, but the perceiver’s
implicit know-how of the sensorimotor dependencies between
one’s sensing and moving body and the environment (O’Regan
and Noë, 2001; Noë, 2004; Beaton, 2013). Underpinning this
skillful mastery is the certain kind of “perceptual attunement”
of the organism to arising sensorimotor patterns, which is
ultimately grounded in the organism’s embodied form and
structure. Importantly, this perceptual attunement, i.e., particular
sensitivity for the ways sensory stimuli change with movement
(Myin and Degenaar, 2014), is the result of an embodied history
of interactions, where the appropriate action is discriminated on
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c et al. The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience
the basis of past experience and in accordance with current goals
(Buhrmann et al., 2013). Hence, attunement does not result in
representational knowledge but in refined attunement.
More recently, other scholars of enactivism have argued
that O’Regan and Noë’s sensorimotor contingencies approach
supports a narrow view of embodiment in terms of neuro-
muscular function, while neglecting the motor intentionality
of the bodily agent (Thompson, 2005; Buhrmann et al., 2013)
and the influence of other bodily factors like affective states
(Gallagher and Bower, 2014; Scarinzi, 2014). They argued that
for the sensorimotor account to be in accordance with the
enactive approach to perception and cognition it should embrace
a richer phenomenological sense of embodiment reflecting an
experiencing, bodily subject. For instance, Bower and Gallagher
(2013) emphasized that our perceptual openness to the world
(i.e., what we can perceive at any instance in time) depends
not only on the mastery of sensorimotor contingencies, but
also on our preconscious affective, motivational states that are
intrinsic component of action-perception cycles. As described
in the previous section, understanding the sensorimotor theory
of perception from this enriched 4EA perspective is essential
for the specific enactive approach to architecture elaborated
here. Moreover, recent evidence from virtual reality studies
investigating the relationship between perception, motivational
factors, and neurophysiological mechanisms of embodiment
support such a unified view. Section Immersive Virtual Reality
as a Tool for Neuroscientific Investigation of Architectural
Experience proposes how enactive approach could be explored
in the VR setting.
Interestingly, a strong similarity can be observed between the
embodied-enactive approach with its emphasis on perception,
action, emotion, and cognition as dynamically intertwined
and the argument that basic architectural experiences have a
verb form2because architecture initiates, directs, and organizes
behavior and movement (Pallasmaa, 2005, 2011). For Pallasmaa,
authentic experiential or mental constituents of architecture
are always “confrontations, encounters, and acts which project
and articulate specific embodied and existential meanings”
(Pallasmaa, 2011, p. 124). In the light of sensorimotor theory,
architectural space might be a prototypal example of our
embodied nature and perceptual attunement to the environment.
In particular, in our encounters with architecture, people do
not have to think consciously about how to maneuver their
bodies through a doorway or up the staircase because they are
already in possession of an implicit sensorimotor knowledge that
enables them to grasp spatial relations in a practical, pre-reflective
manner. Ever since early childhood’s explorations of different
architectural spaces, people are fine-tuning the skillful mastery
that allows them to experience each new place. Most importantly,
it is precisely because we have a profound bodily memory of
an intimate, human-scale architecture, when confronted with a
2In Pallasmaa’s words, architectural images are “promises and invitations: the floor
is an invitation to stand up (...), the door invites us to enter and pass through
(...), the staircase to ascend and descend” (Pallasmaa, 2011, pp. 123–124). All
these inherent suggestions of action contained in architecture at the time of the
encounter inevitably result in a bodily reaction, which is thus “an inseparable
aspect of experience of architecture” (Pallasmaa, 2005, p. 63).
less successful design we can indeed feel the discrepancy between
what is perceived and how we might (or not) inhabit that space
with the bodies we have. Therefore, enactive investigations of
architectural experience could reveal how architectural space
is shaped by the laws of human embodiment. At the same
time, architecture’s evident capacity to engage our sensorimotor
systems could provide new knowledge on the human perceptual
and cognitive functions and the underlying neural activity.
The Role of Body Schema in Architectural
Speaking in enactive terms, the intrinsic constitutive coupling
between perception, action, and emotion is fundamental for
capturing our reality as lived bodies and experiencing subjects,
and at the level of the organism as a whole is organized as
the functional mechanism of body schema. The body schema
is a concept extensively used in a variety of disciplines,
including neuroscience and psychology, to describe one’s capacity
to act coherently in the world and be aware of one’s own
body (Berlucchi and Aglioti, 2010). Developed along the same
lines, this concept is closely related to the phenomenological
understanding of the lived body as a living and feeling agent,
where the body schema is directly involved in the pre-reflective
bodily self-awareness (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). From the enactivist
perspective, these two views—the neuroscientific and the
phenomenological—are taken together and are translated into
two crucial characteristics of body schema. On the one hand, it
is a system of largely prenoetic and close-to-automatic processes
that constantly regulate posture and movement; at the same time,
body schema plays a fundamental role in providing us with a
minimal sense of self—that is, with a pre-reflective consciousness
of ourselves as experiencing, lived bodies (Gallagher, 2005;
Gallagher and Zahavi, 2008; Berlucchi and Aglioti, 2010). For
that reason, body schema is of particular interest for the
enactive interpretation of embodiment, since it brings together
the personal and subpersonal, i.e., the first- and third-person
perspective. Accordingly, we propose that body schema lies at
the essence of pre-reflective architecture-body communication for
two reasons: firstly, because it enables us to engage with the
built environment in a profoundly animated, pragmatic, and
meaningful manner, and secondly, because it provides us with
an access to our bodily self and thus, to conscious experience of a
situation (e.g., architectural space) at hand.
It is worth noting that because of its long history, the term
body schema has often been used interchangeably with body
image. However, these concepts are not equivalent, although they
are tightly connected and necessary to capture the complexity of
the human mind (Gallagher, 2005). The body image and body
schema are phenomenologically differentiated in such manner
that the first implies taking or having an intentional (objective)
attitude toward one’s own body, while the other signifies the
capacity to move and exist in the bodily action. Thus, the
body image is a sometimes conscious system of experiences,
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attitudes, and beliefs pertaining to one’s own body, where this
understanding of the body as an object can be also influenced
by cultural and scientific knowledge and interpersonal factors
(Gallagher, 2005; Gallagher and Zahavi, 2008). Accordingly, it
is the investigation of the body schema that allows us to delve
into the manner of individual’s active engagement with the
(architectural) environment.
Body schema can be defined as a continuously updating
neural representation of the body’s configuration, which enables,
monitors, and controls the body shape and posture, as well as its
position and movement in space. These bodily representations
are used to compute not only the position, shape and dimension
of the target of our actions, but also of our own body and,
in particular, of the body-part we want to use to execute
the action. Body schema functions as a set of unconscious
and tacit performances which combine and synchronize bodily
information coming from somatosensory modalities, such as
proprioception, kinesthesia, and touch, into a sensory-motor
schema (Cardinali et al., 2009). Significantly, body schema
includes not only the processes underlying motor activity and
the regulation of postural and kinesthetic information, but also
the interoceptive emotional inputs as motivational propensity for
action (Berlucchi and Aglioti, 2010; Bower and Gallagher, 2013).
For that reason, as Bower and Gallagher (2013); Gallagher and
Bower (2014) have recently emphasized, body schema gives an
agent the “how” of perception through the tacit knowledge of
potential sensorimotor engagements with the environment, while
the “why” of perception depends on the latent motivations that
direct one’s actions and attention (more details on the role of
affect and latent motivations will be discussed in Section Affective
Components of Perception).
Accordingly, body schema can be understood as the sensory-
motor representation of the agent’s body and its action
possibilities—it functions as a set of dynamic sensorimotor
principles that organize perception and action. As such, its role
pertains to motor control, both voluntary and autonomic, and to
the kind of skillful knowledge emphasized by the enactive theory
of perception. Moreover, in accordance with phenomenological
views by Merleau-Ponty, our primary way of being in the world is
in a bodily and skillful manner, since our body schema is defined
as a vehicle of one’s bodily or motor intentionality (Merleau-
Ponty, 1962). Our hold on the world is primarily the one of
a pragmatic intentional action, with the lived body manifesting
in perceptual experience as an “implicit and practical ‘I can’ of
movement and motor intentionality” (Thompson, 2005, p. 411).
Accordingly, what means to be an experiencing bodily subject is
to be “an agentive body that moves in action” (Gallagher, 2014,
p. 10), implying that body schema not only monitors bodily
states but that it is fundamentally action-oriented (Gallese and
Sinigaglia, 2010). On such grounds, it has been suggested that the
pre-reflective bodily self-consciousness consists in “experiencing
one’s body as the point of convergence of perception and action”
(Legrand, 2006, p. 108) and thus conceiving the bodily self as
“an integrated system characterized by matching of sensory-
motor information” (Legrand, 2006, p. 111). What is significant
about this view is that it corresponds to the embodied-enactive
approach to cognition, suggesting that the self appears from the
interaction of the organism with the environment. Closely tied
to both Legrand’s and enactivist viewpoints is the argument by
Gallese and Sinigaglia (2010) who proposed that the sense of the
body as an experiencing body (i.e., sense of self) is primarily
given to us as the “source” or “power” for action, based on
its intentional character and the variety of motor potentialities
available to the body through body schema. Therefore, the bodily
self defined as power-for-action essentially presupposes the sense
of ownership of an action-capable bodily agent and as such,
its functionality primarily rests on the capacities of the motor
system (Gallese and Cuccio, 2015). As a matter of fact, recent
evidence has been corroborating this hypothesis that the bodily
self might be rooted in the complex brain systems that represent
the body (Ferri et al., 2011) and have revealed a sensorimotor
neural network for the general representation of the bodily self
(Ferri et al., 2012).
At the same time, the capacity of body schema to switch the
conscious attention to the body itself (e.g., like when passing
between tightly parked cars) has been successfully employed by
architects throughout history to immerse the perceiver into a
spatial situation. For instance, this “rupture” of the habitual,
pre-reflective use of space by acting directly on body schema
is applied in the design of Carlo Scarpa’s peculiar stairs at the
Brion Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole, Italy, where each step is
dedicated to stepping with either left or right foot (Figure 3).
Here the moment needed to recalculate the body’s position and
appropriate action is just enough to activate the attentional
switch and to allow the visitor to consciously experience both
the architectural setting and oneself as an experiencing and
bodily subject. It is in this sense that body schema can be
recognized as having an essential role in architectural experience
and why architects could benefit from an elaborate enactive
interpretation of this bodily mechanism. Specifically, it can
be proposed that such conception of body schema can guide
future studies addressing the issue of aesthetic stance, as
well as the experiential and perceptual differences between
the conscious and unconscious attitudes toward architecture.
Thus, by taking distinguished examples from rich architectural
history as investigative settings, it might be possible to analyze
how spatial structures can act as attentional cues through the
mechanism of body schema. Such understanding would aim
to include not only visual cues, but to emphasize the effects
of embodied architectural cues—the ones which stem from
proprioceptive and tactile stimuli as a result of individual’s
interaction with the environment.
Neuroscientific Evidence of
Action-Perception and Empathy in
Aesthetic Experience
Almost a decade ago, Freedberg and Gallese (2007) proposed
a theoretical framework for studying aesthetic experience based
on the neuroscientific interpretation of the theory of empathy
as a corporeal and emotional resonance with an artwork. Their
starting ground was the notion of empathy as Einfühlung
in its original sense of the bodily experience of art and
architecture, as developed in the late-nineteenth (Robert Vischer,
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FIGURE 3 | Architectural spaces can act directly on attention and
conscious awareness through body schema by disrupting the habitual
engagement with space. Example of peculiar Carlo Scarpa’s stairs at the
Brion Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole, Italy which requires the visitor to
recalculate the body’s position and appropriate action. This brief instance is
just enough to activate the attentional switch and to allow the visitor to
consciously experience both the architectural settings and oneself as an
experiencing and bodily subject.
Heinrich Wölfflin) and early twentieth (Theodor Lipps) century
psychological aesthetics. For Vischer, the concept of Einfühlung
(literally “feeling-into”) signified the unconscious projection
of our “own bodily form—and with this also the soul—into
the form of the object” (Vischer, 1994, p. 92). By embracing
the embodied simulation theory of empathy, Freedberg and
Gallese (2007) offered an interpretation of aesthetic experience
as involving the motor system and the related activation of
embodied mechanisms. Importantly, following Wölfflin’s study
on empathy in architecture (Wölfflin, 1994), they suggested
that these processes could be involved in the perception of
architectural spaces as well as visual arts. In a subsequent meta-
analysis, Brown et al. (2011) argued that aesthetic processing can
be considered as the appraisal of valence of perceived objects
and moreover, that it could be a general process applicable to
both art and non-art objects, and involving cerebral areas serving
biological and social needs.
The main hypothesis of Freedberg and Gallese’s approach is
the involvement of the motor system in aesthetic experience,
where embodied simulations are described as empathy for tactile
sensations, implied gestures and actions. Thus, the observer
is automatically able to create an empathic feeling with the
representational content of the artwork or for example, with the
artist’s explicit gestures (Di Dio and Gallese, 2009). Since then,
several studies demonstrated the activation of motor circuits
during the perception of artworks. Di Dio et al. (2007) showed
that the premotor cortex and the inferior parietal lobe are
activated during the observation of images depicting classical
sculptures, which evoked a sense of action in the observer due
to the implicit dynamic properties of the sculpted human figures.
The sensorimotor area was also involved in beauty judgment,
specifically in the case of the negative aesthetic evaluation of
modified stimuli (i.e., the original sculpture with altered body
proportions). In this case, based on the simultaneous decreased
activity in orbitofrontal cortex, authors proposed that the motor
activation in response to ugly stimuli is a covert release of a motor
behavior. Umiltà et al. (2012) reported that the observation
of images depicting original abstract artworks, such as Lucio
Fontana’s cut canvases, elicited a mu rhythm suppression across
bilateral motor areas. Authors discussed that such cerebral
activations were engendered by the presence of cuts on the canvas
as static representation of motor acts (i.e., a consequence of the
artist’s intentional hand gesture). In addition, the modulation
of the mu rhythm did not depend on the familiarity of the
visual stimuli. Similarly, a group of researchers investigated
if a mu suppression could be elicited by the observation of
Rorschach cards (Pineda et al., 2011). They related the 8–13 Hz
frequency band suppression at scalp central sites to the internal
representation of the feeling of movement elicited by inkblots.
In a following study, Sbriscia-Fioretti et al. (2013) used
reproductions of Franz Kline’s abstract paintings to assess
in detail the involvement of sensorimotor circuits during
the observation of static consequences of hand gestures (i.e.,
brushstrokes). By means of an event-related potential (ERP)
high resolution EEG study, authors showed that the observation
of original paintings generated an increase of cortical activity
when compared with the observation of modified stimuli (i.e.,
computer generated “gestures”). Specifically, authors reported
negative ERP deflections located at frontal and central scalp
sites in the first 350 ms of stimulation. Most interestingly, the
higher spatial resolution of the used technique allowed them
to distinguish four cortical circuits activated in the perception
of such artwork—networks which lie across the sensorimotor,
visual, prefrontal, and orbitofrontal areas. As discussed, the
activity of the sensorimotor cortex mediates a pre-reflective and
automatic understanding of (implicit) actions in accordance with
the embodied simulation theory (Gallese, 2005). Moreover, visual
areas are known to be involved in processing of beauty and
in particular, they could reflect the neural response to visual
stimuli implying motion (Di Dio et al., 2007; Thakral et al.,
2012). Finally, the activation of orbitofrontal cortex is associated
with processing of pleasant and rewarding stimuli (Kawabata and
Zeki, 2004; Vartanian and Goel, 2004; Lacey et al., 2011), and the
enhancement of activity related to prefrontal areas is connected
to judgment tasks of aesthetic parameters (Cela-Conde et al.,
2004, 2011; Jacobsen et al., 2006).
Furthermore, important evidence for the role of emotion and
reward in aesthetic perception of architecture comes from two
recent studies on aesthetic judgments and approach-avoidance
decisions in architectural spaces (Vartanian et al., 2013, 2015).
Specifically, Vartanian and colleagues investigated the effects
of curvilinear/rectangular contours (Vartanian et al., 2013) and
ceiling height with perceived enclosure (Vartanian et al., 2015)
on judgments of beauty and enter/exit decisions by projecting
images of architectural spaces in a fMRI experiment. A distinctive
response observed in both studies is the activation of medial
orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortices, which is consistent
with their established involvement in the core circuit for aesthetic
processing (see Brown et al., 2011, and this section). In the first
instance, judging the curvilinear spaces as beautiful and pleasant
was associated exclusively with increased activity of the ACC (in
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contrast to spaces with rectilinear contours), while the second
study showed greater activity in the anterior midcingulate cortex
in the case of enclosed spaces, which elicited more avoidance
judgments overall in comparison to open spaces.
Overall, these results provide evidence that aesthetic
perception depends on the implicit and internal actions
engendered by artworks, also including emotional experience
and evaluation processing, as well as context related factors.
This complex neuroscientific picture can be analyzed conveying
these findings into three distinct but dynamically interconnected
neural systems accounting for aesthetic appreciation. Specifically,
these cerebral networks involve the sensory-motor, emotion-
evaluation and meaning-knowledge systems which interact
during object perception and are hypothesized to play an
important role for appreciation of architecture (Freedberg
and Gallese, 2007; Di Dio and Gallese, 2009; Chatterjee
and Vartanian, 2014). According to this framework, the
sensory-motor system automatically processes objects and
features of the environment which engage the observer through
embodied mechanisms; the emotion-evaluation system processes
information related to approach/withdrawal as well as to wanting
and liking, whereas the meaning-knowledge system is so far
the least understood since it is widely distributed in the brain
and strongly dependent on cultural contexts and individual
While the fine dynamic interconnection among these cerebral
networks still remains to be investigated in detail, it is
worth proposing a broader hypothesis on the nature of
architectural experience (including its aesthetic dimension) and
how these experimental results could correspond with the
recent enactive accounts of aesthetic experience (Xenakis and
Arnellos, 2014, 2015). Firstly, the evidence of the sensory-motor
system in object perception suggests that aesthetic experience
arises as a result of the interaction between the observer
and the object. On the other hand, the role of emotion-
evaluation systems indicates that aesthetic experience is an
embodied phenomenon directly linked to adaptivity (Xenakis
and Arnellos, 2015) and that aesthetic perception functions in
the service of a better coping with the environment (Xenakis
and Arnellos, 2014). Following such description of aesthetics,
empathy as a bodily understanding of the work of art or
architecture can be thus identified as pertaining to the process
of sense-making and anticipatory preparation for subsequent
Affective Components of Perception
In the previous section we discussed recent findings showing
that the observation of aesthetic stimuli involves cerebral areas
forming the motor system and devoted to action perception.
However, such neural activity cannot appear alone, as it is
also hypothesized by the enactive approach. For instance, the
aforementioned works showed that viewing an artwork activates
inferior parietal lobule and the premotor cortex as manifestation
of an embodied simulation, but also several areas which are
involved in emotion processing, including deep nuclei (the
anterior insula and amygdala), cortical regions (the orbitofrontal,
anterior cingulate cortices, and the left prefrontal areas) (Di Dio
et al., 2007; Sbriscia-Fioretti et al., 2013). Moreover, a recent
meta-analysis also confirmed that besides the activation pattern
of central areas processing action observation and execution
(i.e., inferior frontal gyrus, ventral premotor cortex, and inferior
parietal lobule), additional areas, such as cerebellum and the
limbic system, are recruited. According to this study, these
regions are thought to be responsible for integrating affective
components of action (Molenberghs et al., 2012).
For instance, the insula represents viscerotopic map of
ascending viscerosensory inputs from the body and regulate
negative affective experience in general (Craig, 2009). This
cerebral region is usually divided in anterior and posterior
portions. Anterior regions are primarily associated with
interoceptive awareness of the body and involved in motivational
and affective states that have a strong visceral component (e.g.,
disgust), while posterior regions are connected with primary
representations of sensations from the body (Critchley et al.,
2004; Ochsner et al., 2012). Specifically, the anterior insula is
anatomically connected with limbic structures and with centers
involved in autonomic functions (Dupont et al., 2003), whereas
from the functional point of view the insula mediates feelings
related with emotional states (Damasio et al., 2000; Di Dio et al.,
2007). Recent evidence indicated that interoceptive information
about bodily states—both bodily and emotional feelings—is
represented in the insular cortex, which is thought to be crucial
for emotional experiences and conscious awareness of the
environment and the self (Craig, 2009; Damasio and Carvalho,
2013). Correspondingly, recent accounts of body schema
(Berlucchi and Aglioti, 2010) suggest that interoceptive signals,
along with proprioceptive and exteroceptive information, are
important for complete “tracing” of one’s own bodily states and
body’s position in space. The amygdala is a complex structure
which is anatomically connected with several cortical and
subcortical regions. Functionally, it is involved in the perception
and encoding of stimuli relevant to affective goals (Cunningham
et al., 2008; Ochsner et al., 2012). One of the primary roles of the
amygdala is to provide affective value to neutral stimuli through
association learning; this nucleus could thus be responsible for
storing and accessing emotional memories (Paton et al., 2006; Di
Dio et al., 2007).
Along with the discussed cerebral nuclei, several cortical
frontal regions are also involved in the emotional processing
of aesthetic perception as part of the reward circuitry. In
particular, the orbitofrontal cortex plays the role of signaling
the actual value of a given stimulus, which varies according to
internal preferences and judgments, independently of sensory
modality. This cortical region is crucial when information about
a specific outcome is necessary to instantiate a behavior and
for learning (Schoenbaum et al., 2011). In addition, it also
plays a role in sensory integration and decision making, and
more recently, it has been proposed to mediate the hedonic
experience (Kringelbach, 2005). Two recent meta-analyses also
highlighted the role of the reward circuitry in the processing
of aesthetic perception (Brown et al., 2011; Kühn and Gallinat,
2012). The orbitofrontal and the anterior cingulate cortices have
a specific role in this processing. Specifically, the former works
as a higher-level sensory cortex receiving input from sensory
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pathways involved in object processing (Rolls, 2005), while the
latter predicts and monitors outcomes in relation to motivational
intentions (Carter and van Veen, 2007). Moreover, Sbriscia-
Fioretti et al. (2013) depicted a clear role of left prefrontal areas
during the observation of abstract paintings in their experiment.
These regions usually serve in judgments tasks but were also
observed to be active in response to visual artworks (Cela-Conde
et al., 2004, 2011; Jacobsen et al., 2006).
Davidson and colleagues described that different sectors of
the prefrontal cortex are primarily involved in emotion and
motivation processing along with the amygdala, hippocampus,
insula and anterior cingulate cortex (Davidson, 2003). Each
of these structures plays a different, complementary role in
specific features of emotion. In addition, a lateralization of such
activity could be also a sign of supporting theories related to
functional (Davidson, 2004) and neuroanatomical (Craig, 2005)
frontal asymmetries describing approach/avoidance behaviors.
Specifically, the left prefrontal cortex plays a role in moderating
patterns of activity related to approaching stimuli, whereas the
right hemisphere of the frontal lobe is asymmetrically activated
by avoiding stimuli. It is worth noticing that the prefrontal cortex
is anatomically and functionally heterogeneous although there
is extensive intrinsic connectivity among its various subregions.
This pattern of anatomical connectivity can therefore provide
the basis for orbital, ventromedial, and ventrolateral sectors of
the prefrontal cortex to modulate processing in the dorsolateral
sector. As to the origin of such cerebral frontal asymmetry, it
seems there are genetic influences on EEG measures of prefrontal
asymmetry, but at the same time, it has been suggested that
environmental influences, particularly early in development, are
likely to be present and to shape aspects of functional prefrontal
asymmetry (Davidson, 2004). Moreover, Craig (2005) binds such
psychophysiological evidence of cerebral frontal asymmetries
to neurobiological roots. Hence, the asymmetric activity of the
frontal lobe could be interpreted as epiphenomenon of the
asymmetrical representation of homeostatic activity, originating
from anatomical and functional asymmetries in the peripheral
autonomic nervous system and connected with insular cortex
and forebrain cardiac control (Craig, 2009). In this view,
emotions appear to be organized for the management of physical
and mental energy.
In this regard, there is an interesting hypothesis developed
by Barrett and Bar (2009) according to which object perception
does not only depend on previously encountered multisensory
patterns but also on affective representations, i.e., prior bodily
experiences that influenced the internal sensations. Although
they do not speak explicitly about embodiment but rather
about the “gist” which could arise at both conscious and
unconscious levels, bodily sensations are understood as having
a “dimension of knowledge” which helps to identify objects and
actions according to past bodily reactions. This model relies
on the functional connections between the visual areas and the
orbitofrontal cortex which uses visual information to modify
the perceiver’s body state to re-create the affective context in
which the object was experienced in the past. This neural process
could participate in object perception and mediate following
Affordances in Architectural Terms
In design fields like architecture and product design, the notion of
affordances has been typically used to describe the functionality
of designed artifacts in terms of the perceived usability by the
user (e.g., the mobility and ergonomic properties of architectural
elements and spaces). More recently, a clearer link has been
established between designed affordances as action possibilities
that can also invite behavior and the agent’s capacities to perceive
and engage with them (Withagen et al., 2012). However, so
far results have been limited in attempting to describe this
relationship in terms of the biological nature of an architectural
subject. In contrast, as discussed in previous sections, the
enactive approach to architectural experience makes it possible
to hypothesize about the mutual impacts that architectural
and human embodiment have on each other, and the extent
to which architecture shapes our everyday life and culture
as a whole. Therefore, in order to make more explicit the
constitutive reciprocal relationship between the conditions of
human embodiment and architectural space, it is purposeful to
cast the notion of affordances into more enactive terms.
A notion first developed by Gibson (1986), affordances are
defined as possibilities for action which are provided to an animal
by its environment, including substances, surfaces, objects, and
other living creatures that surround it. Over the last decades,
the concept of affordances has been refined by many authors by
placing explicit accent on the complementarity of the animal and
the environment—that is, affordances are conceived as relations
between abilities of animals and features of the environment
(Chemero, 2003; Rietveld and Kiverstein, 2014; Xenakis and
Arnellos, 2014). Defined in such way, affordances clearly resonate
with the enactive view that the world and the organism are co-
constituted because there is a viable coupling between what the
world affords and our perceptual and practical capacities. On the
one hand, the world (through affordances) informs what we can
see and do, while at the same time, our perceptual abilities and
capacities for skillful action play a role in demarcating—thus,
perceiving and potentially engaging—with what is in our world
(Ward and Stapleton, 2012). Therefore, by taking into account
the enactive understanding of perception as a preparatory-
anticipatory process, affordances can be defined as value-rich
potentialities of interaction that emerge in agent’s perception
(Xenakis and Arnellos, 2013, 2014). It is important to note,
however, that not all affordances are available to each organism
or each animal species. Based on the Gibsonian concept of the
primacy of the ecological niche, the landscape of affordances
(Rietveld and Kiverstein, 2014) is a refined concept meant to
signify that from an immense range of existing affordances,
those that are available to a particular form of life (e.g., human
beings) are constrained by two reasons: (i) by virtue of organism’s
embodiment, as it is also posited by enactivists and (ii) by the
whole spectrum of abilities available in human socio-cultural
practices. A subgroup of this landscape is a field of affordances
which is defined to suggest that affordances are relations
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between aspects of the environment and available abilities of
the individuals, where specific affordances are available to a
particular individual at any moment in time depending on
his/hers abilities, needs, and preferences (Rietveld and Kiverstein,
Therefore, starting from the premise that architects design
affordances, it might be suggested that people’s experience
of architectural environments is intrinsically structured by
the possibilities for action, which is informed from both
sensorimotor knowledge and motivational factors of every
individual. More specifically, on account of presented concepts,
a hypothesis can be put forward that the communicative space of
architecture-body might be described as the conceptual coupling
of body schema and affordances as “enacted” by architectural
environments. A clear illustration of this point from architectural
perspective can be found in the widely praised Peter Zumthor’s
Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Mechernich, Germany. Although
a small-scale intervention, this chapel demonstrates through
simple conceptual and spatial intention the co-dependency
between the architectural and human embodiment. As presented
in Figure 4, the visitor’s spatial experience includes two distinct
bodily positions: starting from the unusual entrance through a
dark passage with its narrowness being directly felt as bodily
feelings (Pasqualini et al., 2013) toward the central space which
expands vertically and requires the changes of posture with the
look upwards, hypothesized to be in connection with the sense
of awe (Eberhard, 2009). In this instance, the spatial structure
is a direct expression of architect’s intentions—moreover, it
is an embodied or “spatialized” experiential scenario which
presents itself to the subject as a scenario of affordances.
Importantly, the effectiveness of selected affordances (narrow
entrance to vertical central space) resides in the essential
features of man’s embodiment (upright posture and human
scale). Thus, the experience of architectural space is directly
structured on the basis of interaction between our embodiment,
controlled through body schema, and provided, designed
spatial affordances. Although Zumthor’s work does not fall
into a category of everyday architectural experiences, such
extraordinary masterpieces are helpful as initial testing ground
based on the clarity of architect’s intentions, which in all well-
designed spaces have to remain in the background of common
life and work activities.
Object Perception and Affordances
According to phenomenological works by a number of notable
philosophers, for the lived, experiencing subject body schema
provides embodied capabilities for action that correlate with
the affordances of the world (Gallagher and Zahavi, 2008).
For instance, a significant aspect of the Heideggerian account
suggests that our primary way of existing is essentially a
pragmatic action-oriented encounter with our environment
(Moran, 2000). This practical and embodied character of our
lived experiences implies that the manner in which things are
presented to us is determined by the nature of the body as
well as by our interests and goals; things are known through
their “manipulability” or being “ready-to-hand” (Gallagher and
Zahavi, 2008; Mallgrave, 2013). This concept of readiness,
FIGURE 4 | Co-dependency between architectural and human
embodiment. Peter Zumthor’s Bruder Klaus Field Chapel provides an
example of architect’s intentions expressed as an experiential scenario or a
spatial articulation of affordances. Here, the experience of architectural space if
directly structured on the basis of interaction between our embodiment,
controlled through body schema, and provided (designed) spatial affordances.
together with Husserl’s notion of intentionality as “I can,” has
found strong expression in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology
of embodiment, and more specifically in the concept of body
schema as our “primordial grip” on the world, which is always
a practical and intentional one, as described above. The body
schema as a set of sensorimotor performances regulating the
perception-action coherence and including the pre-reflective
awareness of one’s intentional action, establishes the basis
of individual’s “practical attunement with the surrounding
world of objects and others” (Gallese and Sinigaglia, 2010,
p. 753).
To date, these phenomenological hypotheses have had
a positive validation thanks to neuroscientific findings that
highlighted the crucial role of the motor system in action
perception. Beginning in the 1990s, experimental studies on non-
human primates evidenced that the motor system is not limited
only to the control and production of movements, but that
it is also involved in cognitive functions. For instance, it was
shown that monkey’s ventral premotor neurons encode goal-
related motor acts regardless of the effector and the sequence
of movements required to accomplish the goal (Rochat et al.,
2010)and that the same motor area responds differently when
an observed action occurs in the peri- or extra- personal space
(Caggiano et al., 2009). Accordingly, these findings indicate
that the monkey’s motor system is organized not in terms of
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movements, but rather in terms of goal-directed motor acts.
More recently, several experiments provided similar evidence
for the human motor system as well. In particular, Cattaneo
et al. (2010) demonstrated that the observation of a tool
movement activates the cortical motor representation of the
hand movements involved in the observed motor behavior, and
that the observation of the tool goal-related motor act activates
a cortical representation of the observed motor goal. Hence,
goal-directed motor acts could be considered as the nuclear
building blocks around which action is produced, perceived, and
understood through embodied simulation mechanisms (Gallese
and Sinigaglia, 2010).
In fact, with the discovery of mirror neurons (Rizzolatti
and Fogassi, 2014), motor neurons were shown to be able
to code peripersonal space and transform object affordances
into potential motor acts (Rizzolatti et al., 1997). Seeing a
manipulable object (e.g., a tool) selectively recruits the same
motor resources typically employed during the planning and
execution of actions targeting the same objects. Several studies
performed on human and non-human primates demonstrated
that the same neuronal populations in the premotor and
posterior parietal cortex are selectively activated both when
grasping an object and perceiving it (Gallese and Sinigaglia,
2013). It is also worth noting that during object perception, the
recruitment of grasping motor representations can be affected
by the same spatial constraints that govern the execution of
grasping actions. Behavioral studies showed that the ability
of an object to afford a suitable grip depends on its actual
reachability, even when people do not act upon it, nor
intend to do it (Costantini et al., 2010) and that affordability
is context dependent (Costantini et al., 2011). Therefore,
spatial constraints affect one’s reuse of his/her own action
representations—a finding corroborated in a study performed
with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) (Cardellicchio
et al., 2011). In addition, several electroencephalographic (EEG)
studies demonstrated that viewing a tool automatically activates
its motoric properties, including its affordance as well as
the representation of the associated motor interaction. These
results show that the functional identity of graspable objects
influences the extent to which they are associated with motor
representations (Creem-Regehr and Lee, 2005; Proverbio, 2012).
Moreover, object familiarity could enhance the activation
of action representations and motor plans (Rüther et al.,
Overall, such EEG studies show that the action plan to
interact with objects engenders a suppression of the sensorimotor
rhythm across motor areas, a peculiar EEG rhythm which was
already demonstrated to be sensitive to action goals irrespective
of sensory modalities (Vanderwert et al., 2013). In fact, studies
reported a mu rhythm de-synchronization during execution
and observation of both goal-directed (Muthukumaraswamy
et al., 2004) and non-goal directed (Babiloni et al., 1999)
hand movements. Hence, the observation of tools, as well
as goal and non-goal directed motor action, leads to an
extraction of information about potential affordances and
this information lies in the neuronal population of motor
During the last two decades, a growing number of experimental
studies in psychology and neuroscience have started to use the
Immersive Virtual Reality (IVR) as a tool for investigating human
behavior and brain activity during the natural interaction with
the external world (Tarr and Warren, 2002; Sanchez-Vives and
Slater, 2005; Bohil et al., 2011; Dombeck and Reiser, 2012). In
contrast to classical experimental methodologies in which reality
is often reduced to text-, graphic- or computer-based abstractions
of the real world typically presented through a display monitor,
the experimental approaches based on IVR have the capacity to
induce an experience where the user is “surrounded by a three-
dimensional computer-generated representation, and is able to
move around in the virtual world and see it from different
angles, to reach into it, grab it, and reshape it” (Rheingold, 1991).
In this section we discuss the potential of using IVR tools to
investigate perceptual and emotional responses to architectural
environments. First, we highlight key aspects of this technology
for examining neurophysiological activity and then propose
guidelines for VR research of architectural experience based on
previously established postulates of the enactive approach.
Immersion and Presence to Create Reality
in Virtual Scenarios
The term “immersive” in virtual reality derives from the
device’s ability to induce an high degree of “immersion” within
the virtual world, based on the number and range of user’s
sensory and motor channels connected to the system (Slater,
1999; Sanchez-Vives and Slater, 2005). According to Slater
and Wilbur, the concept of Immersion can be defined as
description of a technology and indication of “the extent to which
the computer displays are capable of delivering an inclusive,
extensive, surrounding, and vivid illusion of reality to the senses
of a human participant” (Slater and Wilbur, 1997; see Witmer
and Singer, 1998, for a different interpretation). Such immersive
experience is generated through a combination of different
technologies working as a unified system, which delivers visual
information changing in real time according to the movement
of the user’s head and body, as if he/she was in an equivalent
physical environment (Slater, 1999; O’Regan and Noë, 2001). In
particular, these “immersive” systems deliver stereo images as a
function of the head-tracking that allows the user to freely explore
and navigate in the virtual environment as well as to interact
with the three-dimensional objects if the system is combined with
haptic devices.
In this way, the IVR technologies offer the possibility to create
sensory environments that can be replicated almost identically
to the reality under the full control of the experimenter,
as well as to design scenarios and conditions that are too
expensive, dangerous, or impossible to create in physical reality.
Importantly, by granting the user freedom to explore, move, and
act in the environment in a natural way—that is, by establishing
the natural sensory-motor interaction between the user and the
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FIGURE 5 | (A) Example of a 5 screen Cave system (SCN Lab at IRCCS
Santa Lucia Foundation). (B) A user in the Cave during the appreciation and
interaction with the three-dimensional environment.
virtual world—the IVR gains a fundamental advantage reflected
in an high level of ecological validity (Gibson, 1969). Accordingly,
IVR environments can be considered to be highly controlled
and enriched simulations of the real world and therefore, they
enable investigation of human behavior and brain processes
during a natural interaction with the ambient (Bohil et al., 2011).
Evidently, it is precisely for these reasons that IVR technology
provides the means to study with considerable accuracy a
wide variety of architectural scenarios and the corresponding
behavioral and experiential patterns.
The IVR tools currently used are the Head-Mounted Display
(HMD)—a wearable immersive device – and the Cave Automatic
Virtual Environment (CAVE)—a room-like VR setting (Cruz-
Neira et al., 1993;Figure 5). Therefore, in contrast to designing
virtual environments on a desktop monitor that generally
displays image sequences fixed on the screen and does not allow
any natural interaction, such immersive technologies enable to
design a virtual world that responds in real time to the movement
of the user that thus becomes part of the three-dimensional
environment. According to Slater (1999), these sensory-motor
contingencies play a crucial role in characterizing a system as
A second fundamental value of the IVR for experimental
paradigms resides in the evidenced capacity that the exposure
to an immersive virtual scenario can elicit in the participants
a strong feeling of “being physically present” in the perceived
environment (Draper et al., 1998), which represents an important
aspect of consciousness (Seth et al., 2012). This capacity is defined
conceptually as the sense of presence and it is reflected in a
modulation of the psychophysiological and neurophysiological
responses which reproduce realistic behavior and physiological
reactions as if the subject is physically situated in a real place
(Sanchez-Vives and Slater, 2005; Parsons and Rizzo, 2008).
Because of its centrality to the research potential of the IVR tools,
the sense of presence has been extensively measured by means
of different methodologies that are commonly based on: (i) the
standardized questionnaire that provides a subjective judgment
regarding the user’s experience of presence (Freeman et al., 1999);
(ii) the measure of behavioral responses elicited by introduction
of features into the virtual environment that can cause a bodily
response, including the looming response (Held and Durlach,
1992), postural sway (Freeman et al., 2000), after-effects (Welch
et al., 1996), and conflicting multi-sensory cues (Slater et al.,
1995); (iii) the use of the event-based “breaks in presence” (Slater
and Steed, 2000) i.e., the phenomenon during the VE exposure
that launches the participant into awareness of the real-world
setting of the experience, and therefore, breaks their presence in
the VE; and the measure (iv) of person’s physiological activities,
e.g., Heart Rate (HR) and Skin Conductance (SC) (Meehan et al.,
2002, 2005; Slater, 2009; Peperkorn et al., 2014; Vecchiato et al.,
2015b); and (v) the electroencephalographic (EEG) responses
elicited by exposure to a VE (Kober et al., 2012; Slobounov et al.,
2015; Vecchiato et al., 2015a,b) that provide objective measures
of person’s body and brain activities respectively. In Figure 6 we
summarize the IVR devices according to the different degrees of
presence they elicit.
How to Investigate Embodiment,
Motivation, and Affordances in
Architectural Context with IVR
By exemplifying how sensorimotor and interoceptive activity can
be measured in different experimental IVR setups, including a
few architecture-specific studies, we offer several indications how
the enactive approach to architectural experience could be tested
through IVR paradigms.
The Sense of Presence Modulates Emotional
Response and Interoceptive Activity
The investigation of person’s internal states during a VR
experience—measured by questionnaire and physiological
activities—covers a wide range of works that goes from studying
the effects of simple perceptual factors in the VE (e.g., the
shadow of the user’s virtual body reflected on the floor, Slater,
2009) to the emotional responses and their correlations with
the sense of presence, (Meehan et al., 2002, 2005; Peperkorn
et al., 2015). This issue is of particular relevance because the
tight relationship between elicited emotional response and
presence during virtual scenario exposure has been marked
as an indicator of the accuracy and validity of the simulated
experience. In fact, Meehan et al. (2002) showed that the degree
to which a virtual environment seems real results in a high
similarity between the physiological responses evoked in the
VR and those in the equivalent real environment. By means
of a HMD, they tested this hypothesis by introducing in the
VR paradigm a stressing event—in this case a stressful virtual
height situation elicited by a virtual hole on the floor of the
pit room—in order to trigger a physiological response. In this
way, authors compared participants’ physiological reactions
(i.e., Heart Rate, Skin Conductance, and Skin Temperature)
during the exposure to a stressful vs. non-stressful virtual
scenario. As a general result, they found that participant’s
anxiety responses (HR and SC) were significantly higher during
the stressful event and that these measures correlate with the
level of presence (as assessed with a questionnaire). Thus,
this finding implies that high level of presence corresponds to
higher physiological activities (HR and SC) in response to an
external threat (result also found in Meehan et al., 2005). Similar
evidence about the relationship between physiological activity
and sense of presence was reported by Vecchiato et al. (2015b),
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c et al. The Enactive Approach to Architectural Experience
FIGURE 6 | Schematic representation of the IVR technologies able to elicit the sense of presence based on their level of immersivity.
where instead of a stressful event participants were exposed
to three different architectural interiors. For all presented
scenarios, authors found that high and low levels of presence
were respectively reflected in higher and lower HR responses,
recorded during simple observation of virtual environments
in a CAVE.
Overall, even though the perceptual factors affecting the
relationship between presence and emotion are still not fully
understood (Diemer et al., 2015), the aforementioned evidence
highlight three important information: (i) high level of presence
corresponds to higher physiological activities (HR and SC)
(Meehan et al., 2002, 2005); (ii) physiological responses (HR
and SC) can serve as objective and reliable measures of
presence (Meehan et al., 2005); and (iii) presence is a necessary
mediator that allows real emotions to be activated by a virtual
environment (Parsons and Rizzo, 2008). Such evidence also
comes in support of the recent efforts to define the enactive
concept of presence and emotion in the context of virtual reality,
an aspect which has thus far received little to no attention
(Willans et al., 2015). In particular, Willans and colleagues
endorse the enactive approach to emotion as developed by
Colombetti and Thompson (Colombetti and Thompson, 2008;
Colombetti, 2014) and formulate the enactive approach to
presence postulating that: (i) the sense of presence emerges
from meaningful and self-sustaining actions resulting from
dynamic reciprocal interaction between the organism and the
environment, and not as a simulated world in the head; (ii)
the sense of presence occurs where the emotional episode takes
place and it is formed in the same way through dynamic
self-organizing patterns; and (iii) presence is located where
the phenomenological self is emplaced, where the self exists
in the symbiosis between the natural and synthetic body
(Willans et al., 2015). While such paper indicates a potentially
fruitful direction for theoretical conception of presence and
emotion for VR on the basis of the enactive approach,
more detailed proposal is beyond the scope of the present
Additional knowledge comes from the studies particularly
focused on the emotional aspect elicited by a VR experience.
As described in Diemer et al. (2015), these studies used the
VR as a medium for investigating emotional responses, e.g.,
sadness, joy, relaxation (Baños et al., 2004, 2008), anxiety (Juan
and Pérez, 2009), arousal (Freeman et al., 2005), fear (Diemer
et al., 2015; Peperkorn et al., 2015), and their relationship with
presence. In the work of Riva et al. (2007), authors used a HMD
to immerge participants in a virtual open space green park that
was represented in three different fashions (relaxing, anxious,
and neutral). The results demonstrated that the interaction with
“anxious” and “relaxing” virtual environments produced feelings
of anxiety and relaxation respectively, and that the emotional
states were influenced by the level of presence. Similarly,
Baños et al. (2004) used two virtual environments representing
a park with a neutral and gloomy atmosphere, which were
presented by means of HMD, big screen, and monitor display.
Their analysis showed that the emotional valence of the VE
affects the emotional state of the user—thus extending previous
observations indicating that the immersion and affective content
play a role in eliciting the sense of presence (Baños et al., 2004,
Interestingly, recent study by Fich et al. (2014) confirmed
this relationship by examining if and how particular features of
architectural design influence the participants’ stress response.
By using a Trier Social Stress Test in a CAVE setup, participants
performed stressful tasks (e.g., giving a presentation in front of a
committee) in two virtual scenarios, a room with large openings
and a closed room, while monitoring physiological activity in
terms of heart rate variability and cortisol level in saliva samples.
What they found is that participants exhibited greater reactivity
to stress when doing the tasks in the enclosed room, which was
especially manifested in the cortisol reactivity controlled by the
HPA-axis stressor system, a response that could be associated
with whether the subject perceives the situation as controllable.
Accordingly, because the HPA-axis is partially governed by
the feedback from hippocampus, a known brain area involved
in encoding characteristics of space boundaries, the authors
suggested that the greater stress reaction to enclosed space could
be related to the limited possibility to move and escape. Lastly,
it is also worth noting that preliminary testing returned the
evidence of differences in emotional responses between architects
and non-experts when observing distinct spatial geometries in an
immersive virtual reality, which is an issue that will examined in
more details in future studies (Shemesh et al., 2015).
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Neuroelectrical Correlates of Sensorimotor Activity
and Embodiment
Recent neuroscientific studies investigated the experience in
VR looking directly at the brain activity by monitoring EEG
signals (Kober et al., 2012; Slobounov et al., 2015; Vecchiato
et al., 2015a,b). For instance, in Vecchiato et al. (2015b), authors
recorded EEG activity in individuals freely observing three
virtual architectural interiors—a residential room furnished as
empty, modern, and cutting-edge—presented through a CAVE.
The EEG analysis showed that the sense of presence (measured
by questionnaire) was reflected in the activation of the frontal-
midline theta over a brain network that includes frontal,
orbitofrontal, and left temporal areas, with the activity of these
regions particularly increased in the state of “high presence.”
This finding is supported by two studies that used a spatial
navigation tasks in virtual reality. Indeed, Slobounov et al.
(2015) examined the effect of fully immersive 3D stereoscopic
presentations and less immersive 2D VR environments on
brain functions and behavioral outcomes. Results showed that
during the state of presence in immersive 3D scenario, subjects
reported an enhancement of frontal midline theta (FM-theta)
correlated with the success rate in a spatial navigation task.
Similarly, Kober et al. (2012) compared the subjective feeling of
presence and its underlying cortical correlates in two different
immersive VR systems (high vs. low immersivity). They observed
that a higher level of experienced presence (recorded in the
high immersivity condition) was reflected in a stronger parietal
brain activation compared to low immersivity condition. These
observations suggest that the sense of presence could elicit
mechanisms underlying sensorimotor integration as well as
cerebral networks regulating focused attention (Vecchiato et al.,
2015b). In addition, the authors noted that FM-theta was elicited
during the visuospatial exploration of environments judged as
more familiar, comfortable, and pleasant. These findings may
reflect recruitment of theta oscillations in focused attention and
positive emotional experience mechanisms associated with the
exploration of VEs. Therefore, the recognition of familiar features
in the environment, as well as the perception of comfort, could
activate those cerebral circuits involved in internalized attention,
relaxation and hence favor sensorimotor integration in space
(Vecchiato et al., 2015b).
In parallel, various researchers used virtual reality-based
paradigms to investigate neural mechanisms underpinning
bodily-awareness and more generally, the phenomenon of
embodiment. For example, bodily-awareness has been examined
by using IVR to substitute the real body of participants by
manipulating its shape and limb symmetry (Kilteni et al., 2012),
visual appearances (Tieri et al., 2015a,b), skin colors (Peck
et al., 2013), and the perspective point of view by which the
body is perceived (Slater et al., 2010; Pavone et al., 2016) and
its application in neurorehabilitation (Tidoni et al., 2015). In
addition, a recent study by Pasqualini et al. (2013) explored how
architectural interiors—a large and narrow space respectively—
modulate bodily self-consciousness on account of visuo-tactile
mechanisms. By using a video-based setup, involving a virtual
body and a HMD, they discovered that while self-identification
is independent of the room size, the sidewalls of the narrow
space induced weak feelings of illusory touch in the participants.
Accordingly, they concluded that the experience of architecture
from a first-person, i.e., embodied perspective can be related to
the induced changes of bodily self-awareness, by being a result of
projection of bodily space and self-identification with the spatial
void of the virtual interior.
Taken together, these findings highlight that it is possible to
measure EEG correlates of architectural perception involving the
cerebral circuits of sensorimotor integration, spatial navigation,
and embodiment.
Limitations and Future Directions
Finally, due to relative novelty of applying virtual reality
paradigms for the purposes of architecture research, some
limitations and guidelines for future efforts should be outlined.
Primary limitation is concerned with the lack of exhaustive
studies on the extent to which user’s experiences are analogous
in virtual and real environments. Indeed, a recent study with
desktop VE showed that while quantitative data returned few
statistically significant differences between ratings of the real
and virtual building, analyses based on qualitative data revealed
differences concerned with the atmosphere of architectural
space (Kuliga et al., 2015). Thus, while the VR technology
confirmed its potential to become a valuable research tool, a
similar study is needed to examine the degree of similarity
and differences in the case of more immersive virtual reality
tools and experience of the real environments. On the other
hand, most of the aforementioned studies rely on rating scales
and adjective-based evaluation questionnaires for obtaining
participants’ subjective judgments. However, because of the
nature of enactive approach which is closely related to Varelas
proposal for neurophenomenology, it is possible to hypothesize
that future studies could include such phenomenologically-based
techniques for obtaining first-person experiential reports in
addition to traditional cognitive science methods (Bockelman
et al., 2013). In fact, based on the described phenomenological
legacy in architectural literature and recent efforts to investigate
the experience of awe and wonder in VR by applying
neurophenomenological method (Reinerman-Jones et al., 2013),
it is a plausible direction to embrace in order to develop the
closest possible neuroscientific interpretation of architectural
In regard to the hypothesis that the experience of architectural
space is directly structured on account of the interactive
interdependency between our embodiment, affective states, and
perceived spatial affordances, a recent study could offer a
direction for developing appropriate IVR paradigms. Meagher
and Marsh (2015) conducted five experiments in virtual reality
(HMD) and a laboratory with an equal real-life setting with the
intention to test how impressions of spaciousness are influenced
by behavioral opportunities offered by the environment. Based
on participants’ spatial judgments (measured by a questionnaire)
they investigated two aspects: first, the “environmental salience
hypothesis” according to which the design of the room (here
involving furniture arrangement and room size) can invite
and guide a perceiver to engage (or not) in certain activities;
and second, the “behavioral primacy hypothesis” suggesting that
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user’s impressions of space are based on the room’s suitability
for the primed activity and motivations of the perceiver.
Overall results showed that there exists a strong dependency
between the impressions of spaciousness and the perceived
possibilities for the participant to act in the space and that
the room (virtual and real) was judged as accommodating or
inhibiting behavior, especially when previously primed for a
particular activity.
From the enactivist perspective, the way people perceptually
experience the world, including architectural spaces, is governed
by the dynamic sensorimotor activity of the human organism as
a whole and is thereby influenced by the particular conditions
of man’s embodiment. Accordingly, it can be argued that we
engage with architecture through embodied action and that our
experience of architecture is constituted by the complex patterns
of sensorimotor activity. What is thus suggested is that users
are not mere disembodied observers of spaces—instead, the
value and meaning of an architectural environment originates in
the architecture-body interaction. Here, the proposed enactive
framework provides an interpretation of embodiment which
makes the body necessary for experience of architecture and
emphasizes the intrinsic connection between architecture and
human mind/body through action. Moreover, following the
sensorimotor theory of perception and the enactive conception
of perception as anticipatory and action-oriented we hypothesize
that architecture is understood and perceived by providing
(designed) affordances as possibilities for action. In fact,
affordances can exist and be understood perceptually precisely
because body schema connects perception and bodily capacity
to act, and thus this functional mechanism can be defined as a
communicative point in our engagement with architectural space
and understanding of design intentions. Body schema enables
an architectural subject to move through the spatial setting
in a consciously effortless manner and over time to establish
habitual patterns of use. Finally, we argue that an experimental
approach based on IVR can be beneficial to investigate complex
human perceptions underlying the experience of architectural
environments and thus help architects design environments
better suited to users’ changing needs.
AJ conceptualized the research. AJ, GV, and GT developed the
research and wrote the paper. FDM and FB supervised the
research and contributed to revision of the manuscript. All
authors provided final approval of the version submitted for
review and publication.
This research was supported by the Sapienza University of
Rome PhD Fellowship to AJ, by the grant PRIN2012 related
to the mental workload estimation funded by the Ministero
dell’Istruzione dell’Università e della ricerca to FB, and by the
grant code C26N149PK8 with the title “Neurophysiological tools
to investigate the cognitive and emotional engagement during
the experience of artworks and architectonical environments in
laboratory setup, virtual reality CAVE system and real sites”
funded by Sapienza University of Rome to GV. We would like
to thank Prof. Salvatore Maria Aglioti for his generous and kind
availability in supporting this research.
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Conflict of Interest Statement: The authors declare that the research was
conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Copyright © 2016 Jeli´
c, Tieri, De Matteis, Babiloni and Vecchiato. This is an open-
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