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Neuroscience for Architecture: How Building Design Can Influence Behaviors and Performance

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Abstract

The purpose of this paper is to discuss recent findings in neuroscience that can be useful to architecture. Knowing the working patterns of the brain and how space affects cerebral functions can help architects design buildings that improve the user’s behavior, performance and well-being. The built environment has a direct impact on the human brain. Social relations, focus, cognition, creativity, memory and well-being can be influenced by the surrounding physical space. Although it is not possible to create the perfect room, the space can be used in a strategic way, depending on the task that individuals are supposed to do there and depending on the people (age, gender, culture) who will make use of the space. Schools can be designed in a way to improve cognition, learning and memorization; hospital buildings can help improving recovery; workspaces can improve performance, creativity and collaboration. Above all, all spaces of long occupation should be designed in a way to improve well-being. How can architecture change automatic behaviors and nudge people to behave in a healthier way? Can architects create buildings and cities that improve socialization and happiness? Can criminality levels drop due to changes on the way the environments are designed? These are some of the questions that will be discussed in this paper.
Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture 12 (2018) 132-138
doi: 10.17265/1934-7359/2018.02.007
Neuroscience for Architecture: How Building Design
Can Influence Behaviors and Performance
Andréa de Paiva
Fundação Getulio Vargas, FGV, Institute for Educational Development, São Paulo 01310-100, Brazil
Abstract: The purpose of this paper is to discuss recent findings in neuroscience that can be useful to architecture. Knowing the
working patterns of the brain and how space affects cerebral functions can help architects design buildings that improve the user’s
behavior, performance and well-being. The built environment has a direct impact on the human brain. Social relations, focus, cognition,
creativity, memory and well-being can be influenced by the surrounding physical space. Although it is not possible to create the perfect
room, the space can be used in a strategic way, depending on the task that individuals are supposed to do there and depending on the
people (age, gender, culture) who will make use of the space. Schools can be designed in a way to improve cognition, learning and
memorization; hospital buildings can help improving recovery; workspaces can improve performance, creativity and collaboration.
Above all, all spaces of long occupation should be designed in a way to improve well-being. How can architecture change automatic
behaviors and nudge people to behave in a healthier way? Can architects create buildings and cities that improve socialization and
happiness? Can criminality levels drop due to changes on the way the environments are designed? These are some of the questions that
will be discussed in this paper.
Key words: Architecture, brain, neuroarchitecture, neuroscience, behavior, performance, well-being, design.
1. Introduction
Architecture is the art which so disposes and
adorns the edifices raised by man (…) that the sight of
them contributes to his mental health, power and
pleasure” [1].
Neuroscience is a field strongly associated with
medicine. However, over the last few decades new
technologies have helped boost neuroscientific
research. Due to the several new findings in this area,
neuroscience is now being applied in different fields,
such as economy, marketing and leadership.
In economy, the idea of rationality in the process of
decision making has always been defended. However,
it has been proved recently that rationality does not
play such an important role as it was believed. Decision
making is much more influenced by impulsive,
instinctive and affective thoughts than by logic and
rationality.
Corresponding author: Andréa de Paiva, master of arts,
research fields: neuroarchitecture: neuroscience applied to
architecture and urban design.
In marketing this is also very explored nowadays.
Professionals in this field try to create campaigns and
advertisement announcements that incite impulsive,
instinctive and affective reactions on their consumers.
The way products are exposed and advertised is
strategically thought aiming to foster impulsive
purchases, boosting sales and profits.
Consumer loyalty can also be stimulated by the
application of neuroscience to create the best
marketing approach. Depending on the emotion
generated by some kinds of stimuli, a strong bond can
arise between client and brand.
In leadership, a leader that understands his team can
adjust his way of leading in order to improve trust and
flocking behavior, enhancing engagement and
compromise among the team.
As a result, the number of professionals from
different fields that are teaming up with brain scientists
is increasing. This partnership allows new findings to
be made and increases the practical application of
neuroscience in several fields.
D
DAVID PUBLISHING
Neuroscience for Architecture: How Building Design Can Influence Behaviors and Performance
133
For architecture, neuroscience can also be very
helpful. Architects have always known the power of
their buildings and how they can impact their users.
The equation created by the psychologist Kurt Lewin
(1890-1947) illustrates the role of the environment on
individuals behavior: B = ƒ(P, E), which means
behavior is a function between the Person (a unique
individual with his own memories and genetics) and
the Environment [2]. By Environment he means not
only the social environment, but the physical
environment too. Thus, behavior is also influenced by
architecture. And this relation between environment
and individual happens not only in a cognitive way, but
also in an emotional or even instinctive way. “It turns
out people have multiple subconscious tendencies and
behaviors that govern their responses to built
environments” [3].
According to neuroscience, the ability to process
information consciously is less than 1% of the ability of
unconscious processing. This means that most of the
stimuli will affect individuals in a subconscious level.
Therefore, even though people might be affected by it,
they will not be aware of that.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss a few of the
several matters that can be studied by this new science
that arises from the partnership between neuroscientists
and architects: neuroarchitecture (neuroscience applied
to architecture). This paper also aims to point some of
the benefits that neuroarchitecture can bring to the
users of buildings and cities. The combination of
neuroscience and architecture can be a great tool to
help decipher some aspects of the relation between
brain and space.
2. Unconscious Processing of Information
In each of us there is another whom we don’t know
[4].
The healthy brain is composed by systems in conflict.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the founder of
psychoanalysis, came to that realization by talking with
his patients and noticing their internal conflicts. As a
consequence, he developed the psychic structure,
comprising the id, ego and super-ego. The id (instinct)
and the super-ego (moral) are completely opposites.
Between them there is the ego, which tries to keep a
balance between these two contrary instances.
Freud’s findings, although having no direct somatic
relation with the brain, inspired neuroscientists to study
and realize that different patterns of behavior are
controlled by specific structures in the brain.
Therefore, neuroscience seeks to map the human
brain, understanding the multiple responsibilities of
each structure. The simplest way to analyze the brain
nowadays is to divide it in two systems: System I—fast
thinking and System II—slow thinking [5].
System I is under the conscious level. It is fast,
automatic, heuristic, implicit, intuitive, holistic,
impulsive and emotive. It is the system responsible for
controlling and monitoring the functions that keep the
body safe (internally and externally). System II is
conscious, slow, cognitive, systematic, explicit,
analytic and reflexive. All human actions and reactions
are guided by these two systems. However, they have
different powers to influence behavior, decision
making and performance.
System I is much faster than System II. In a tennis
match, for example, when the adversary strikes the ball,
the player does not have enough time to think
consciously, to analyze the situation and plan how to
reach the ball. All these happen in fractions of a second.
The player’s body basically reacts. It is an automatic
behavior, controlled mainly by System I.
Another advantage of System I is that it needs less
energy to work than System II. The human brain is
hardwired to save energy. Conscious thoughts are
tiring and need a lot of glucose. This is the reason why
most brain processes are automatic. This
automatization allows the brain to work faster and to
save energy. If humans had to consciously think about
most brain processes in order to realize them, the
energetic cost—and the time cost—would be too high.
Lastly, System I can process much more information
Neuroscience for Architecture: How Building Design Can Influence Behaviors and Performance
134
than System II. It controls at the same time the vital
functions of the body (autonomic nervous system),
automatic behaviors, and perceives the external
environment. If individuals could consciously notice
all stimuli from the spaces surrounding them, the brain
would be overloaded. System I notices much more and
selects only the relevant information to be processed by
System II.
On the other hand, System II has a very logical
intelligence that System I lacks. Most new situations
are controlled by System II until it becomes automatic.
Logical conclusions that need multiple factors analysis
and long-term planning are also controlled by System
II. System I, which is unconscious, automatic and
impulsive, has a disposition for biased behaviors.
The relevance of System I in day-to-day life justifies
seeing the brain as an iceberg: the small area visible
above the water is the area of rationality and
consciousness. But the big and long sharp bottom
represents the proportion of automatic and unconscious
behaviors that people are not aware of. David Rock [3]
exemplifies this with the “elephant and the rider”
metaphor: the conscious will is the rider that tries to
control the larger and uncontrollable unconscious mind,
the elephant. “With the prefrontal cortex taking up just
4% of total brain volume, modern brain science seems
to affirm the truth of this metaphor. The prefrontal
cortex, central to conscious decision making, has a
degree of influence, but the rest of the brain is bigger
and stronger” [3].
In conclusion, one of the greatest contributions from
neuroscience to other fields of knowledge—including
architecture—is the understanding that humans are
hardwired to present much more impulsive, instinctive
and emotive behaviors and perceptions than rational
and conscious ones. With that in mind, an important
question presents itself: Have architects been designing
their buildings for System I or System II?
3. Space, Message and Expectation
We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us
[6].
Architects have already been thinking about the
messages their buildings send to their users. Medieval
churches, with their long plans, high ceilings, and
stained-glass windows at the top of the walls showed,
through architecture, how great divine power can be.
The impact of such message to individuals invoked
respect and emotion. The classic CEO’s room, located
on the top floor of the company’s building and
decorated with marble and wood also shows power
and invokes different behaviors on both, the owner of
the room and the people who will visit him there.
Thus, this communication between building and
people is not new. The great difference is that it used
to be done in a more intuitive and empiric way.
Neuroscience applied to architecture has proved
that spaces can impact directly the way System I
works. Since System I is unconscious, automatic and
impulsive, a great part of such impact will not be
recognized on a conscious level.
This is why surveys and interviews based on
individual’s opinion are not enough to find out users’
satisfaction. The impacts that happen in a
subconscious level may not be revealed in a survey
answer. But with brain scans like PET (positron
emission tomography) and fMRI (functional magnetic
resonance imaging), it is possible to see more clearly
the brain’s reaction to each stimulus received by the
environment and to understand in details how
behavior is affected.
Every space—natural or built—will be interpreted
by the brain differently. Some features of the
environment might be interpreted as a symbol of
power and show a hierarchical position, some will
cause surprise and awe, others will bring back
memories, or stimulate learning and alertness. Both
Systems—I and II—can process those messages.
However, the impacts on System I, which controls
most of the mental processes, are much larger than
System II, which only has a conscious perception of
the environment. All this will reflect on the behavior
Neuroscience for Architecture: How Building Design Can Influence Behaviors and Performance
135
and well-being of people.
The recognition of known and unknown spaces, for
instance, is a behavior that was developed during
evolution. Animals that did not have alertness levels
raised when in an unfamiliar territory had a higher
chance of being attacked by a predator. That is the
reason why the territoriality is an instinctive behavior
that the brain is hardwired to present. When an
individual recognizes a space as his own territory, the
attention levels tend to drop. As a result, it will be
easier to relax and this might impact behavior.
Patients with Alzheimer who have privative rooms
with their own personal objects for decoration have a
much calmer behavior, less aggressive and anxious.
When patients are allowed to have their own personal
decoration, a link is made with their histories, and
things become familiar. As a consequence of feeling
“at home”, stress levels get lower [7].
Contrastingly, spaces that are interpreted as
threatening by System I, for instance, will activate
automatic responses of fight or flight behavior, raising
stress levels. Environments that show hierarchy and
power tend to inhibit spontaneous behavior. On the
other hand, spaces that stimulate spontaneity will
bring out more creativity and collaboration among
their users.
Spaces also generate expectations, which are a
powerful tool to change brain and behavior. Placebo
effect is an example of how expectations can
unconsciously alter the brain. Depression, pain and
sleep disorders can often have conditions changed by
the placebo effect. Patients suffering from such
problems can feel improvement in their symptoms
even when taking pills that, unbeknownst to them,
have no active substance. How can architecture
generate expectations that improve well-being?
On the other hand, it must be considered that spaces
will not necessarily affect everyone the same way.
Neither can it be considered that with
neuroarchitecture architects will be able to create “the
perfect room” where brains will all work at their best.
The brain may be hardwired to present some innate
behaviors, but it is also shaped by the culture and
experiences individuals have during their lives. This
means that architects must always consider their target
public when designing a building. If in a culture
marble is a symbol of power, a building made of
marble will impact people differently than in a culture
where marble is a symbol of poverty.
In addition, architects must always consider the
function their building will have. A great architecture
for a hospital will not be great for a school. Neither
will a classroom be a good surgery room. Each space
has a specific purpose and, consequently, must have a
different design.
Therefore, neuroarchitecture application goes way
beyond understanding the brain to create more
efficient spaces. It is fundamental that architects
understand the users of the building as well as the
purpose of such building and each space inside of it.
Only when considering these three factors together
(brain knowledge, building purpose and user)
architects will be able to design buildings for Systems
I and II.
4. Priming the Brain through Architecture
The design of a physical place influences the mental
state of the people in that space. That shapes their
attitudes and behavior” [8].
The retina captures information from the
environment and sends them to the brain even when
individuals are not directly looking anywhere. It works
like this for all senses. Even when people are not
consciously paying attention to sounds, textures or
smells, the senses are capturing information and
sending them to the brain. In its turn, the brain will
process this information, but there will not necessarily
be any conscious perception of it, unless it is something
relevant, like the smell of food that activates appetite or
the sound of a bug flying that provokes the instinctive
reaction of head deviating, for example.
When a stimulus impacts System I and not System II,
Ne
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136
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I, architec
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nition, me
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reativity an
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uroarchitect
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Neuroscience for Architecture: How Building Design Can Influence Behaviors and Performance
138
set of rules that lead to right or wrong answers. Each
project must be done considering the specificity of each
case. Individuals are unique according to their genetics,
culture and their life experiences. Neuroarchitecture
points to some reactions brains have to specific stimuli
in neutral situations. To apply that, architects must
be able to interpret them and analyze each case as
unique.
References
[1] Ruskin, J. 1849. The Seven Lamps of Architecture. New
York: John Wiley.
[2] Gonçalves, R., and Paiva, A. 2014. Triuno: As muitas
Faces do seu Cérebro. São Paulo: Clube de Autores.
[3] Rock, D. 2009. Your Brain at Work. New York: Harper
Business.
[4] Jung, C. G. 1970. “Collected Works.” In Civilization in
Transition. Vol. 10. Princeton University Press.
[5] Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking: Fast and Slow. New York:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[6] Churchil, W. 1943. “House of Commons Rebuilding.”
Accessed January 20, 2018. http://hansard.millbank
systems.com/commons/1943/oct/28/house-of-commons-r
ebuilding.
[7] Zeisel, J. 2006. Inquiry by Design. New York: W. W.
Norton & Company.
[8] Augustin, S. 2009. Place Advantage: Applied Psychology
for Interior Architecture. New York: Wiley.
[9] Bateson, M., Nettle, D., and Roberts, G. 2006. “Cues of
Being Watched Enhance Cooperation in a Real-World
Setting.” Accessed January 20, 2018. https://www.ncbi.
nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1686213.
[10] Meyers-Levy, J., and Zhu, R. 2007. “The Influence
of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the
Type of Processing That People Use.” Accessed
November 24, 2017. https://assets.csom.umn.edu/
assets/71190.pdf.
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Triuno: As muitas Faces do seu Cérebro
  • R Gonçalves
  • A Paiva
Gonçalves, R., and Paiva, A. 2014. Triuno: As muitas Faces do seu Cérebro. São Paulo: Clube de Autores.
House of Commons Rebuilding
  • W Churchil
Churchil, W. 1943. "House of Commons Rebuilding." Accessed January 20, 2018. http://hansard.millbank systems.com/commons/1943/oct/28/house-of-commons-r ebuilding.
Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture
  • S Augustin
Augustin, S. 2009. Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture. New York: Wiley.