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Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical formalization

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Abstract

The physical environment affects people's behavior and wellbeing. Some effects can be easily noticed through observation, whereas others require an in-depth study to be understood and measured. Although many alterations can be positive, some can also negatively influence wellbeing, decision-making, and mental and physical health. Some of these effects are not easily associated with physical space. Thus, people may be unaware of the real triggers for changes in behavior, mood, and wellbeing. Although many studies have been performed on environmental psychology, detailed research to understand the impacts of architecture on the brain using neuroscience is limited. Some difficulties experienced by researchers in this field are on the isolation of each stimulus to understand its effects individually and measurement of brain changes in people interacting with the environment because some brain scans, such as fMRI, require people to be inside the machine. Nonetheless, the several ways a space can impact its users should be discussed to understand how architecture influences individuals and to help architects and urban planners in designing efficient and healthy spaces. This study aims to describe and analyze the results of previous research works and propose a way of organizing them to facilitate further investigation on this field. Keywords: Brain, Neuroarchitecture, Neuroscience, Behavior, Short term, Long term
Research Article
Short- and long-term effects of architecture
on the brain: Toward theoretical
formalization
Andre
´a de Paiva
a,*
, Richard Jedon
b
a
Institute for Educational Development, Fundac¸a
˜o Getulio Vargas, FGV, Sa
˜o Paulo, Brazil
b
Urban Planning and Development Institute of the City of Pilsen, Pilsen, Czech Republic
Received 30 March 2019; received in revised form 15 July 2019; accepted 21 July 2019
KEYWORDS
Brain;
Neuroarchitecture;
Neuroscience;
Behavior;
Short term;
Long term
Abstract The physical environment affects people’s behavior and wellbeing. Some effects
can be easily noticed through observation, whereas others require an in-depth study to be
understood and measured. Although many alterations can be positive, some can also nega-
tively influence wellbeing, decision-making, and mental and physical health. Some of these
effects are not easily associated with physical space. Thus, people may be unaware of the real
triggers for changes in behavior, mood, and wellbeing. Although many studies have been per-
formed on environmental psychology, detailed research to understand the impacts of architec-
ture on the brain using neuroscience is limited. Some difficulties experienced by researchers in
this field are on the isolation of each stimulus to understand its effects individually and mea-
surement of brain changes in people interacting with the environment because some brain
scans, such as fMRI, require people to be inside the machine. Nonetheless, the several ways
a space can impact its users should be discussed to understand how architecture influences in-
dividuals and to help architects and urban planners in designing efficient and healthy spaces.
This study aims to describe and analyze the results of previous research works and propose a
way of organizing them to facilitate further investigation on this field.
ª2019 Higher Education Press Limited Company. Production and hosting by Elsevier B.V. on
behalf of KeAi. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://
creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).
* Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: deadepaiva@gmail.com,andrea.paiva@fgv.br (A. de Paiva).
Peer review under responsibility of Southeast University.
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Please cite this article as: de Paiva, A., Jedon, R., Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical
formalization, Frontiers of Architectural Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
2095-2635/ª2019 Higher Education Press Limited Company. Production and hosting by Elsevier B.V. on behalf of KeAi. This is an open access
article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).
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1. Introduction
“Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor of
his own brain” (Ramo
´n y Cajal, 2004)
Cities and buildings are places where people spend most of
their lives. Individuals grow up, study, develop, work, meet
old and new friends, start forming families, raise their
children, and even die in places built by men. These places
help shape their lives. Behaviors, choices, emotions, and
physical and mental health can be influenced by spaces.
However, whether architects, as well as psychologists,
psychiatrists, and neuroscientists, have considered all the
short- and long-term impacts that spaces can have on
people is still questionable.
Architects and environmental psychologists have long
been aware of the importance of understanding how spaces
affect individuals. Through empirical research, they were
able to measure changes in behavior. “It turns out people
have multiple subconscious tendencies and behaviors that
govern their responses to built environments” (Rock, 2009).
Recent findings, technologies, and research methods in the
field of neuroscience can help understand physiological
transformations in the brain and body that trigger changes
in behavior. Such physiological changes vary in accordance
with when and for how long individuals are exposed to the
same stimuli.
Homes, schools, and cities are the main places where
people grow up. Childhood memories are some of the
strongest ones for most people: memories with their fam-
ilies at home, the first discoveries and friendships at school,
and the first explorations and trips around the city. How-
ever, these moments are more than potential fond mem-
ories. During childhood, critical periods of development
take place in several areas in the brain. Childhood is when
individuals are most vulnerable to several kinds of external
stimuli, such as the physical environment.
However, these influences do not stop in adulthood. As
Fred Gage affirmed: “Changes in the environment change
the brain, and therefore they change our behavior. In
planning the environments in which we live, architectural
design changes our brain and our behavior” (Gage, 2003).
Thus, spaces continue to influence and change us during our
entire lives.
This information is not entirely new for psychologists and
architects. Environmental psychologists have been studying
the influences that spaces have on behavior since the 20th
century. However, their findings were based on empirical
studies. They observed how individuals differently behave
in distinctive environments using evidence-based design.
However, such studies cannot measure brain reactions as it
is possible today due to the technological limitations at that
time. Therefore, they cannot handle the entire complexity
of the relation between neuroscience and architecture.
In addition to empirical studies, architects can directly
research the users of buildings and cities and ask for their
opinions and feelings about spaces. Nonetheless, the ability
to consciously process information is less than 1% of the
ability of unconscious processing (Eagleman, 2011). Hence,
most stimuli will affect individuals on a subconscious level.
Although people may be affected by stimuli, they will not
be necessarily aware of the effect.
Furthermore, these data (the empirical observation of
outsiders or the conscious opinion of users) are only the
results of a reaction to stimuli, not the actual reaction. The
difference is that now, with neuroarchitecture (the inter-
disciplinary field of neuroscience applied to architecture),
researchers and architects can uncover the causes of
changes in behavior and opinion. They can now measure
physical changes in the brain and body that happen as a
result of the interaction between the brain and built space.
These physiological changes, such as the activation of
specific brain areas and changes in hormone levels and skin
conductance, can help further understand the effects of
the environment on people. These impacts can be divided
in accordance with the time of exposure that is necessary
for the change to happen and the duration of the effect
(ephemeral effects or enduring ones).
The physical environment does not always affect people
equally. Furthermore, other important variables, such as
personal features (genetics and individual memories and
experience) and the social environment, affect how people
can be influenced. Therefore, although the physical space
is not the only variable in this equation, it plays a key role
on the wellbeing, behavior, emotions, and decision-making.
2. Architectureeindividual relation
“We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”
(Churchil, 1943)
Individuals are in constant active interaction with the many
environments surrounding them. A warm room can cause
people to sweat, feel uncomfortable, and unable to
concentrate. A dark room can make people feel afraid, stay
alert, and unable to relax. A classroom well lightened with
natural light can help students be attentive to the class.
The environment always affects the individuals who occupy
it in some level. This interaction can be named as an
architectureeindividual relation.
Spaces can change people (architectureeindividual),
and people can change spaces (individualearchitecture).
Therefore, this relation is a two-way path. Nevertheless,
the direction of the architectureeindividual relation is yet
to be explored by researchers.
This relation can be compared, in some way, with the
celleenvironment chemical relation. Cells are constantly
changing and adapting to the environment they are located
in (Berg et al., 2002). From an evolutionary perspective,
the same happens to all living beings. “The evolutionary
success of an organism is a testament to its inherent ca-
pacity to keep pace with environmental conditions that
change over short and long periods” (Brooks et al. 2010).
The way people adapt to the physical environment can
vary in several factors: genetics, cultural and personal
memories and experiences, and the frequency and duration
of exposure to the environment (physical and social). In
addition, the brain actively interacts with the physical
environment: it is always engaged in some sort of activity,
such as work, rest, buy, learn, recover, remember, and
create. All these core variables affect how architecture can
influence individuals. As such, studying the impacts of the
built space on people is difficult because many variables
are involved and some of them are difficult to measure.
2 A. de Paiva, R. Jedon
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Please cite this article as: de Paiva, A., Jedon, R., Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical
formalization, Frontiers of Architectural Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
Among all the pointed variables, time (frequency and
duration) is the easiest one to control and measure.
Therefore, we chose time to differentiate the groups of
spaces and effects: spaces that are occupied for a short
period of time (short-term exposure) or spaces that are
occupied for a long period of time (long-term exposure) and
effects that have a short or a long duration.
Hence, we propose to divide the changes in accor-
dance with the time/frequency of occupation of a space
(short- or long-term exposure) and on the permanence of
the effect (short- or long-term effect). This division
leads to four possible combinations: (i) short-term
exposure, short-term effect (quick alteration of the
existing machinery to operate optimally in a new envi-
ronmental condition); (ii) long-term exposure, long-term
effect (slow reorganization of the existing machinery to
adapt to the environment); (iii) short-term exposure,
long-term effect (a mix of the two previous items); and
(iv) long-term exposure, short-term effect. The fourth
possible combination, that is, long-term exposure, short-
term effect, was not considered in this article because
long-term exposure includes duration (continuous expo-
sure) and frequency (discontinuous exposure) that
repeatedly occurs often and for a long time. Therefore, a
short-term effect will probably arise on the first few
hours of occupation, fitting in the short-term exposure,
short-term effect (i) category.
The word “exposure” was chosen instead of “occupa-
tion” or “interaction” because the physical space is
considered a stimulus to which individuals can be exposed
to. In this case, we consider that exposure is a general term
that can include occupation or interaction when it is the
case. This exposure can be active (e.g., people go to
schools to learn, hospitals to recover, restaurants to eat,
and home to inhabit) or passive (e.g., people do not
necessarily interact with the color of the walls or with the
view of the window). When individuals are exposed
(actively or passively) to a stimulus or a set of stimuli, they
can be affected by it or them. Therefore, the word “effect”
was chosen to classify the different effects in accordance
with its permanence because the effects can be ephemeral
or enduring.
Short-term exposure, short-term effect is an immediate
reaction (a short-term reaction) that is not enduring. It
mostly happens to help individuals adapt while they are still
in the space that triggered the change. However, such
optimization changes can still last a few hours after the
individual leaves that space. These alterations include
changes in emotions, working memory, hormone levels,
heart rate, skin conductance, blood pressure, body tem-
perature, and muscle tension.
One of the most common short-term optimization hap-
pens when a threat is identified and the brain and body
prepare to enter on a flight or fight state. A person who has
vertigo, for instance, will immediately start feeling dizzy
near a window on the top of a skyscraper because they are
perceived as a threat to the body integrity. The heart rate,
muscle tension, and body temperature of the person will
increase. At the same time, the person will feel scared and
afraid. Even after going back to the ground floor, they
might still feel a little uncomfortable for a while until
recovering completely.
Meanwhile, long-term exposure, long-term effect re-
quires repeated stimulation prolonged over time to happen.
For instance, spending a day at home can be helpful to
lower stress levels and relax (short-term effect). However,
for older people who have stopped working and rarely leave
the house, spending a day at home can cause their brain to
change plastically, thereby losing its efficiency and
promptness in time (long-term effect). Usually, long-term
effects not only take more time to happen; they also need
more time to be reverted. Sometimes, they may not be
reverted at all, especially if the stimuli that induced them
are still present.
Other examples are spaces that require complex navi-
gation, such as hospitals or cities. In most cases, a few visits
will be necessary for people to circulate without getting
lost (repeated stimulation). “Repetition plays a dual role in
memory: (i) the maintenance of information in primary or
short-term memory, and (ii) the transfer of information into
a secondary or long-term store. This conception leads to
the prediction that the amount of time that an item is
rehearsed in short-term memory should be directly related
to its recall probability from long-term memory” (Chabot et
al., 1976).
The short-term exposure, long-term effect consists of a
reaction that happens quickly. However, the effect is so
intense that it does not require repetition to be engraved in
the brain. When a stimulus generates emotions that are
strong (short-term exposure, short-term effect), long-term
memories can be usually formed without the necessity of
repetition. Therefore, a short exposure to the stimulus can
lead to long-term changes in the brain. Traumatic experi-
ences can be a good example to illustrate the short-term
exposure, long-term effect. Usually, the trigger to the
trauma happens quickly, such as car accidents, but the
trauma persists for a long time.
An architectural example can be remarkable places that
require just one visit to be recorded by the brain and never
be forgotten. One visit to Gaudi’s Sacred Family Church, for
instance, is enough to create an unforgettable memory.
This visit is an example of a short-term contact generating
long-term memories. Conversely, other spaces, such as
regular churches, may not be so remarkable and will need
more than one visit to be properly engraved on memory.
Therefore, this study proposes that the effects of ar-
chitecture will not only depend on the physical features of
the space. Time and frequency of occupation have key roles
on how space can impact individuals, and they are easy to
measure and control. Both are strategic elements to help
understand the architectureeindividual relation. A short
occupation can result in a more immediate ebut less
permanent in most cases eadaptation. Conversely, a long
and frequent occupation can result in a complex and
structural alteration that lasts longer.
3. Short-term exposure, short-term effects of
architecture in the brain
“Organisms respond to short-term environmental
changes by reversibly adjusting their physiology to
maximize resource utilization while maintaining struc-
tural and genetic integrity by repairing and minimizing
Short- and long-term effects of architecture 3
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Please cite this article as: de Paiva, A., Jedon, R., Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical
formalization, Frontiers of Architectural Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
damage to cellular infrastructure thereby balancing
innovation with robustness” (Brooks et al. 2010)
Short-term exposure, short-term effects are mostly those
that happen after an interaction with the space, which lasts
from a few seconds to one day. Hence, as soon as a person
enters a room or building, the person can be affected by it.
These effects can vary from slight changes in the direction
of an individual’s walk (Leonards et al., 2015); increased or
decreased working memory (Radvansky et al., 2011);
changes in muscle tension, heart rate, and blood pressure;
to changes in emotions and mental states. Short-term
effects can be immediate (a quick response or reflex) or
they can require a long time of occupation and complex
interaction with the space to happen.
Immediate impacts happen as a fast reaction to the
architectural stimuli. They do not necessarily require any
physical interaction with the environment. Just perceiving it
through the senses (especially sight, hearing, smell, and
touch) is enough to evoke such immediate impacts. For
instance, information about the space is brought by the
senses to the brain directly upon entering a building or facing
a street. In turn, the brain adapts itself and the body to the
new environment. Moreover, the pupils dilate and individuals
become attentive to notice any obstacles that may be on
their way as soon as they enter a dark unknown room.
Meanwhile, short-term exposure, short-term effects
arise as a result of a complex interaction with architecture.
It also requires more than just a moment of exposure to the
architectural stimulus. A person who is writing a creative
short paper may go to a co-work space for a few hours to
perform the task. Features from the chosen space (such as
light, noise, layout, temperature, colors, and shapes) can
cause physiological reactions that may help or hinder a
person to be in the best mental state to fulfil a task.
Fig. 2 illustrates the levels of changes that happen in
individuals in order to regulate the body to the environ-
ment, from the most primitive ones, such as metabolic
regulation, basic reflexes, and immune responses, to the
most elaborate ones, such as emotions and feelings
(Dama
´sio, 2003). According to the neuroscientist Anto
´nio
Dama
´sio, these changes are responses to enhance the
chances of survival in the environment (physical and social).
The levels of perception of such changes vary on how
elaborate the response is. Individuals are less consciously
aware of more primitive regulations (bottom of the tree)
than they are of the more elaborate ones (top of the tree).
For instance, some qualities of the physical environment
can impair the immune system, but most people will only
be aware of the impairments after showing some symptoms
of illness. Biophilia, the field that studies how nature can
influence the brain and body, is a good example. It reveals
that the closer people are to nature, the better immune
response they get (Salingaros, 2015). A short-term expo-
sure, short-term effect in this case can be the fact that just
by viewing a natural sight for a few minutes can help lower
stress levels, blood pressure, and muscle tension. A long-
term exposure, long-term effect can be the improvement
of the immune system.
Natural and artificial light are great examples of the
direct impact of physical environment on metabolic regu-
lation (bottom of the tree) without conscious perception
from the individual. Through light, the brain synchronizes a
great part of its operation with the external world (the
circadian rhythm) to cover the 24-h period in which the
activities of the biological cycle happen. Light also regu-
lates physiological and psychological rhythms, directly
impacting wakefulness and sleep, hormone secretion,
cellular function, and genetic expression.
The photoreceptors on the retina, which work even with
the eyes shut, respond to artificial and natural light. Hence,
the use of the electric lamp and electronic devices allows
people to extend the day, deregulating the circadian
rhythm. Such deregulation in the short term can influence
many brain systems responsible for mood control, such as
limbic system and hypothalamicepituitary axis, and the
secretion of glucocorticoids (e.g., cortisol). As a result, the
deregulation can cause insomnia and other sleep disorders,
privation of mood control, trends of (winter) depression,
loss of concentration, enhanced stress levels, and impaired
immune system in the long term (Bedrosian and Nelson,
2017).
In this case, instead of optimizing the machinery, the
biological regulation to adapt to the environment can be
injuring it. Furthermore, the privation of mood control and
enhanced stress levels can affect behavior and decision-
making. Hence, the physical environment, through biolog-
ical regulation, can negatively influence behavior.
Going to the top of the tree, one of the main factors that
can influence mental states is emotions. According to
Anto
´nio Damasio (1994), emotions are generated in the
brain and experienced by the whole body. They are innate
Fig. 1 Proposed kinds of biological regulation to adapt in-
dividuals to the environment (Andre
´a de Paiva).
Fig. 2 Levels of automated homeostatic regulation, from
simple to complex (Dama
´sio, 2003).
4 A. de Paiva, R. Jedon
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Please cite this article as: de Paiva, A., Jedon, R., Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical
formalization, Frontiers of Architectural Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
reactions of the brain that are expressed through facial
expressions, body language, and attitudes (Ekman, 2003).
They affect the way people feel consciously or uncon-
sciously (Dama
´sio, 2003), thereby triggering changes in
behavior and wellbeing. Therefore, the body is an impor-
tant element in the braineenvironment relation.
Emotions are also essential in decision-making and
behavior. People with damages in brain areas responsible
for processing emotions have experienced changes in their
personalities and behavior (Damasio, 1994). Consequently,
changes in emotional states can also change behavior.
According to Paul Ekman, at least six universal emotions
exist: fear, disgust, anger, happiness, sadness, and surprise.
These emotions are innate to all human beings, as Ekman
discovered in his studies with tribes from Papua New Guinea
(Ekman, 2003). Several different factors can evoke these
emotions at some level. Physical space is also a factor.
Cultural symbols and physical elements, such as ceiling
height, proportions, textures, lighting, shapes, colors,
temperatures, smells, and even sounds, can be used for
that. Gothic churches mostly have such high ceilings,
stained glass windows, and an altar. Throne rooms are often
decorated with red elements, and the throne is located in
an altar due to similar reasons. Both examples show a deep
intention behind architecture and a strategic use of space
to induce behavior and connection by evoking different
emotions.
Another feature regarding the short-term effects of
emotions is that they also influence the way people
perceive the world. Individuals see the world through a
filter created by the emotion they experience at the
moment (Dama
´sio, 2003). A person feeling fear may find a
dark room scarier than when feeling happy. A beautiful
landscape view will seem more interesting for people that
are in love than for those who are angry. Thus, when the
design of a building changes one’s mental state and
emotion, this person may perceive space differently.
Moreover, the person may change his/her perception of the
situations he/she experiences in such space. Consequently,
when in a throne room, for instance, individuals may
perceive the queen or king as even more powerful.
Finally, emotions, as well as attention, memory forma-
tion, and its recall, are essential in the decision-making and
perception of the environment. “Emotional stimuli appear
to consume more attentional resources than non-emotional
stimuli. Moreover, attentional and motivational compo-
nents of emotion have been linked to heightened learning
and memory. Hence, emotional experiences/stimuli appear
to be remembered vividly and accurately, with great
resilience over time” (Tyng et al. 2017).
Therefore, an architecture that evokes intense
emotional responses may help individuals to be attentive to
the present moment and the space itself. It may also in-
crease memory formation and its recollection. As a result,
it can facilitate wayfinding and orientation. Furthermore, a
short-term exposure, long-term effect can be induced, as
mentioned in the Sacred Family Church visit example,
depending on the intensity of emotional response.
To sum up, several short-term effects of architecture
occur on the brain and behavior. They can vary from
changes in primitive biological regulations, such as immune
system or metabolic regulation, to complex ones, such as
emotions. Furthermore, they can change the perception on
spaces and situations. These examples are some of the
short-term exposure, short-term effect, as shown in Fig. 1.
On the one hand, short-term exposure, long-term effects
happen to help the individual adapt to the environment. On
the other hand, they are related to the way intense
emotional arousal can impact memory and learning.
Therefore, a quick reaction can, in such cases, endure on
the long term.
4. Long-term exposure, long-term effects of
architecture in the brain
Long-term exposure, long-term effect are those that can
last for a long time even when the exposure to the envi-
ronment is over. Usually, they need prolonged and repeated
exposition to a similar stimuli to happen (except in the
short-term exposition, long-term effect, as already
mentioned): a person’s home, the workplace where the
person has worked for many years, or the person’s every
day’s walk to work through the city. These examples are
spaces that can act as continuous stimuli for a long time.
The brain is adaptable and can change in terms of how it is
or is not stimulated. Thus, spaces that are visited repeat-
edly for a long time can help induce changes in the brain.
The notion that the environment can cause long-term
changes in the brain, as first formulated by Santiago Ramon
y Cajal, is closely connected to the findings about brain
plasticity (Mora et al. 2007). Studies in neuroscience found
out that the brain, specifically its neural circuits and neu-
rons, has a capacity for structural and functional changes
(Eberhard, 2009; Kramer et al., 2004).
Although the focus of this study is the adult brain and its
changes, the importance of spaces that are occupied by
children and their long-term effects in the brain should also
be studied. As already mentioned, several critical periods
of the development of specific abilities occur during
childhood. The spaces children attend to often and for a
long time can have crucial impacts on brain development.
Spaces, from prenatal nurseries to homes, neighborhoods,
to schools, can generate impacts in the brain that last for a
lifetime (Van Praag et al., 2000).
Studies on rats caged in a so-called enriched environ-
ment confirmed that brain plasticity in adulthood is also
induced by physical space (Van Praag et al., 2000). Enriched
environments are spaces that have several stimuli (physical
and social). In this study, the animals were not only in large
social groups and with opportunities for exercise (such as
running wheels), but they were also exposed to cognitive
stimulation using various objects and features in the envi-
ronment (Baroncelli et al., 2010; Tost et al., 2015). These
properties were continuously changed, thereby offering
chances for exploratory behavior and stimulating the
attention and curiosity of the animals.
Animals living in the enriched environment presented
changes in brain weight, size, and thickness and better
results in learning (spatial memory tasks). Furthermore, in
some cases, they presented rehabilitation from a few im-
pairments and deficits associated with brain development
(Rosenzweig and Bennett, 1996). Hence, neuroplasticity is
directly related to spatial features.
Short- and long-term effects of architecture 5
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Please cite this article as: de Paiva, A., Jedon, R., Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical
formalization, Frontiers of Architectural Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
Two kinds of neuroplasticity exist: neurogenesis (the
production of new neurons) and rewiring (changes in the
connections between existing neurons). Although several
brain areas are affected by neuroplasticity (the hippo-
campus, cortex, and amygdala), the hippocampus is the
only known area where neurogenesis happens (Rosenzweig
and Bennett, 1996). It is a brain structure that plays a major
role in long-term memory processes and spatial navigation.
Therefore, when stimulated through enriched spaces, in-
dividuals with long-term exposure can improve memory,
learning, and spatial navigation abilities (O’Keefe and
Dostrovsky, 1971; Van Praag et al., 2000).
In contrast to enriched environment, scientists have also
studied the changes in the brain of animals caged in
impoverished spaces. These spaces were the opposite to
the enriched ones. They had less social and spatial stimuli.
As a result, scientists noticed that the brains of rats caged
in impoverished spaces had reduced weight, showing
divergent results than those in the enriched spaces
(Mohammed et al., 2002). This outcome showed that
enrichment is important to help improve brain plasticity
and avoid its impairment.
Architects who design schools and care centers for the
elderly and hospitals must consider the importance of
enriched environments and the impacts of an impoverished
one. Naturally, not every room in a school or hospital has to
be enriched. The buildings must be planed as a whole by
linking together spaces with different features. A surgery
room has to be simple to be practical and help doctors
focus and concentrate. However, an enriched break room
for doctors and nurses and internal gardens for patients and
their families in the hospital must also be built.
Although enriched environments are important to stim-
ulate brain plasticity, the crucial difference between
enrichment and chaos must be pointed out. Enriched en-
vironments have several stimuli, but they follow a pattern.
In nature, for instance, patterns of shapes, colors, pro-
portions, sounds, and smells exist. In huge cities, such as
Hong Kong and New York, patterns are a mix of everything:
outdoors and lights, skyscrapers that have no proportion to
the human scale, traffic jams, busy streets, horns, and
construction noises, among others. These examples are
chaotic environments, which have excessive information
without necessarily any pattern.
Chaotic environments, unlike enriched ones, can cause
negative long-term changes in the brain and health. People
living in cities generally have more mental health problems
than those living in rural areas (Peen et al., 2010). Like-
wise, people growing up in urban environments are signifi-
cantly more prone to psychotic disorders, namely,
schizophrenia (Krabbendam and Os, 2005). The more a
person is exposed during her childhood or adulthood to
urban environment, the greater the risk of developing
psychotic disorders (March et al., 2008).
Recent studies have shown that a possible explanation
for these numbers lies not only in brain plasticity but also in
geneeenvironment interaction. Urbanized areas can nega-
tively influence individuals who are genetically susceptible
to psychotic disorders. In turn, the influence leads to a high
incidence of such disorders in urban environment compared
with rural areas (Weiser et al., 2007). A possible reason for
such results is that numerous stress factors, such as
population density and crowding, social isolation, air
pollution, noise, life style, and spatial configuration, are
common in huge cities. Exposure to such environmental
stress factors for long periods of time can have severe
effects for the susceptible individuals. For instance, hear-
ing loss is the most obvious effect of excessive noise.
However, the World Health Organization outlines other
detrimental effects of noise, such as disruption of the
circadian rhythms during sleep, reduction of sense of con-
trol over the environment, and impaired cognitive functions
(Goldhagen, 2017).
Long-term effects of architecture in the human brain
can also happen indirectly through its impacts on human
behavior. A beneficial factor for human physical and mental
health and brain plasticity is physical exercise (Mora et al.,
2007). Physical exercise not only helps to keep the body
strong and health, but it also stimulates the production of
brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is a substance
that helps in neuronal growth, maturation, and mainte-
nance. It is also related to cognitive reserve, which is the
brain’s ability to resist damage while maintaining a good
performance (Cheng, 2016). Architectural design can also
increase physical activity by stimulating circulation
throughout the space. The presence of sidewalks, attrac-
tive streets, enjoyable scenery, and hills, for instance, can
encourage walking (Jackson, 2003).
Circulation throughout the space has also another
beneficial aspect: social interaction (Goldhagen, 2017).
Social interaction has various effects on mental and phys-
ical health because both characteristics are contrarily
linked with several diseases, from colds to heart attacks,
depression, strokes, and cancer (Jackson, 2003). There-
fore, environments designed to support human activities
and social interaction can help to avoid or attenuate
several problems.
Another important factor influenced by architectural
designs that greatly affects the brain is perceived stress. In
the context of mental health, chronic stress is associated
with depression, with plastic alterations of the amygdala,
hippocampus, and cortex (McEwen, 2013).
Spaces can increase perceived stress levels in many ways
(short-term exposure, short-term effect). However, when
individuals are often exposed to such spaces, stress be-
comes a long-term exposure, long-term effect. Simple
factors, such as toilet location and accessibility, spaces for
privacy, and good signalization to help navigation, are
important elements that can have a great influence over
perceived stress levels.
All of the findings on enriched environment and brain
plasticity and geneeenvironment interaction, among
others, show how much the architectural design of built
spaces can shape the brain and behavior. Poor, monoto-
nous, and sterile designs can lead to several consequences
ranging from boredom to a lack of physical activity and
social interaction (short-term exposure, short-term effect).
These consequences, in time, can lead to mood and anxiety
disorders and worsening of cognitive functions (long-term
exposure, long-term effect). By contrast, architectural
environments that offer cognitive, social, and physical
stimulation can help prevent many physical illnesses and
mental diseases, avoid stress, and enhance learning and
memory processes.
6 A. de Paiva, R. Jedon
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Please cite this article as: de Paiva, A., Jedon, R., Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical
formalization, Frontiers of Architectural Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
5. Conclusion
People are in constant interaction with the spaces sur-
rounding them. The brain and body are permanently
adapting to the external stimuli from the environment to
improve chances of survival.
In this article, we discuss how built spaces can affect the
brain by focusing on the short- and long-term effects.
Although architects and environmental psychologists have
long been discussing this subject, recent findings in
neuroscience has brought new insights into such discus-
sions. With neuroimaging examinations, the external re-
actions people have in response to spaces, such as changes
in behavior, and the internal ones, which result in behav-
ioral changes, can be readily analyzed.
One of the greatest challenges in studying this field is
that the effects of architecture depend not only on the
physical features of the space. Several other factors can
influence how a built environment affects individuals: the
time and frequency of use, the way individuals interact
with the environment (the activities they will do on each
space), culture and personal experience, and the social
environment. Furthermore, spaces are rich in information,
and each feature is hard to isolate from one another to
understand its impacts individually.
However, we propose to consider two main variables to
systematize the effects and help future research: time/
frequency of occupation and duration of the effect.
Accordingly, we presented three kinds of combination:
short-term exposure, short-term effects; long-term expo-
sure, long-term effects; and short-term exposure, long-term
effects. A short-term occupation can result in a more im-
mediate ebut less permanent in most cases eadaptation. A
longer and more frequent occupation can result in more
complex and enduring alterations. Finally, some specific
conditions that lead to extreme levels of emotional arousal
can generate permanent effects, even after a short time of
occupation.
As several studies have shown, the brain adapts to the
environment to enhance survival chances. However, not every
adaptation is positive. As such, apart from all the challenges,
architects, psychologists, and neuroscientists must join forces
on this investigation. Neuroarchitecture studies can also help
to improve the design of buildings and cities and improve
health and wellbeing on the short and long term.
Conflict of interest
There is no conflict of interest.
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formalization, Frontiers of Architectural Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foar.2019.07.004
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We know as architects that the ability to measure human response to environmental stimuli still requires more years of work. Neuroscience is beginning to provide us with an understanding of how the brain controls all of our bodily activities, and ultimately affects how we think, move, perceive, learn, and remember. In an address to the American Institute of Architects convention in 2003, "Rusty" Gage made the following observations that set the core premise for this book: (1) The brain controls our behavior; (2) Genes control the blueprints for the design and structure of the brain; (3) The environment can modulate the function of genes, and ultimately, the structure of the brain; (4) Changes in the environment change the brain; (5) Consequently, changes in the environment change our behavior; and (6) Therefore, architectural design can change our brain and our behavior.
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The developing human brain is shaped by environmental exposures - for better or worse. Many exposures relevant to mental health are genuinely social in nature or believed to have social subcomponents, even those related to more complex societal or area-level influences. The nature of how these social experiences are embedded into the environment may be crucial. Here we review select neuroscience evidence on the neural correlates of adverse and protective social exposures in their environmental context, focusing on human neuroimaging data and supporting cellular and molecular studies in laboratory animals. We also propose the inclusion of innovative methods in social neuroscience research that may provide new and ecologically more valid insight into the social-environmental risk architecture of the human brain.