Neuroscience and Architecture

The to and fro between our brain and environmental stimuli shapes and influences every aspect of who we are.

"Architects and designers have looked to biology for inspiration since the beginning of the science in the early 19th century". This is from the book The Evolution of Design by Philip Steadman, which was first published in 1979 and has been the catalyst to many current discussions on the role science should play within architecture and design. At the time of the book's proposition, the idea was to use biological systems as inspiration for design, thirty five years down later, we are proposing that we move from a point of inspiration to direct application. In other words we are ready to apply science directly into the design process. Especially given how much neuroscience has developed as a field in the last twenty years, giving us a wider understanding of the inner mechanisms of the human brain. Leading to insights on how we perceive the world around us, and how the brain creates our sense of intelligence. This insight has generated a lot of curiosity from across different commercial industries, especially with the rise of "smart" products, causing neuroscience to burst out of its academic and laboratory confinements.

In many respects this makes sense as we strive to make products and services more adaptable human beings. Leading to a significant question, "how do we create 'things' that are better for people?" Technology and neuroscience have propelled us to a new cognitive era, where we expect the inanimate world around us to become more intelligent, meaning it can enter into a dialogue with us, adapt to our individual needs, and enhance our quality of life. Whether it is a wearable that automatically feeds insulin into our body, a running shoe which can respond to our stride, or a hospital that contributes to the healing process of its patients. This is all here and it is being made possible by the understanding and studies conducted by neuroscience.

Sadly the recent popularisation of neuroscience, has given the industry a reputation of being a marketing gimmick, therefore there is a need for finding honest heuristics and best practices for using neuroscience within commercial industries. There also has to be a purpose, in respect to architecture and design it is to create buildings, spaces, and cities that enhance the wellbeing of its occupiers. We can go as far as to say that we have an ethical obligation to do so given the data and research presented by neuroscience on how the built environment impacts our brain and central nervous system. The research highlights the intrinsic link between ourselves and the built environment. We are in constant communication with our physical world like an elegant and complex feedback loop.

The to and fro between our brain and environmental stimuli shapes and influences every aspect of who we are. From our cognitive abilities and behaviour to motor skills and physicality. For example, attention which is a visual cognitive system, has developed through hundreds of years to help us distinguish importance between different stimuli, decipher a threat, and to help us learn. This system is highly influenced by the built environment; how and what we pay attention to is in part guided by your specific environment. For instance, if you walk into a dimly lit room, your pupils would dilate and your eyes would focus and attend to items that are more lit than those that are not. In turn only the activities and items in those areas would receive your attention and in consequence would influence cognitive mechanisms like decision making and memory.

Neuroscience has also discovered that our brains have the capacity to structurally change through a set of processes called neuroplasticity. This is a fundamental principle to the relationship between neuroscience and architecture, because understanding how our brain adapts and structurally changes due to our physical environment will lead to creating a built environment that is empathetic to the cognitive and wellbeing needs of occupants. Studies have uncovered that exposure to an enriched environment improves performance in hippocampus dependant learning tasks. This is important because how well we learn impacts our calibre of problem solving, idea generation, cognitive flexibility.

Just how psychology influenced architecture and set new design heuristics, so can neuroscience. However, we need to have an open dialogue between the two industries The first conference in London discussing the relationship between neuroscience and architecture will be held on the 1 March 2016. Conscious Cities will bring together neuroscientist and architects to discuss how architects can use neuroscience in their design process and what are the current projects between the two industries. It is important that this dialogue happens in London a city that is looked upon for innovation and leadership in design.


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