“We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.”  -Winston Churchill

Frequently, we hear a friend or someone comment on something they had seen in their surroundings. They’d tell something about its aesthetic quality, or how it drew them in to observe further, or how they feel a kind of vibe that leaves them to feel at ease and choose to stay. These are instances of proof that our environment has an impact on our brains.

For generations, architects have recognized that the built environment in which we reside, learn, function, and worship influence how we act and behave, providing a setting for quiet reflection, energizing interaction, or inspiration. In recent years, neuroscientists have begun to extend that insightful understanding by demonstrating how our brains are good to our environment and how they respond effectively to knowledge that reaches us through our sensory experiences, including consciousness of our configuration in space.

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The spaces and the bodies we inhabit and determine the way we think _© Stephen Di Donato

In today’s scenario, researchers and architects could use neuro-architecture (the inter-disciplinary field of neuroscience applied to architecture) to discover the underlying cause of changes in behavior and perception. They can quantify physical changes in the brain and body that occur as a result of the brain’s engagement with built space. These physical responses, such as the stimulation of specific areas of the brain and variations in hormone levels and skin conductance, can allow us to understand how architecture affects people. Sweating, discomfort, and inability to concentrate can all occur in a warm room. A dark room can cause people to feel fearful, alert, and unable to relax. A well-lit classroom with plenty of natural light can help students pay attention in class. The environment always has an impact on the people who interact with it. 

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Dark Room _©Guillaume Dumas
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Architecture and Brain _©www.architectravels.com

Studies have consistently shown that there is no such thing as a neutral experience of a built environment design that can have a significant impact on a person’s well-being. According to one study cited by Ms. Goldhagen, a patient recovering from surgery in a hospital room with a view of the outside heals 30% faster than the same patient with a view of a brick wall.

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Art and Color affects the well-being _©Costas Picadas

For easy understanding, time can be considered as a factor that affects the functioning of the human brain inhabiting a certain space. It can be short-term exposure and long-term exposure. Here exposure is used as a general term that involves interaction and engagement within a space. This exposure can be active (for example, youngsters go to schools to learn, hospitals to heal, restaurants to eat, and homes to live) or passive (e.g., individuals do not necessarily interact with the color of the walls or with the view of the window). This leads to three possible combinations: (1) short-term exposure and short-term effect; (2) long-term exposure and long-term effect; (3) short-term exposure but long-term effect. 

Short-term exposure – Short-term effect

Short-term exposure, the short-term effect is an instantaneous (short-term) reaction that does not last. It usually occurs to assist individuals in adapting while they are still in the space that triggered the change. A person suffering from vertigo, for example, will feel dizzy as soon as they are near a window on the top of a skyscraper since they are considered dangerous to the body’s integrity. The person’s pulse rate, muscle tension, and temperature will rise. At the same time, the individual will be scared.

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Multi-sensory Design Environment _©Corporate Design Interiors

It does not always necessitate any physical interaction with the environment. Simply perceiving it with the senses (especially sight, hearing, smell, and touch) is enough to induce such immediate effects. For example, knowledge about the environment is conveyed to the brain directly by the senses upon entering a building or facing a street. In turn, the brain and body adjust to the changing environment. Furthermore, when people enter a dark unfamiliar room, their pupils dilate and they become more alert to any barriers that may be in their path. The diagram below depicts the various levels of changes that occur in individuals to regulate the body’s response to its surroundings, ranging from the most basic, such as metabolic regulation, simple reflexes, and immune responses, to the most complex, such as emotions and feelings.

 

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Levels of changes _©AR Damasio 2003

Biophilia, the study of how nature affects the brain and body, is a good example. It demonstrates that the closer humans are to nature, the better is their immune response. In this case, simply looking at a natural scene for a few minutes can enable lower levels of stress, blood pressure, and tension. Natural and artificial light are excellent examples of the direct effect of the physical surroundings on metabolic regulation (bottom of the tree) that occurs without the individual’s conscious awareness. The brain synchronizes a large

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Effect of Architecture on human psychology _©Zhengbo Zou, Semiha Ergan

Moving up the tree, one of the most important factors that can affect mental state is emotion. At some stage, these emotions can be triggered by a variety of factors. The built environment is also a criterion. Ceiling height, proportions, textures, lighting, shapes, colors, temperatures, smells, and even sounds can be used as cultural elements and tangible factors. Most Gothic churches have high ceilings, stained glass windows, and an altar. Throne rooms are frequently decorated with red elements, and the throne is often located in an altar for similar reasons. Both examples demonstrate a strong intention behind the architecture as well as strategic use of space to generate behavior and connection by evoking various emotions.

Long-term exposure – Long-term effect

Long-term exposure and long-term impacts are those that could last a long time after the exposure to the surroundings has ended. For instance, a person’s home, the workplace where the worker has worked for many years, or the person’s daily walk through the city area. These are examples of spaces that can serve as continuous stimulations for an extended time. Thus, spaces that are visited repeatedly over a long period can aid in the formation of changes in the brain. The places where children spend a lot of time and for a long time can have a big impact on their brain development. Spaces, from nurseries to homes, neighborhoods, and schools, can have long-term effects on the brain.

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Learning Spaces designed for brain development _©Taku Hibino and Adrià Goula
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Learning Spaces designed for brain development _©Taku Hibino and Adrià Goula

Architects who design schools, nursing homes, and hospitals should recognize the value of enriched environments as well as the consequences of impoverished ones. Buildings must be planned as a whole, with spaces with various functions linked together. A surgery room must be simple for doctors to focus and concentrate. However, an efficient break room for doctors and nurses, as well as internal green spaces for patients and their families, should be created in the hospital. There are many stimuli in enriched environments, but they all follow a pattern.

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Patient Room Concept _© Zoom Design

In contrast to enriched environments, chaotic environments can cause negative long-term effects on the brain and wellbeing. Patterns in large cities, such as Hong Kong and New York, are packed with everything: outdoors and lights, skyscrapers that are out of proportion to the human scale, traffic jams, crowded streets, horns, and construction noises, to name a few. These are chaotic environments with an abundance of information but no perceivable pattern.

Physical activity is beneficial to human physical and mental health, as well as brain stability. Physical activity can also be increased through architectural design by stimulating circulation throughout the space. Walking can be encouraged by the presence of sidewalks, appealing streets, pleasant scenery, and hills, for example. Circulation all through space has another advantage: social interaction. Simple factors such as restroom location and ease of access, private spaces, and good signaling to aid navigation are essential aspects that can have a significant impact on perceived stress levels.

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Sidewalks with Natural aesthetics encourage walking _© Luísa Schardong

The short-term exposure, long-term effect consists of a rapid reaction. Nevertheless, the effect is so strong that it does not need to be repeated to be instilled in the brain. An amazing architectural example can be places that require only one visit to be registered by the brain and never forgotten. One visit to Gaudi’s Sacred Family Church, for example, is enough to leave a lasting impression.

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Gaudi’s Sacred Family Church in Barcelona _© Andrey Nikitin and Estela Marine-Roig
Gaudi’s Sacred Family Church in Barcelona _©Andrey Nikitin and Estela Marine-Roig

Several factors influence how people adapt to their physical surroundings, including genetics, cultural and personal emotions, and experiences, and the frequency and duration of exposure to the environment (physical and social). Furthermore, the brain actively engages with the physical environment: it is always involved in some kind of activity, such as work, rest, buying, learning, recovering, remembering, and creating. All of these fundamental variables have an impact on how architecture can influence people.

Architects along with environmental psychologists have recognized the significance of interpreting how spaces affect people. They were able to determine behavioral changes via observational research. “It turns out that people have a variety of subconscious tendencies and behavioral patterns that control how they respond to the built environments.” Changes in the environment alter the brain and thus affect our behavior. Spaces influence and shape us throughout our lives. 

References: 

  1. Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical formalization (ScienceDirect – Research article)
  2. ABC News
  3. Cogneurosociety.org
  4. Psychology Today (Anjan Chatterjee)
Author

- A young architect and a firm believer in the potential of architecture, sustainability, research, and design thinking to significantly improve society and have a positive influence on the environment. A highly efficient and enthusiastic individual who is inspired by the meaning of architecture and its innovative effectiveness to translate thinking approaches into the built environment.

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