This Is Your Brain on Architecture

Neuroscientists are uncovering how the design of your home or office can make you smarter, faster, happier. Is brain science the next big design trend?

In the 1950s Jonas Salk was working on a cure for polio in the basement of a Pittsburgh laboratory. Stymied and discouraged, he went to Assisi, Italy and wandered around a 13rd-century monastery. There, among the cloisters, he felt his mind unwind. Fresh lines of pursuit came to him, including the breakthrough that led to the vaccine.

Salk Institute

Salk was convinced that the monastery had influenced his mind. So convinced, in fact, that he solicited the architect Louis Kahn to design the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, in hopes that other scientists might benefit from serene surroundings.

brain

Sixty years later Salk's hunch is now backed up by empirical evidence as new research in neuroscience hints at how our surroundings affect feelings and behavior. In the current issue of Scientific American Mind, Emily Anthes describes how ceiling height, colors and other design factors influence attention and creativity. Scientists are just beginning to address these questions, in part by studying changes in brain activity as subjects make their way through virtual reality rooms.

The neuroscience of design is still in its infancy, but it has its own organization, The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture in San Diego, and some architecture schools now include some basic neuroscience in their curriculum. Are we on the verge of a new field of emotionally intelligent design? Here are few early findings:

round furniture

A study by neuroscientists at Harvard Medical School found that faced with photographs of everyday objects--sofas, watches, etc.--subjects instinctively preferred items with rounded edges over those with sharp angles. Mose Bar, a neuroscientist, speculates that our brains are hard-wired to avoid sharp angles because we read them as dangerous. He used a brain scan for a similar study and found that the amygdala, a portion of the brain that registers fear, was more active when people looked at sharp-edged objects.

red room

A study published earlier this year in the journal Science found that we remember words and other details better when surrounded by red, and that we're more creative and imaginative in the presence of blue. So if your staff is, say, proofreading or debriefing they're better off in a red room. But if they're brainstorming ideas for a new marketing campaign, blue is the color.

Blue Room

Researchers at the University of Rochester asked a group of interior designers to mock up cocktail lounges in red, blue, and yellow. Subjects were invited to have a drink wherever they liked. Most gravitated to the yellow and red rooms, which proved to be the most socially active areas. But the participants in the blue rooms stayed longer, presumably because blue has a calming effect. (In earlier studies scientists found lower heart rates in blue rooms.)

high-ceiling office

Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor at the Carlson School of Management has found that ceiling height also affects brain function. High-ceilinged rooms encourage you to think more freely and abstractly, she reported, and low-ceilinged rooms leads to more attention to detail. "If you're in the operating room, maybe a low ceiling is better," she said. "You want the surgeon getting the details right."

clutter

Are we hard-wired to dislike minimal interiors? A joint study by MIT and the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health suggests that clutter increases the "memorability" of a room and establishes a reassuring sense of place. In other words, a generous scattering of objects generates a fondness for the place.

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11 Comments

  • Dominique

    This Article is so on point! I was watching a video from the BBC- design rules and it was saying something similar to this, but not as accurate. Thanks for this piece.

  • Christopher Travis

    We have been using human factors interviewing techniques that are informed by neuroscience and psychology for almost a decade in our architecture firm. Within a few months we will have a beta version of the same type of design criteria development tool on the Internet at http://truehome.net.

    I am very pleased to see this article, Michael. Very well done. It has been lonely out here promoting the obvious fact that people experience buildings "in their heads" and proposing that architecture should make human factors central to design.

    This is simple. Almost all disciplines that are used to design - with the exception of architecture and interior design - are informed by systematic applied methods that help create products and experiences that fit people. User experience and user interface in IT. Ergonomics in product design. Design anthropologist are now a normal hire at Microsoft and NASA. Human factors sciences inform organizational design.

    Where is it in architecture? If it is possible to create buildings that are truly fitted to people - and I can tell that it is as I have done it for almost a decade now - then why is that not central to our ethics as designers?

    I blog about this for those who are interested at http://architecture-of-life@blogspot.com

  • Bob Danforth

    I wonder how Art Nouveau designed rooms would fit with this research. Not just round but recognizably organic as in plants, trees, animals etc. Architecture took a very sharp turn from its path then, and while I understand why it did, many base axioms that were reasons have been shown not to be true.

    The expense of artistic craftsmanship can now be offset with computers and CNC operations, the potential is extraordinary but the opportunity to apply it very small.

  • Gail Doby

    Great article. The more people realize how much their environment affects their mood, productivity, and general sense of well-being, the more architecture and interior design will be valued.

  • Gail Doby

    Great article. The more people realize how much their environment affects their mood, productivity, and general sense of well-being, the more architecture and interior design will be valued.

  • Gail Doby

    Great article. The more people realize how much their environment affects their mood, productivity, and general sense of well-being, the more architecture and interior design will be valued.

  • Paula Thornton

    Clearly, I've suspected the same of the city of Seattle as to its visual influence due to tremendous design/technology exposure in a dense 5 mile setting. Still on my 'unwritten books' list : )

  • Aarlo Fish

    Cool article, Mr. Cannell!

    Do you have info for Mose Bar or the Harvard Medical School study? They look like cool stories but I couldn't find them online.

    Thanks,
    Aarlo

  • Simma Lieberman

    Now I know what colors to paint my office. I'm going to have a red side and a blue side. Although I'll no longer have any excuses for procrastination.
    --
    "The Inclusionist"
    www.simmalieberman.com
    Simma@SimmLieberman.com
    510.527.0700
    Helping individuals and organizations create inclusive environments where people can do their best work, enjoy what they do and increase profit

  • Mantas Vidutis

    "So if your staff is, say, proofreading or debriefing they're better off in a red room. But if they're brainstorming ideas for a new marketing campaign, red is the color."

    eh?

  • Jim Meredith

    I think it may have been Louis Kahn who said, "You can't think big thoughts in small spaces."