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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.)
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."
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.