Building on brain clich√©s

The Financial Times has a slightly bizarre article on the application of neuroscience to architecture that suggests that we’re genetically predisposed to feel relaxed around flowers, the hearth and food, and that homes need to be designed to release certain neurotransmitters.

The piece is about the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) which aims to use neuroscience in building design and encourage brain research into the effects of buildings.

I’m all for the wider application of neuroscience, and I’m sure there are some relevant findings that could be applied, but the article is full of so many erroneous brain clich√©s that I just despair.

Zeisel is also a director of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), an organisation launched in 2003 to encourage scientists to get out of the lab and partner with architects and designers. “It’s the future of the field,” he says. “People might ask what neuroscience has to do with designing an ‘emotional’ house but our emotions are managed by our brain,” Zeisel says. “When our brains are happy a certain endorphin gets released, so we need to design homes in order to release that neuro-transmitter.”

Endorphins are the brain’s natural opioids and are released in a wide variety of situations. They are indeed released when we feel pleasure, but are also released when we feel stress or pain.

So designing homes to maximise the release of endorphins will just as likely lead to uncomfortable, stressful hell-holes.

Take our desire for eye contact with others as an example. “A couple of million kitchens are planned each year and probably only about 5 per cent obey the most basic principles for human communication,” [kitchen designer!] Grey says. In most, the person preparing the food at the sink, stove or counter has to face away from his or her family or guests, decreasing sociability in what should be a social zone. “As a result the brain continues to produce adrenalin and cortisol, the hormones associated with fear and anxiety,” he says. “Whereas if they are facing [into the room] then oxytocin, the bonding hormone, and serotonin, associated with relaxation and enjoyment, are released.”

So, it not only makes the common but false link between specific mental states and general neurotransmitters, makes unproven claims between specific activies and the release of these neurotransmitters, but also makes the unsupported claim that facing away from people in the kitchen causes fear and anxiety, while facing towards them causes relaxation and enjoyment.

Zeisel suggests that responses to some features of the home might even be innate. “We are born with genetically developed instincts that make us feel relaxed around flowers, the hearth, food and water,” he says. “It’s simply an emotional need and using those things in the environment will make us feel more comfortable.” On the flip side, places that seem too sterile or too confusing are perceived as dangerous, which can trigger the hypothalamus to release stress hormones.

There’s no evidence that we are genetically predisposed to feel relaxed around “flowers, the hearth, food and water”. Perceiving things are dangerous does indeed lead to the release of stress-related hormones, but there’s no evidence that ‘confusing’ or ‘sterile’ buildings do this.

Of course, buildings that are ‘too sterile’ or ‘too confusing’ might do, but therein lies a circular argument, because you’ve already defined them as having a negative influence.

Professor Joan Meyers-Levy of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management is another academic interested in how our surroundings affect our physical and mental states. Her research shows that when people are in a room with high ceilings, it activates sections of the right brain associated with freedom and abstract thinking. In low-ceilinged rooms, more constrained thinking is brought to the fore. “There’s a preference in terms of real estate for high ceilings and it‚Äôs [not only] the sense of power and wealth that conveys but also [the fact that] vertical space could have a beneficial mental influence,” she says.

To be completely fair to Meyers-Levey, her study [pdf] was a perfectly reasonable investigation into the effect of ceiling height on priming – an effect where an initial stimulus quickens your ability to react to related things.

However, the brain is not even mentioned in the paper, let alone measured in any way. The bit about high-ceilings activating the ‘right brain’ has just been added, seemingly from nowhere, by the journalist.

Two papers were recently published in Cell about the application of neuroscience to architecture, but importantly, they speculate, but don’t actually reference any studies that have looked at the influence of building design on the brain. The article then goes on to repeat several of the speculations as fact.

I think the article may be a candidate for the Dr Alfred Crockus Award for the Misuse of Neuroscience.

As an aside, Crockus fans may be interested to hear that he’s been tracked down to the hitherto unknown but undoubtedly endorphin stimulating ‘Boston Medical University Hospital’.

UPDATE: Christian just reminded me that he wrote an article for The Psychologist late last year that looked at how psychology is being increasingly used in architecture. It also discusses specific scientific research on psychology and building design. It’s an excellent antidote to the Crockus from the FT.

Link to ropey FT article.
Link to Psychologist article ‘Is there a psychologist in the building?’.

6 Comments

  1. Posted September 20, 2007 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    We are going to see a lot more of this type of circular reasoning, and also cruder forms of reductionism; why the mind is nothing but the brain.

  2. Posted September 20, 2007 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I regret to disagree but neuroarchitecture or Envroment-Behavioural research, as John Zeisel in his book “Inquiry by Design” prefer to use, could be and important branch of the neural sciences with many things to offer to society and people in general, essentially to those suffering from disabilities such as Alzheimer.
    We can summarize neuroarchitecture using the words of Fred H. Gage: the enviroment modify the brain thanks to plasticity and the brain´s decision processes can change the enviroment throught design choices.
    It is known that the hippocampus harbour neurons that fire when the organism is in a particular place (hippocampal place cells, see O´Keffe).
    Also, other cells fires when the head is directed to a particular direction irrespective of the orientation (J.S. Taube and head direction cells)
    Many experiments have been made demonstrating that colored walls impact on physiology and specially in stress mechanisms (Nicholas Humphrey,Colour and brightness preferences in monkeys. Nature, 229, 615-617, 1971.)
    And the neurogenesis happening in the adult brain, a process rediscovered by Gage, that if particular neurons are stimulated throught enviroment enrichement and exercise promote the growth of nerve cells, and memory traces of past events and even places with emotionally laden valence ( Daniel L. Schacter)seem sufficient evidence for the articulation of the discipline called neuroarchitecture.
    I think neuroarchitecture is not another pseudoscience.

  3. Posted September 20, 2007 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anibal,
    Neither do I and I’m sure the field has much to offer. Unfortunately, the quotes in the FT article promote it with clich√©s and ‘neurobabble’.
    This is what I object to, rather than trying to understand how we can use neuroscience to design better buildings. Which seems like an excellent idea.
    I have to say though, the examples you give are general studies on neuroscience. Going from the general to the specific in neuroscience without further research is dodgy because of the huge amount of complexity in the brain and environment.
    We need specific studies on the brain’s response to different architectural features. So far, there are few, if any. Hopefully though, there will be some interesting findings in the future.

  4. Anibal
    Posted September 20, 2007 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Ok, Dr. Vaughan, you clarify me and the point as well. But that kind of work from the general to specific is attainable, although not yet attained.

  5. Mark L.
    Posted September 21, 2007 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    While the explanation of the mechanism seems dubious, the observation that certain architectural forms are universally pleasing is a very old one.
    My favorite example is the golden ratio, which has graced the finest architecture (and art) since its first known use in ancient Greece.
    There is even an Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (www.anfarch.org)…

  6. Paul
    Posted October 26, 2007 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    ‘ There’s no evidence that we are genetically predisposed to feel relaxed around “flowers, the hearth, food and water” ‘.
    It might not be genetic, but there is a lot of experimental evidence suggesting that we do feel more relaxed around natural features (flowers and water definitely being identified as major factors), and that exposure to such featuers can help reduce subsequent or concurrent stress events. Check out the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Good article to start with is:
    Ulrich et al. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments, J. Env Psych 11, 201–230.


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