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November 20, 2003

Science studies how architecture affects the brain

  • Architects, neuroscientists get together for research
  • By JOHN P. EBERHARD
    Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture

    Research in the field of neuroscience has exploded in the last 10 years. As an example, the membership of the Society of Neuroscience has increased from 7,000 members to 33,000 members since 1994.

    The knowledge base being generated by researchers in this field is enormous, but relatively unknown by those working in the design and construction industries. Architects have recently taken steps to build intellectual bridges between their field and the neuroscience research community.

    Three events occurred at the AIA convention in San Diego this past May to address the building of such bridges:

    • Dr. Fred Gage, from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, gave a keynote address on architecture and neuroscience.

    • The San Diego Chapter of the AIA announced the formation of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture.

    • The College of Fellows of the AIA awarded the Latrobe Fellowship of $100,000 to the academy.

    What is neuroscience?

    Neuroscience is the study of the mind (a process) and the brain (the physical organ supporting these processes). Neuroscientists undertake studies of the brain at the level of molecular biology, at the level of perceptual systems, at the level of formed experiences, and also of consciousness. The language they use and the methods they employ are not easily understood, but making an effort to do so is an important part of the academy's exploration.

    Our brain is the most complex and elegant element in the world. A remarkable process determined by the DNA received from our father and mother assembled it. At the time of our birth, the 10 billion neurons and 90 billion glial cells of our brain were partially programmed by evolution to allow us to learn the language we were hearing, collect and store information about our experiences, and enable some special functions such as face recognition and arithmetic.

    The brain is not a device like a computer (to which it is often compared), but a living organism that is constantly changing as we use it. It is “plastic” in that brain circuits are altered in the process of use and memories are reprogrammed each time they are recalled and stored again.

    The mind is not a “thing” like the brain, but a process that uses the brain as its instrument. When we think about something, when we carry on a conversation, or when we are having an experience, we use our minds to process ideas. We humans are the only creatures (we believe) that can remember the past, contemplate the future and be aware of the fact that we are aware.

    And, that's where consciousness comes in. This is the least well-understood part of our mental make-up. We know, if we are normal, that we are who we are and that we are experiencing the world — not observing another person having the experience. But what is happening inside our head to enable us to do this is not at all clear. Some scientists argue that we will never know because our brains were not designed to deal with such issues (anymore than a cat's brain is designed to do calculus), but others argue that we will figure it out one of these days (just as we have finally deciphered the genetic code of human DNA).

    What is architecture?

    Architecture is more than the buildings recorded in history books. It is more than the special buildings designed by architects with significant reputations. It is more than the visual images most people carry with them after visits to other countries. It is, for the purposes our studies in the academy, all of those spaces and places that have been created for the use of human activities.

    Architecture includes places where we were born, places where we went to school, where we were treated for an illness, where we were entertained, where we worshipped, where we work, and where we live the private part of our life called home.

    Architectural experience is recorded in what Antonio Damasio calls “dispositions” — records in our brain of a combination of sensory inputs, memories, emotions and any related muscle memories. Just below the surface of consciousness these dispositions wait for the next experience with which they can be paired. For example, each time we enter the office in which we work we are recalling a dispositional record of our last visit — including any emotional experiences we may have had. When we leave our office at the end of the day, our brain creates a new dispositional record that updates the one we came with that morning.

    Are there links?

    In the Nov. 21, 2002, issue of the Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce, Andrea Vanecko, a principal of Callison Architecture, wrote about “making the workplace work even harder.” In the article, Vanecko indicates that her resource center, Future@Work II, includes an Immersion Room with highly flexible space designed to support a variety of group activities such as brainstorming, presentations, or formal meetings.

    Vanecko says that the circular shape of the room, created by drapes and movable panels, challenges the typical office standards and thus changes people's frame of mind upon entering. Her conclusion reflects an “intuitive” understanding based on experience with a large number of visitors.

    The academy hopes to be able to go beyond intuition to explore, with neuroscience methods, what is actually happening in people's brains when they enter such spaces, how dispositions are modified, and how this activity in the brain then “changes people's frame of mind.”

    It is going to take many years of research before such intriguing questions can be answered and applied in architectural practice, but that's the challenge that makes this frontier of discovery so exciting.


    John Eberhard, FAIA, is president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Earlier this year, Eberhard and the academy received the $100,000 Latrobe Fellowship grant from the College of Fellows of the AIA.



     


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