What Neuroscience Can Tell Us About the Experience of Architecture

“We make our buildings and afterwards our buildings make us.”

 

Phineas gage

Portrait of Phineas Gage

In 1848, a railroad construction supervisor called Phineas Gage met with a tragic accident, lending to neuroscience perhaps its most famous case. An iron rod pierced Gage’s head, destroying much of his frontal lobe — a part of the brain that houses long term memories associated with emotions. Although Gage miraculously survived the accident and lived on for twelve more years, his personality was dramatically altered — Gage became prone to irrational behaviour. In the book “Descartes’ Error”, Antonio Damasio draws upon this case to explain how a person who is deprived of the stratified memory of emotions is unable to think rationally. Deprivation of a “history of emotional experiences” renders one incapable of decision-making, as it means that there are limited emotional memories, related to events and actions, to draw upon as sources for evaluation in making further decisions.

Extrapolating this understanding gained from neuroscience, Italian architect Davide Ruzzon, of TArch, emphasises on the role our external environment plays in generating such crucial emotions and memories. He says,

We must guarantee everyone’s right to emotional memory, that is to say, (we must) allow all growing children and people who inhabit a given space to gather and stratify a significant amount of emotional experience in connection with architectural space.

 

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A vintage “infographic”, LOOK Magazine, 1938

 

In a speech at the Architectural Association in London, in 1924, Winston Churchill had famously said, “we make our buildings and afterwards our buildings make us.” While this may seem obvious to many, Davide Ruzzon emphasises at the Venice Launch of the ROOMS research for which he is co-curator — a study that seeks to bridge architecture and neuroscience — how “over the last thirty years, architects, but even more so, decision makers and governments, have stopped believing that the shape of the city might affect society”. This is a relevant commentary that is worthy of more attention. Juhani Pallasmaa, who is a member of the Scientific Committee for ROOMS, concurs with this while introducing the motivations behind the study,

Contemporary architecture frequently seeks experiences of shock, strangeness, awe and alienation through a language of forms that are expected to generate experiences of unreality and dream. The fundamental distinction between architecture and entertainment has been lost. Yet we are biological creatures who need to experience a world of reality that activates and satisfies our senses, emotions as well as intellectual judgements. We are biologically programmed to survive in relation to the causalities and laws of the physical world. And our senses and neural systems are adapted and tuned to this world of reality.

The currently fashionable architecture goes against these fundamental conditions in its desire to impress us and manipulate our emotions and thoughts. In my view, architecture needs to be conservative in the sense of conserving our essential relationship with the realities of the world.

 

 

These arguments may seem to run against the present paradigm that often considers the separation of reason from emotion as a virtue (which we have seen, in light of Gage’s case, as actually being an impossibility). The Cartesian way of thinking has conventionally created a divide between the subject and the object, whereby man may perceive things external to him as mechanical things. This has led to the creation of a world-view where we feel alienated from the things around us which, arguably, reflects in the architecture of our times.

 

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Rene Descartes’ illustration depicting the dualism between mind and body

 

One of the crucial keys to undoing this world-view, by understanding how we are connected as biological beings to the external environment, is the recent discovery of ‘mirror neurons’. Considered one of the most important discoveries in the last decade of neuroscience, these neurons indicate a surprising phenomenon – that when we look at actions performed by others, the same neurons are activated in our brains that are ordinarily activated when we perform these actions ourselves. Vittorio Gallese, cognitive neuroscientist and co-curator of the ROOMS project, was part of the team that discovered mirror neurons. He explains how this phenomenon is relevant in understanding the impact of the external environment on us,

Looking at the world, looking at a building, an architectural space – is not an outcome of the functioning of the so-called visual part of the brain (alone). Vision is a multimodal enterprise which encompasses the activation of the motor part of the brain, the tactile part of the brain and the emotion-related parts of the brain. When I navigate a space; objects, visual stimuli and sounds that happen in the vicinity of my body are mapped by the very same motor neurons that enable us to orient in that (..) space.

 

 

The ROOMS research aims to investigate this ability of ours to simulate the sensorial experience of architectural spaces, when viewing them as their photographic representation, by relying on our own multilayered memories of past experiences. It endeavours to compare reactions and perceptions between people who are familiar with a place and people who are unfamiliar with it. The research focuses on four kinds of rooms that relate to our daily experiences of learning, healing, meeting and departing.

While the project paves a significant interdisciplinary path that can help us understand how architecture affects us, skeptics may be apprehensive on the grounds that such research will limit the creative possibilities of architecture. However, as architect and scholar Harry Francis Malgrave points out optimistically, such research is likely to shed light, instead, on “a new humanist knowledge, far from being reductive, which will actually allow us to reclaim the multiple dimensions of our ever more distant humanity”.

 

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Neurocomic, Hana Ros, 2014

 

The ROOMS project has been envisaged as the first collective research on architecture and neuroscience – a global project spanning 5 continents. To learn how to participate by submitting a built work, or to pre-order the books (and support the study), visit the website of ROOMS

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Niharika Sanyal

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