Tinkering connections between architecture and neuroscience
Last month, the Conscious Cities Conference in London considered how cognitive scientists might make their discoveries more accessible to architects. The conference brought together architects, designers, engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists, all of whom increasingly cross paths at an academic level, but still rarely in practice.
One of the conference speakers, Alison Brooks, an architect who specialises in housing and social design, told BBC Future that psychology-based insights could change how cities are built. “If science could help the design profession justify the value of good design and craftsmanship, it would be a very powerful tool and quite possibly transform the quality of the built environment,” she says.
Today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating. Some of these studies have attempted to measure subjects’ physiological responses in situ, using wearable devices such as bracelets that monitor skin conductance (a marker of physiological arousal), smartphone apps that ask subjects about their emotional state, and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that measure brain activity relating to mental states and mood.
“This adds a layer of information that is otherwise difficult to get at,” said Colin Ellard, who researches the psychological impact of design at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “When we ask people about their stress they say it’s no big deal, yet when we measure their physiology we discover that their responses are off the charts. The difficulty is that your physiological state is the one that impacts your health.” Taking a closer look at these physiological states could shed light on how city design affects our bodies.
One of Ellard’s most consistent findings is that people are strongly affected by building façades. If the façade is complex and interesting, it affects people in a positive way; negatively if it is simple and monotonous. For example, when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys. They also quickened their pace as if to hurry out of the dead zone. They picked up considerably when they reached a stretch of restaurants and stores, where (not surprisingly) they reported feeling a lot more lively and engaged.