Brains and Buildings

[En Español]

There is a fascinating explosion of potential questions to ask when two previously thought-to-be-unrelated fields converge. One night, as I was having a beer in a Chula Vista brewery with my best friend Alma and her husband Ross, I was invited to be conscious about our surroundings. Alma and Ross Majewski graduated from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo each with Bachelor of Architecture degrees. They are passionate about architecture and design, and have dedicated over 10 years of their lives pondering how humans interact with the spaces they live and work in. That night, they made me analyze the space in which I was; it was a regular brewery with tall ceilings and metal posts, a bar with a blackboard behind with all the beers casually scribbled in different colored chalks. How did the space make me feel? How was the light distributed? Was it inviting? Was it fun to be there? This was the first time I took a moment to analyze the relationship between architecture and neuroscience. Even though they did not directly address the neuroscience behind their cognitive questions, I was fascinated by the possible overlap of the two fields.

To what extent is our reality a result of genetic information encoded in our brain, or is it shaped by outside factors, like the building you are in right now? Arguments in both directions can be made, and the common conclusion is our reality is a result of both genetic happenings and a sum of environmental factors. As Fred Gage, president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies put it, “While the brain controls our behavior and genes control the blueprint for the design and structure of the brain, the environment can modulate the function of genes and, ultimately, the structure of our brain, and therefore they change our behavior. In planning the environments in which we live, architectural design changes our brain and behavior [1].” 

During the first few weeks of my experience as a graduate student in the Neurosciences Ph.D. program at UCSD, I was quite focused on figuring out the best way to get from my lab, to the building in which I had class, to the building in which we had weekly seminars, to the library and back to my apartment. Once I had gotten acclimated to the campus, I was faced with the challenge of finding a new building. This time, I had to find a bilingual professor’s office who would be able to verify that my Mexican degree’s translation from Spanish to English was adequate. That is when I met Dr. Eduardo Macagno. Dr. Macagno is a Distinguished Professor doing research in the area of basic neurobiology. He told me about his current work which focuses on evaluating how different living situations affect academic performance and well-being of students. I left his office feeling enlightened and purposefully paying more attention to the design of different buildings as I walked through campus. Intrigued by the potential effects of architecture and design on specific human experiences, I set out to investigate.


Applied Physics and Mathematics building at UCSD. I took this photo after I left Dr. Macagno’s office.

 I learned about the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture founded in 2003. Dr. Macagno, one of the active members and founders of the Academy, explained that it was born with the support of Fred Gage and out of John Paul Eberhard’s desire to expand the role of architecture and design to be aware of the effects these have on human experience. The development of tools and techniques in brain imaging have allowed for an unprecedented window into the functioning of our brains. The possibility to explore the relationship between humans and their physical space is what ignited in John Paul Eberhard the need to explore the intersection between neuroscience and architecture in 2003. The field is now known as “neuroarchitecture” and the objective is to implement knowledge obtained by research in neuroscience into architecture and design, with the purpose of motivating the construction of spaces that will contribute to human health, behavior and well-being. 


The Aesthetic triad, Coburn et al. Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

The aesthetic triad, adapted from the Vitruvian triad, aims to define aesthetic experience in neuroscience terms. The sum of three systems result in an aesthetic experience: sensory-motor, knowledge-meaning and emotion-valuation. This is a model aiming to integrate architecture with neuroscience, proposed by Coburn and collaborators [2]. Dr. Macagno said “We create our own personal space tying it to experience and memories, which we bring into our conception of space; it is a layered concept.”  He mentioned two important channels involved in our interaction with space: the haptic channel being the tactile information, immediate and short range, and the proprioceptive system channel, which involves our hearing and vision, and allows us to experience our environment further. The brain treats these channels of incoming information differently [3]. Our expectations are influenced by our storage of information, and ultimately, our experience is the sum of everything built into our lives.

Researchers have begun to directly analyze how our physical (and virtual) surroundings might have a direct effect on our brain activity, an example is the work done by Dr. Giovanni Vecchiatto. He aimed to analyze the neurophysiological responses to space by using virtual reality and electroencephalographic (EEG) recordings. Dr. Vecchiatto and his team recorded EEG of 12 healthy subjects as they experienced a three dimensional virtual reality space varying in design: an empty room, a room with modern furniture, and a room with cutting edge furniture, as shown in the figure below. The subjects were asked to rate their experience of familiarity, novelty, comfort, pleasantness, arousal and presence from 1 to 9. Their results show activation of sensorimotor regions in the perception of pleasant, comfortable and novel spaces, asymmetric activation of left frontal cortex regions in relation to familiarity and pleasantness, and enhanced theta frontal midline activity in relation to comfort, in humans theta waves are commonly associated with a meditative state [4]. Based on their results, they conclude activation of different brain areas reflect an involvement of corporeal, cognitive and emotional reactions in the experience of space [5]. 

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Summary schematic of the experiment design carried out by Dr. Giovanni Vecchiatto and collaborators. Subject was placed in the middle directly looking at three variations of interior design of a virtual reality room, as EEG was recorded [5].

I asked Ross and Alma to comment on the goals neuroarchitecture aims to achieve, Ross said, “Architectural Practice, in general, has become a machine to produce drawings and projects as efficiently as possible, often at the expense of creating truly meaningful work that deeply connects inhabitants to their environments. It takes strong passion (on top of great talent!) on the part of a young architect to discover what they believe is meaningful in architecture, if we as Architects aren’t creating meaningful spaces, what are we doing?” Alma added, “Through designing a home for my Dad, we are actually doing just that- pushing the limits on the tactile experience within the building and outside of it. We are experimenting and, deep down, hoping we create supramodal spaces that trigger those feelings (those beautiful brain colors) so whoever comes by his house, feels architecture.” 

The field of ‘neuroarchitecture’ offers a new perspective, even though attention to aesthetics has been given to the design of buildings since the beginning of architecture. Implementing information acquired from research in neuroscience into the design and construction of buildings offers a substantial opportunity for architects to create a space with a deeper purpose.


Featured photo: Frank Gehry’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

  1. Robinson, S., Pallasmaa, J. (2015). Mind in Architecture: Neuroscience, Embodiment, and the Future of Design. MIT Press. 182-183.
  2. Coburn, A., Oshin, V., & Chatterjee, A. Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 29:9, 1521-1531 (2017)  doi:0.1162/jocn_a_01146 
  3. Papale, P., Chiesi, L., Rampinini, A. C., Pietrini, P., & Ricciardi, E. When Neuroscience “Touches” Architecture: From Hapticity to a Supramodal Functioning of the Human Brain. Frontiers in Psychology, 7 (2016) doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00866
  4. Kubota, Y., Sato, W., Toichi, M., et al. Frontal midline theta rhythm is correlated with cardiac autonomic activities during the performance of an attention demanding meditation procedure. Cognitive Brain Research 11:2, 281-287 (2001) doi:10.1016/S0926-6410(00)00086-0
  5. Vecchiato, G., Jelic, A., Tieri, G. et al. Neurophysiological correlates of embodiment and motivational factors during the perception of virtual architectural environments. Cogn Process 16, 425–429 (2015) doi:10.1007/s10339-015-0725-6