Why architecture influences mood, emotion and experience
Walk into the Sistine Chapel, and your normally chatty mind may fall silent with awe. Stand on the steps of Grand Central Station, and your inner energy—usually operating at a frenetic pace—may involuntarily slow. What happens to us when certain environments create a sense of stillness? According to science, this Zen effect of inner peace occurs because our brains are wired for large spaces. In specific architectural settings, certain regions of the brain activate to promote meditative, creative and spiritual responses.
According to Satchin Panda—neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences—in an interview with architect Daniel Libeskind, “We need to have a lot of space, our brains are wired that way.” Panda adds, “We didn’t evolve to be cave-dwellers.” More than that – as Panda knows from his study of how light and space affect human behavior—awe and other intensely emotional feelings experienced in certain spaces, derive from our innate desire to feel secure, relaxed and content.
The beliefs of Vittorio Gallese, Professor of Physiology at the University of Parma, support the depth of Panda’s assertion. As someone who studies the link between the brain and the person’s external environment, Gallese observes, “The way a space is architectured is linked with sensual elevation.”
Places of worship are a particularly visceral example: the high ceilings and artwork force the eye into an upward motion. “To feel closer to God, you have to create an environment where everything suggests this feeling of elevation,” Gallese explains. In fact, by physically looking up, you help your brain understand the concept behind the act. In the case of religious structures the upward sweep reinforces the idea of God, heaven and other inspirational elements.
An interview with the lead researcher of a recent study, published in The Atlantic, shows the science behind our architectural experience. Researchers from the Catholic University of America and Utah University wanted to test the meditative ability of architecture. Working with a homogenous pool of 12 architects who had never meditated, researchers used fMRI scans to calculate the effect of space on the brain.
Participants were shown photographs of six “regular” buildings and six “contemplative” spaces. The resulting scans documented the following responses to the “contemplative” buildings: activated cortical brain regions associated with emotional and motor-sensitive integration; triggered regions related to concrete representation and absence of judgment; reduced anxiety; and lowered the tendency to become distracted.
The results don’t suggest that “contemplative” architecture induces the same beneficial results as meditation. Instead they point to what Michael Arbib, Vice-President of the Academy of Neuroscience and Architecture, likens to “…looking up to the mountains…” According to Arbib, “[I]t’s a basic human response.” While small spaces tend to oppress our sense of physical boundaries, vast spaces encourage us to expand our visual and physical experiences; we feel liberated in a way that allows the mind to wander—and meditate.
In explaining how we experience any space, Arbib outlines a two-step process. First, we experience the “gist” of the space, which is what we see on first glance. Second, we begin to recognize and value the detail; this is the step where awe and contemplation really take hold.
Describing the basics of perception in an architectural space, John P. Eberhard—a consultant at The American Institute of Architects—says, “At the level of core, or basic, consciousness, we are ‘unconsciously’ registering the environmental variables’ effects on our nervous system—heat, light, noise, smells, tactile sensations, and our perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.” Eberhard adds, “All of these sensations are silently registering in our viscera as well as our somatosensory cortex via signals of which we are not aware. At the level of extended consciousness, we are simultaneously experiencing space as assembled by our sensory system and combining this experience with memories of places similar to the one we are in.”
Indeed, Gallese affirms, “We always connect with something we know already. The feeling and emotion comes only once we relate ourselves to that environment.” He adds, “Memories, simulation, projection, emotions…all happen when you contemplate a building.” Meaning, experiencing any building—contemplative or otherwise—activates neural pathways that house information related to both positive and negative memories and associations.
Learning to identify which types of buildings make us feel a sense of openness, wonder and awe provides insight into specific settings where we can create a meditative sense of inner peace, and clues about what helps us feel connected to a source of contemplation. Collating the details of this knowledge suggests ideas for how to create experiences within architectural spaces designed to induce the serenity of meditation, and also, hints for how to create—even in our daily work and living spaces—design elements that induce a contemplative mood, emotion and experience.