This is Your Brain on Space: Architecture & Neurology

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This post was co-authored by the very talented Chris Penndorf.

As designers and facility managers we are responsible for the environment that we keep. In order to make those environments effective, we need to understand the organisms that we’re designing for: HUMANS. Chances are we’re not really thinking of architecture in terms of how it relates to the human body, and even more importantly, the human brain.

The goal of this discussion is to introduce you the neurology of the human body, to raise awareness of how architecture impacts the neurology of the human body – for the better and for the worse – so that designers and facility professionals understand how to design for a more positive impact; perhaps even making building inhabitants healthier, happier and better.

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Humans have developed very complex neurological systems through our evolution. The human brain contains 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections. By understanding these systems we can design environments that actually benefit the Users and stop designing environments that have a negative impact – in some cases actually shortening the life of the User.

Here are some questions we as designers should be asking ourselves:

• Do we understand the importance of the color spectrum of light, and how by not specifying certain color temperatures we can actually be contributing to making the people inhabiting our spaces unhealthy?

• Do we understand the use of color and the role it plays in helping people make sense of a space or leading to confusion for the User?

• Do we understand how to create environments that actually lead to healthier brains for the Users?

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Most people have no idea that there are over 20 human senses. Most of these are tied to involuntary physiological operations and responses, such as your body letting you know when you’re hungry or the way the hair might stand up on the back of your neck when you perceive danger. As a general rule, senses are based on receptors throughout the body that send signals to the brain which are then translated into the sensory phenomena we have come to know through reason relative to our experiences and our knowledge base.  Our senses play a critical role in how we perceive and experience our environment.


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The human brain is a jaw-droppingly, stunning masterpiece in how it controls our behaviors, our emotions and our body. There are certain critical functions it takes care of independent of our conscious thought or response, things like breathing, heartbeat and hormone regulation. Then there are the ways in which it adapts and learns so that we can respond to changing conditions, external stimuli and problems that need to be solved. It’s the perfect combination of Nature (what we’re born with) and Nurture (what we’re exposed to). While culture often plays a role in human response to certain things, there are other automatic responses fundamental to human health that transcend Nurture and culture.

Here are three examples of how our brain powerfully reacts to the environment around us:


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Experience and environment can change the underlying structure of the brain and increase neurogeneration and neuroplasticity. It demonstrates that by designing spaces that increase physical activity, an environment can actually increase brain neurons and improve brain function. Neuroplasticity is strengthening of neurons by establishing new connections in the brain, also called cortical remapping.

Dr. Rusty Gage at the Salk Institute conducts research on neuroplasticity and neurogeneration and the effects of aging on both of these processes.

Experiments conducted on mice placed in different environments showed that mice placed in an enriched environment where they had immediate access to a running wheel showed a 15% growth in their hippocampal neurons, while mice in the simple fish tank environments did not. The hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in memory forming, organizing and storing, so it is not surprising that the enriched environment mice also performed better in tests involving memory and learning.

Experiments conducted by Columbia University on human subjects put on a 6-week exercise regimen had similar results: subjects involved in the physical activity showed increased brain activity and blood glucose levels, and scored higher on tests involving memory and learning.

Salutogenic Design – is an approach focusing on elements that support human health and well-being, rather than on factors that cause disease.   In a design sense, it is creating environments that support the occupants, physically and psychosocially.

Active Design Movement – seeks to reduce obesity and chronic diseases by promoting physical activity through the design of buildings, streets and neighborhoods.  Measures can include not locating elevator cores in prominent locations and designing stairs that engage the occupants, encouraging their use. Other measures for designing enriched environments can include the creation of reconfigurable spaces that offer novelty and reinforce different ways of using the same space.


Designers and facilities professionals know that design tools include line and plane, light and shade and color. Very few, however, know that how light is manipulated can have a profound effect on the people who encounter it.

If one were to look at the earth from space, major population centers would be visible because of the light pollution they project. Around each of those centers of light pollution are higher incidences of depression, obesity, sleep disorders and people on anxiety medicine. Many researchers tie these factors to the use of artificial lighting and disruption in circadian rhythm.

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Natural daylight carries a broad spectrum of color. The human body gets cues from the color spectrum in daylight and regulates itself based on these cues. Removing or flipping these light waves plays havoc with the release of hormones in our bodies and the resulting services they perform. The suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN, regulates circadian rhythm by taking the cues it receives from daylight and responding based on the color spectrum and intensity of daylight it receives. It then delivers hormones based on which part of the day it reads. The body releases cortisol in the blue morning light to begin the waking process and melatonin in the red evening light to help the body lapse into sleep and promote the restoration of the body.

Melatonin is a tremendously powerful hormone antioxidant which does things like protecting DNA against certain carcinogens, helping prevent cardiac arrhythmia and reducing damage caused by certain forms of Parkinson’s disease. Studies are now beginning to unlock the importance of sleep in a myriad of seemingly unrelated health issues like Alzheimer’s and weight gain.

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How we tune lighting in a space can have consequences most of us are unaware of. The way designers manipulate natural and artificial light within buildings can have a direct effect on the health and welfare of the people occupying those buildings. Frequently overlooked but critical factors are the way buildings are maintained and the importance of specifying the correct temperature of replacement lamps.


The last case study looks at the importance of designing with natural elements and creating spaces that allow building inhabitants to have views to nature, even to the point of being able to project themselves into that natural landscape.

The Savannah Image – a vestige of evolutionary memory of outdoor space consisting of an image of a plain, trees which can provide protective cover if needed and calm water somewhere in view.

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Architects Jay Farbstein & Melissa Farling conducted an experiment, placing a 9’ x 22’ savannah image mural on the wall of the Sonoma County Jail intake facility which had no other sources of natural daylight. They installed it for a 6-week period and took heart rate variability measurements on the officers who worked in the facility, before and after their 8-hour shifts. Their findings showed significant impacts on stress reduction for the staff after the installation of the savannah image.  The officers were less fatigued and scored higher on cognition tests.  Consequently, there were also fewer incidents in the intake hub during that time.


If our brains change as a result of our experiences and the environments to which we’re exposed, then the designed environment can actually change our brains, and by extension, our behavior. As professionals working to design and maintain working environments, it becomes our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with the way these environments impact the inhabitants, and take great care to create these environments so that they have a beneficial impact on End Users.


November 1st, 2013 | Beyond Architecture

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