Building the Field of Neuroarchitecture

The Salk Institute
Image:  The Salk Institute

Whether our homes or our workplaces, the spaces where we spend our lives affect us on nearly every level – physically, emotionally, and cognitively. From how we learn and grow to how we restore and relax, architects have been captivated by the complexities of the sensory experience of architectural space. Design married to intuition has indeed created extraordinary buildings, but, given the wide breadth of research about human behavior, brain, and body, it raises the question:  How can neuroscience further inform human-built design? And how can human-built design inform the brain sciences?

Imagine the impact of the school designed at an architectural level to promote learning, or a hospital designed structurally to accelerate healing. What are the possibilities for rehabilitation if prison interiors were designed to lower anxiety and stress amongst inmates and staff alike?

“For me, it’s most important to think about how does architecture make you feel? People might forget the details of how a space looks or what it did, but hardly anyone forgets how it made you feel or how it doesn’t make you feel. We amplify the potential for feeling in our practice, which then leads us to study how we can perhaps manipulate that for better outcomes for people.”
– Suchi Reddy, Principal Architect at Reddymade

A rapidly growing branch of neuroaesthetics, neuroarchitecture is a highly interdisciplinary translational field that is working to bring research to practice. Over the last fifteen years, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) has led its development. This year’s ANFA conference, held in September at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, sought to address these critical issues, engaging the disciplines of architecture, bio-engineering, psychology and the brain sciences through a series of presentations, posters, panel discussions and roundtables.

Closing the conference, ANFA brought together a diverse panel of architects, neuroscientists and policy makers to lead a discussion about how to accelerate the field of neuroarchitecture. The panel consisted of Susan Magsamen, executive director of the International the Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins University; Suchi Reddy, principle architect at Reddymade; Sergei Gepshstein, neuroscientist at the Salk Institute; Andrew Brown, associate director of research at the Van Alen Institute; and Shea Trahan, architect with Trapolin-Peer. Each panel participant shared information about their work and roles in their respective disciplines, and each put forward an inherent challenge they believe needs to be resolved to develop the burgeoning field of neuroarchitecture. These challenges included:

  1. With such an abundance of research about human behavior, brain, and body, how do we create a new paradigm to integrate interdisciplinary discoveries to practice?
  2. Building or Architecture? Humans have been making great architecture with no specific knowledge of neuroscience. We can make better buildings with the data and information science gives us, but what neuro-scientific tools do we have to enlighten us on poetic and noetic aspects of Architecture?
  3. How do you appreciate and learn to work with, the notion that, in architectural experience, the multiple layers of spatiality are present simultaneously?
  4. What’s the place of the user? Is the user’s role only that of a subject in a study? Or can users play a more active and collaborative role in the process?
  5. In what ways can practicing architects leverage the design process as a tool to inspire new research opportunities for informed design?

Neuroaesthethics Panel at ANFA

The panel offered a range of solutions to these challenges, including the development of a common language across disciplines, universal metrics to evaluate human outcomes, and a consensus framework for scientific rigor and systematic progress like the Impact Thinking method pioneered by the International Arts + Mind Lab. From naming to training programs, the audience brainstormed a number of tactics to further accelerate the field, prioritizing rigorous research practices, collaboration guidelines and resource sharing as critical next steps.

Emerging from this discussion was a desire, with some urgency, to work together to develop an approach to accelerate the growth of neuroarchitecture – and a clear consensus that the field is at a watershed moment where a thoughtful plan of action will result in stronger community building and outcomes.

This article was written and reported by IAM Lab contributor Samuel Garrett.  Samuel Garrett is a composer, musicologist, and researcher based in Baltimore, MD. 

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