Understanding how our brains work makes for better buildings

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17 août 2016

Applying the cognitive neurosciences to architecture and real estate development may raise some eyebrows and creates a certain amount of scepticism.

However, some solid peer-reviewed studies give reason to believe that, one day, these disciplines might be more closely aligned and complimentary than we thought. Let’s go back in time by way of illustration.

We’ve spent more than 99 percent of our entire time on the planet not in a building, but in a savannah, sojourning for millennia in the unstable worlds of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. This big fat brain of ours was thus forged outdoors, scrambling around Africa in small bands. Such pre-history affected the way we interacted with our environment. Still does. We’ve not spent enough time in civilization to outgrow our Darwinian reflexes.

There are two ways to illustrate how this might inform the design of buildings, from workplaces to retail environments.

The first comes from something that’s been researched famously: the impact of natural environments on behavior. Well-regarded data shows that exposure to natural elements—trees, running water, even pictures of trees and running water—provide benefits ranging from shortened hospital stays for adults to increased academic performance for kids. Researcher David Strayer uncovered a 50 percent boost in problem-solving abilities after test subjects sustained a 72-hour exposure to nature. This makes perfect sense, given that 99 percent history part. The brain sees natural elements and says “I’m home.”

The second illustration also concerns evolutionary history. Most of us think humans were among the Pleistocene era’s biggest chickens, ones who got beat up a lot in the hardscrabble African plains. Just look at human fingernails and remember we competed against African lion claws for survival space. Not exactly a fair fight. With a founding population measured in the low hundreds, we almost didn’t make it.

The will to survive

But we did make it. One reason was our ability to use our obese brains to respond and develop preferences for specific types of physical surroundings. We needed to survey the vast flatlands quickly, which might involve scrambling up a cliff, looking in the distance for sustenance and predators, formulating acquisition and avoidance strategies.

But we couldn’t stay up there forever, given our extreme physical vulnerability. We also had to be able to hide quickly. Developing simultaneous preferences for expansive space and enclosed shelter was thus fundamental to our survival.

The late geographer Jay Appleton proposed years ago Prospect-Refuge theory, which embraces this history: “People prefer environments where they can easily survey their surroundings and quickly hide or retreat to safety if necessary,” he wrote.

Designing modern buildings

How might these translate to architectural design? For companies, what kinds of spaces can get the best from your employees?

Many people want creative, friendly spaces to be competitive in the global world of 21st century business. Yet most don’t take into account the intersection between Darwin and Appleton. Designers end up either creating prospect or refuge, but never deliberately putting both together in dynamic, accessible tension.

Is that imbalance toxic? Could be. Open office spaces are a form of prospect, closed rabbit-warren offices are a form of refuge, and in isolation from each other, neither perform very well. Open offices often raise stress hormones. Closed environments don’t allow much collaboration.

These are questions behavioral researchers need to tackle in collaboration with architects, even given this evidence, because the real answer concerning toxicity is “we don’t know”.  If the data showed that such asymmetries were counter-productive, however, monolithic designs should be binned.

The pessimist in me says it’s still too early for brain science to be prescriptive. But that doesn’t mean we don’t know enough to collaborate, to design behavioral experiments capable of inserting bricks and mortar into the pages of On the Origin of Species. The optimist in me says we know just enough to fill up a blog.

While architects and developers are not neuroscientists, everybody involved in the design ecosystem should know something about how the brain works.  Better informed they might make better business and design decisions.


Dr John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist focused on the genes involved in human brain development and the genetics of psychiatric disorders. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brain Rules”— a provocative book that takes on the way work and school environments are designed; a fellow of architecture firm NBBJ; and holds an affiliate faculty appointment at the University of Washington.

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