Reading recommendation: Architecture and the Brain

by John P. Eberhard with a Forward by Rita Carter

O.K., so it’s not a catchy title. Nor is it a particularly catchy book, but it addresses a topic that's becoming increasingly catchy. What is the role of the brain in our perception of architecture? How can we better understand the effect different types of architecture have on the brain, so as to create architecture that the brain responds to positively? In some ways it’s a bit of a no-brainer really: if we can isolate the architectural characteristics to which we intuitively respond, we can design more responsive buildings.

Eberhard’s book attempts to distill a complicated topic into terms an attentive general reader can grasp. I’m not sure I was attentive enough. It’s a tough slog. I agree wholeheartedly with his premise that architects would find it “useful to know that there was some solid evidence based on fundamental studies to back up their intuitions.” It’s just that I hoped I’d find that evidence at the ready in the pages of his book.

What I did find was a welcome introduction to the field of neuroscience. In an early chapter on our sensory systems, I learned that we have six senses not five. The new-to-me sixth sense is called proprioception. “It tells us where our body is in space –- what is up and what is down, how to catch a ball, and how to find objects in the dark,” Eberhard explains. Clearly this sense is critical to how we perceive architecture, but we're not particularly conscious of it.

Turns out a lot of what we’re responding to in our environment happens on a subconscious level. Emotions work this way. We can have an emotional reaction to a space which then manifests itself in a particular behavior. So perhaps a narrow, dark entryway reminds us of a foreboding tunnel, and as a result we hesitate, not necessarily knowing why. “It takes only a few microseconds to perceive something in a non-conscious way, even though it may take several seconds for a conscious version of the same perception to be comprehended,” writes Eberhard. So we overcome our hesitation at the entryway once we consciously process the information that it is not, in fact, a foreboding tunnel, and we walk through.

Also working in our subconscious is a fascinating mechanism known as the mirror neuron system. Rita Carter shares in the Foreward that “Mirror neurons are dual-effect brain cells. On the one hand they fire in response to the sight of someone else doing something, and they also produce -- or start to produce –- that very same action in the person who is making the observation…This, in turn, feeds information back to other areas of your brain, which generates the state of mind appropriate to the expression.” This means, for example, that when you see someone smiling, you start to smile in response, and as a result begin to feel the happiness associated with smiling -- all without thinking about it.

These fabulous neurons have been getting a lot of attention lately. Understanding the role they play in the mind/body relationship has opened up a new mind model known as “embodied cognition” according to the Boston Globe’s recent article by Drake Bennett titled, “Don’t Just Stand There, Think.”  In Bennett’s piece (which I highly recommend that you read) he writes, “New research suggests that we think not just with our brains, but with our bodies.” Cool. Then, by that logic, couldn’t a building that elicits certain movements from its occupants make them smarter?

Maybe that’s not as crazy a leap as it sounds. Eberhard believes that we’re on the cusp of some significant developments in neuroscience that could profoundly influence architecture. He includes Einstein’s quote, “If you can think about it, it will be possible now or in the future.” If that’s true, (and it must be: Einstein said it) pick up a copy of Architecture and the Brain and get thinking.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

Click here to buy this book from Amazon.