To the growing list of all things neuroculture, shall we add neuro-architecture?
While it is a bit off the beaten track, an article to be published this summer might interest the good folks at The Situationist. In science-speak, it researches the influence of environmental surroundings on consumers’ cognition. More colloquially, it studies the effect of stores’ ceiling height on customers’ thinking. Its results are unsurprising:
[D]epending on the situation, ceiling height will benefit or impair consumer responses… When a person is in a space with a 10-foot ceiling, they will tend to think more freely, more abstractly… They might process more abstract connections between objects in a room, whereas a person in a room with an 8-foot ceiling will be more likely to focus on specifics.
- Joan Meyers-Levy & Rui Zhu The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing People Use Journal of Consumer Research (August 2007) (press release)
(Hat tip to Lifehacker for mention of this article.)
From this, I have two silly questions:
- Will this influence research undertaken in brain scanning laboratories? They tend to have low ceilings, and the bores in MRI machines are a claustrophobes‘ nightmare.
- The size of clothes aside, does this mean short people tend to make purchasing decisions that are different from those made by tall people?
More seriously, the effect of ceiling height on human psychology would have been nothing new to Frank Lloyd Wright. I remember reading (perhaps in his book A Testiment) that his use of inglenooks, open planning, and large windows was intended to replicate a psychology rooted in the origins of the human species: a cozy firepit in a defensible cave with an expansive view of the savanna.
Wright was very aware of the power of an edifice upon the mind. In a PBS documentary, the historian William Cronon reflects upon Wright’s use of architectural design elements to influence minds:
And so, what he tried to do was to bring in all of these elements, control them all, subordinate them to his vision as a way of creating a perfect realization of beauty and his vision of what it would be like to be to live within that beautiful space would be that it would be genuinely transformative. It would make the people different who inhabited that space. And so, his vision is of an aesthetics which serves all of human spiritual life.
This sort of architectural determinism has nothing to do with Feng Shui. We can expect more of the man who said, “Philosophy is to the mind of the architect as eyesight to his steps.” Instead, it is the psychology of architecture, which is a mix of disciplines concerned with spatial cognition.
From these studies, we know that the architecture of schools affects learning:
- Pamela Woolner et al. A sound foundation? What we know about the impact of environments on learning and the implications for Building Schools for the Future Oxford Review of Education, (February 2007) 33:1, 47-70.
- C. Kenneth Tanner. The influence of school architecture on academic achievement Journal of Educational Administration (Oct 2000) 38:4, 309-330.
…and we find the architecture of courthouses might affect verdicts:
- Anne Maass et al. Intimidating Buildings Can Courthouse Architecture Affect Perceived Likelihood of Conviction? Environment and Behavior (2000) 32:5, 674-683.
We also know spatial cognition is so important to our psychology that it leads us to become architects of virtual worlds with elaborate and mutable environments – such as Second Life and first-person games.
- Ebru Cubukcu and Jack L. Nasar. Relation of Physical Form to Spatial Knowledge in Largescale Virtual Environments Environment and Behavior (2005) 37:5, 397-417.
The connection between the brain and architecture is already being explored at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. It was founded by John P. Eberhard, an architect who has published an online companion to the yet-to-be-published book Architecture and the Brain. In an interview with Neuroscience Quarterly, Eberhard and Fred H. Gage, a neuroscientist, discussed their new interdisciplinary venture:
Architecture has the most impact when the ideas used in building design reflect our understanding of how the brain reacts in different environments. Neuroscientists can help architects understand scientifically what have historically been intuitive observations.
The interview references the work of Stanley Graven, who has studied how the design of neonatal intensive care units can affect neurological development of children.
So far, this interesting work remains in its infancy. It has led to one conference, but continues to be heavily weighted by analysis of the brain’s spatial mapping ability.
- Ann Sloan Devlin, Mind and Maze: Spatial Cognition and Environmental Behavior (Praeger Publishers, 2001).
- Neuroscience at the Hegarty Lab.
Relatively little attention has been given to the influence architecture has upon other aspects of cognition. Perhaps this will change. Philosophers have an interest in this – an entire issue of Philosophical Forum, (Summer 2004) 35:2, discussed the connections between architecture and ethics – so such things as the architectural manipulation of emotions and behaviour might yet get treatment by neuroethicists.
It’s an academic variant of ‘follow the money’. If business faculties are interested in this, philosophers should be too, because where entrepreneurs lead, ethical debates (and grant funding) will follow.