Building for your brain

Where are you right now?

It’s a pretty safe bet to say you’re in or around a building. But take a minute to really observe your surroundings.

If you’re outside, how interesting are the façades of the buildings around you? Is there green space nearby? Be honest: are you lost?

If you’re inside, how high are the ceilings? What colour are the walls? Are there windows nearby? What’s outside the windows? How curvy is the furniture? What floor are you on?

It turns out all of these factors (and more) impact your mental state.

Interesting façades make people happy

In a series of studies, Colin Ellard and his colleagues led people around the streets of New York, Berlin and Mumbai while regularly asking them about how they were feeling and measuring their skin conductivity using a watch. The skin conductivity is important because it reliably correlates with arousal (not that kind!) and stress level.

When participants were in front of bland storefronts like this Whole Foods in New York, they reported feeling bored and their stress levels soared.  But when they were in mixed-use areas with interesting and different storefronts, they were much happier and less bored.

Ellard argues that while being bored and stressed may not seem like a big deal, when you consider how many people interact with these storefronts and the damaging longterm effects of stress, interesting architecture can be seen as a public health measure.

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Image by La Citta Vita via Flickr

Green space makes people healthy

I’ve written about the benefits of contact with nature before (and this article from the Atlantic has a really good summary as well), but I wanted to focus here on a really interesting study that kind of pioneered this sort of thinking.

The study was simply designed and effective. The researchers obtained the records of 46 patients at a Pennsylvania hospital over the course of 9 summers (1972-1981). They then matched these patients into pairs according to “sex, age (within 5 years), being a smoker or nonsmoker, being obese or within normal weight limits, general nature of previous hospitalization, year of surgery (within 6 years), and floor level” so that the only major variable was what the patients saw out of the window.

And it turns out that a view of trees out the window shortened recovery time from an average of 8.7 days to 7.96 days. One day less in hospital! Just from a view of trees.

They also had to take fewer strong pain meds and, when the researchers looked at nurses’ comments, the patients with nice views had nicer comments as well.

This led to all sorts of follow-up research and the study has been cited over 150 times as of this writing.

There is still a lot of debate about the exact mechanism of this effect, but it remains clear that injecting more nature into the built environment is good for the brain.

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Image my own

Blue walls and high ceilings promote abstract thought

Moving inside, it appears the colour of your walls and the height of your ceilings can impact the way you think.

According to some 2009 work out of UBC, red walls can make you better at detail-oriented tasks, while blue ones can help with creativity. The theory here is that, through associations with danger, red puts you into an avoidance frame of mind, where you want to limit your mistakes. On the other hand, blue increases approach motivation and lets you dream big.

In a similar vein, earlier work by one of the same authors showed that when people are in rooms with high ceilings and aware of it, they tend to think in a more abstract and creative way, coming up with more similarities between objects.

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Image by Waywuwei

Curvy furniture might make you feel more comfortable

Recent MRI studies have shown that people prefer curvy spaces, but understanding why is still just out of reach. There are some promising theories like that curved spaces remind us of nature, but most people just can’t explain their aesthetic decisions.

We definitely like curves, and using them in interior design can improve mood and increase people’s comfort. People are more likely to enter a room with rounded furniture than one with straight lines everywhere.

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Image by Modern Miami Furniture

Being high up in a building makes you feel more powerful

So far we’ve seen that pretty much about both the inside and the outside of a building can affect the way you feel. But new research has also shown that where you are in the building can have an effect.

If you look at hedge funds across the US, for example, the higher up their offices are, the more volatile and risky they are.

Now, correlation is not causation, but the study’s authors went further and actually got into some elevators and pitched random passengers financial decisions. And those on the way up tended to take more risks than those headed down!

The researchers also got people, randomly assigned to either the first or third floor of a building, to make a series of decisions. And again, the ones higher up took bigger risks. To get to the bottom of why, the scientists asked their first- and third-floor participants to complete unfinished words and those on higher floors were more likely to make words associated with power than those on the ground.

This all combines into some pretty convincing evidence that the feelings of power generated by literally being above other people make people more risky.

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Image my own

Look around again

How interesting is the streetscape near where you live? Upping the interest levels could decrease your stress. Do you have enough green space in your life? Consider the health benefits. Need a creative space? Try a high-ceilinged blue room with curvy furniture. But if you need to make important decisions maybe stick to a red room on the ground floor.

A lot of this is part of an architect’s training and intuition, but by studying the neuroscience and psychology of the built environment, we can build up a body of evidence to make happier and healthier cities.

Considering the amount of time we spend interacting with the built environment (with over half the world currently living in cities, urban dwellers spending 87% of their time indoors, and housing being a fundamental human right, it’s impossible not to!)  it’s no surprise it’s affecting us.

Having uncovered these amazing effects from just some preliminary research (let’s be honest, mostly just reading these articles on BBC Future, Wired, the Conversation and the University of Waterloo’s website and liberal use of google/wikipedia), I am now hooked on Architectural Psychology. What else are the physical spaces I inhabit doing to the mental one between my ears?

In order to find out, I just signed up for the Conscious Cities mailing list and put  architecture critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s new book Welcome to your world on my reading list!

I’ll keep you updated on what I find, but in the meantime I hope you’ll join me in making a resolution to be more aware of the built environment. Everything around me was designed by someone and those design choices have physical and mental ramifications.

That might be a bit high-minded… maybe it’s just the ceilings talking.

3 Replies to “Building for your brain”

  1. I live in a small town but have planted many different trees on my 1/3 of an acre…..I find myself going outside and looking at these trees all of the time, it’s relaxing…….thanks for an interesting article!

  2. Brain health is important to learning, working and earning. Factors of surroundings may be the causes of stress and disorder but green plants and peaceful environment are helping to keep healthy brain.

  3. Interesting article. When we put in our parking space, we were just going to do a square. But the guy told us that landscaping is all about moving away from the straight lines we’ve created to the curved lines of nature. Our parking spot has rounded corners and flared edges and I love it.

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