August in San Diego 6. Empathy, Paradise, and Bio-Inspiration

Neuroscience For Architecture, Urbanism & Design

Michael A. Arbib

This is the sixth of a series of nine posts on the A-N blog reporting on the “Neuroscience For Architecture, Urbanism & Design” Intersession held at NewSchool of Architecture & Design in San Diego on August 12-15, 2019. The individual posts range in length from 1300 to 3000 words. The first post provides an overview of the series, along with a Table of Contents with links to each of the posts. A PDF of the whole series may be found here.

Core Neuroscience: Mirror Neurons and Systems

Mirror neurons were first discovered as a subset of neurons related to manual actions in macaque premotor area F5 – they were distinguished by the fact that they were active both when the monkey performed a specific type of action and when it observed an other executing a similar action (di Pellegrino, Fadiga, Fogassi, Gallese, & Rizzolatti, 1992; Gallese, Fadiga, Fogassi, & Rizzolatti, 1996). By contrast, a canonical neuron in F5 fires when the monkey executes an action but not when observing it.

In humans, we lack single-cell recording but can use brain imaging to identify a “mirror system” for a class X of actions or behaviors as a region that, compared to some control, is more active than other regions both when the subject performs an action from X or witnesses performances of an action of X. Mirror neurons are important, but we also need to assess brain systems “Beyond the Mirror.” There are regions active for execution but not observation of actions, and vice versa. In an imaging study, Buccino et al. (2004), had humans (i) watch three videoclips, one each for a human, a monkey, and a dog, biting food; they found the observer’s mirror system was activated in each case, whereas (ii) when observing a video clips (no sound) of a human speaking, a monkey making orofacial communicative gestures, and a dog barking, the mirror system for vocal communication was significantly active only in the first case. Buccino et al concluded that (a) actions belonging to the motor repertoire of the observer (e.g., biting and speaking) are mapped onto the observer’s mirror system whereas (b) actions that do not belong to this repertoire (e.g., barking) are recognized without such mapping. My counter-hypothesis is that (b’) all actions are recognized by a system that complements a human’s mirror systems but that (a’) the mirror system adds “motor parameters” for actions in their own-repertoire

Another imaging study (Wicker et al., 2003) showed that there is a mirror system for experiencing disgust and observing someone else expressing disgust. It is located in the anterior insula, a region very different from the premotor cortex area that houses the mirror system for manual action. But what I want to stress is that mirror neurons alone do not hold the key – the same study shows that many voxels are active for experiencing versus observing, and vice versa.

Mirror neurons are assumed to be such that if an action is already in the animal’s repertoire, then they can aid recognition of similar actions when performed by another. But acquiring new actions through imitation requires more than this: if an action is not in the animal’s repertoire, and one observes another performing it as part of a behavior that yields a good outcome, then one can (possibly) learn to add it to one’s own repertoire as a basis for mastering the desirable behavior. As a final observation in favor of extending accounts of mirror neurons to include systems “beyond the mirror,” then, note that monkeys have mirror neurons but cannot imitate to any extent (let’s not spell out the details here), chimpanzees have “simple” manual imitation, and humans have complex vocal and manual imitation and language. All this provides challenges for the EvoDevoSocio approach (Arbib et al., 2018).

Empathy, Einfühlung and Mirror Neurons

Harry Mallgrave stressed the key insight that architecture is a social art. Recognizing that humans are profoundly social animals, we may consider both evolutionary history and what we share with other species, as well as our cultural and individual development, in thinking about architecture. Moreover, with Gadamer, note the role of ritual and festival for humans. This too needs to be factored into architectural design.

In linking architectural theory, an intellectual framework, to neuroscience, he stresses the importance of 19th century German theory with its notion of Einfühlung, “feeling your way into a work of art or architecture.” He links this to empathy and its analysis in terms of mirror systems and embodied simulation. One may “feel” a work of figurative art through empathy of the persons represented there, simulating what is shown, but also through “feeling” the process whereby the artist created it. This goes beyond mental simulation of movement. Consider the broad brushstrokes of Kline, and the EEG study of the motor correlates of viewing such a work (Sbriscia-Fioretti, Berchio, Freedberg, Gallese, & Umiltà, 2013). Form is not neutral. Visual form evokes multi sensory and action-related effects. And space is not neutral. We measure space with our bodies. We shape our walking to the heights of doors and the width of corridors, but such changes also shape our perceptions. Space is not just an abstraction.

From Paradise to Courtyard

Harry Mallgrave quoted Alvar Aalto: “Each act of architecture aims to create a paradise.” Etymologically, paradise is a garden and gardens have been central to many cities across the centuries and across diverse cultures. But paradise can be approached in other ways, e.g., the acoustics of an abbey in which monks unite in Gregorian chant; or the use of stained glass in medieval European cathedrals. However, paradise is a different notion from utopia, in which new social structures are imposed from above. Mallgrave views paradise as finding the fit between environment and human nature, proceeding from within. As an example of town architecture that exemplifies the idea of designing around gardens [or, at least, stretches of lawn] he cites the history of Oxford and Cambridge. They started by adapting monastic forms with buildings around a verdant courtyard, and then built more quadrangles, with about 40% green space. Later, bridges across the Cam gave the Cambridge colleges access to private gardens, and now the proportion of green space may be 80%. The town developed as a narrow section across the street from the colleges, providing services without intruding on the space of the colleges. There are also cultural amenities such as museums and music. However, the very success of these paradises has bred problems as the towns have become magnets for tourists, while industry and digital technology absorb the area around the centers. It is time to bring Aalto’s notion of paradise back into architecture!

“What about underprivileged people? What about prisons?” someone asked. Mallgrave agreed that being a don or student at Oxford or Cambridge is highly selective but the question misses the point. They exemplify the urge for paradise — and he cites them because they can offer ideas for new urban design.

Ilaria Mazzoleni cited several projects (see the next section), but the one most relevant here is PROTECT, exploring what gives us a sense of protection. How might early experience reduce fear and build memories that let us face nature or other aspects outside our usual environment? Connecting with nature, not just through the window, rather than raising kids with a phobia of the outside as in many cities today. Her ANFA 2016 talk focused on the courtyard, the making of a place enhancing biophilia. Many cities created buildings around large courtyards, but they often got infilled. Consistent with Mallgrave’s paradise, she advocated an architecture that embraces and opens to nature. Moreover, the courtyard can also be a place of social interaction. I will return to this in discussing Admiralty Kampung in Singapore in the seventh post.

Mallgrave takes a multi-sensory approach. He doesn’t downplay vision, but decries buildings whose designs seem based mainly on irrelevant visual effects, like the Gherkin and Walkie-Talkie buildings in London. Yes, we do need skyscrapers but – unlike London – Paris for example locates then outside the historical core. Similarly, he decries the trend in New York to taller and narrower buildings, but sees it as a result of immense land prices. He further decries the reflexive use of glass as a dominant material. One audience member noted the increasing use in New York of gardens and glass to give visual access as well as actual access. A good thing?

Don Norman said that he finds some of the London buildings attractive but sees their assemblage as incoherent. He then suggested that some towns in Europe or Morocco are “incoherent in an attractive way.” He sees skyscrapers as offering social affordances – the urban density of New York City supports specialty stores and fine restaurants that could not be supported otherwise.

Mike Stepner cited Temporary paradise? This 1974 study of San Diego by Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard lauded San Diego’s attributes that make it a paradise — the weather, the seaside setting – but they also but pointed out its shortcomings — traffic congestion, environmental degradation, and housing shortages, even then. Stepner, then city architect, tried to follow though, with a focus on truth and beauty. He noted the view of Roger Scruton – a philosopher recently reinstated as head of the U.K.’s Conservative government’s commission on “Building Better, Building Beautiful” – that beauty “is what it is all about,” but only if it is about people. Elena Pacenti followed up by commenting that San Diego has a beautiful environment but an urban design that is not walkable. To her, a walkable city (her home town of Milan) seems preferable to one with fine weather.

Bio-inspired architecture

In the ninth post, we will consider neuromorphic architecture, buildings that have “brains” – but these may be based on principles from neuroscience or shaped more by the state of the art in AI. Here we look at other ways in which biology may inspire architecture.

Ilaria Mazzoleni divides her year between Los Angeles and a valley in northern Italy. Her work embraces biomimetics, biomimicry, and E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia (and see neurobiophilia.org). With typhoons and earthquakes, we may see nature as an adversary; yet with woods and beaches we may hear the call of nature. She wants to move beyond anthropometric design. Certainly, architecture must continue to consider what is good for the human — but one now needs to think this through in relation to the health of ecological systems and biodiversity. At ANFA 2016, Eric Kandel asserted that neural study for architecture is premature. [To my annoyance, he gave a talk on “art and science in Fin du Siècle Vienna” he had given many times before, having made no attempt to modify the talk for ANFA or think through the challenges involved prior to his visit.] Early AI experts rejected bio-inspiration [ironic, given the current dominance of bio-inspired deep learning] saying that airplanes don’t flap their wings, but Mazzoleni stresses that we are still looking to learn from flight in birds and insects. Her work links to biology but also has links to anthropology, ethnography and more – though one obstacle is that people from different disciplines uses the same word in different ways and may thus miscommunicate [e.g., contrast the use of “program” in architecture and computer science]. She introduced several projects beyond the PROTECT project noted above.

Microbiome to microbi(h)one: A healthy person has a healthy gut and a healthy brain, so how might a house have bacteria that improve its performance as a home? Embracing bacteria for a healthier life, one may use bacteria for lighting while not over-sterilizing our lives
InHabitLA_CoHousing (which will be at the Venice Biennale 2020): How can we live together and share facilities, open spaces, and biodiversity?
CONNECT. There are now 9000 miles of sidewalks in LA. How can they be exploited to yield greater walkability? The sidewalk was invented in Pompeii, a small city, more stony than nature. City of Vernon in LA is a logistical center with only 109 humans – and yet there are many sidewalks! Why? This project assesses the conversion of miles of unused sidewalks into a linear park. Maybe different zones of a city need very different strategies, not just for sidewalks. Embrace pests, coexist with bugs, increase biodiversity, extending the human social connection to embrace other living forms.

NAture-Art-Habitat Residency, NAHR: Neurological activity is affected by immersion in nature. Creativity is enhanced but in a different way. What (chemical?) changes in the brain does this support? Walking becomes a primary activity. New neural connections? Each year, a group spends a month in her valley in the Italian Alps, a place of nature and source of inspiration separated from the hurly-burly of city life and the internet. New ways of being alone and new ways of being with others – even if the others are cows as well as humans. A dancer afraid of dancing on other than a flat floor ended up liberated by enjoying the challenge of dancing on the highly uneven surfaces of open fields.

In mid-2019, the people of Ethiopia planted millions of trees. Small incremental changes by the individual can yield immense changes overall.
One attendee had Indian ancestors who were animists, with respect for everything in nature. This attitude resonates with Mazzoleni’s projects. But do we want to return to an animist philosophy?

Elie Al-Chaer spoke of biomimicry, learning from biological mechanisms that may have survived for thousands or millions of years. Such efforts may be structural, replicating form, functional, or ecological. However, biomimicry may be only skin-deep – Venhoeven’s Sportsplaza Mercator in Amsterdam has a leafy exterior but is not biological inside.

A vision. Plant a seed from which a building grows.

Buildings may be based on human bodily form, as in cruciform churches.

The shape of the Blizzard Institute at Queen Mary University, London, is inspired by the shape of a neuron. Other inspiration comes from confocal microscopy, moving through the 3D forest of, e.g., the pyramidal neurons of cerebral cortex, or revealing the web of connections of neurons in retina. Another effort was inspired by study of cell membranes, with more positive ions outside, more negative ions inside. Channels with controllable gates control which ions to cross the lipid bilayer and when. Some gates are specific to sensory stimuli. The ear hair cells have mechanically-gated channels that convert sound energy into electrical signals. Depolarization at a synapse opens voltage-gated channels and calcium channels, with the latter crucial for neurotransmitter release. Ligand gated channels have specific keys for each type. All this inspired the architectural idea of a smart wall with dynamic channels, selective for different aspects to pass through.

Let me note, though, that none of these is what I mean by neuromorphic architecture – perhaps confusingly I use the term for buildings that have “brains” in some sense, not for buildings whose form mimics a neural form. Another example of such an effort was given by Marcos Novak, who showed shapes that mimicked structures revealed in an image of his own brain. A famous non-example is Norman Foster’s Philological Library of the Frei Universität in Berlin whose floor plans are symmetrical in a manner reminiscent of horizontal cross-sections through the human brain’s cerebral hemispheres. However, we will see examples of neuromorphic architecture from Elie Al-Chaer in the ninth post.


Arbib, M. A., Aboitiz, F., Burkart, J., Corballis, M., Coudé, G., Hecht, E., . . . Wilson, B. (2018). The Comparative Neuroprimatology 2018 (CNP-2018) Road Map for Research on How the Brain Got Language. Interaction Studies, 19(1-2), 370-387.

Buccino, G., Lui, F., Canessa, N., Patteri, I., Lagravinese, G., Benuzzi, F., . . . Rizzolatti, G. (2004). Neural circuits involved in the recognition of actions performed by nonconspecifics: an FMRI study. J Cogn Neurosci, 16(1), 114-126.

di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G. (1992). Understanding motor events: a neurophysiological study. Exp Brain Res, 91(1), 176-180.

Gallese, V., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., & Rizzolatti, G. (1996). Action recognition in the premotor cortex. Brain, 119, 593-609.

Sbriscia-Fioretti, B., Berchio, C., Freedberg, D., Gallese, V., & Umiltà, M. A. (2013). ERP Modulation during Observation of Abstract Paintings by Franz Kline. PLoS One, 8(10), e75241. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0075241

Wicker, B., Keysers, C., Plailly, J., Royet, J. P., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G. (2003). Both of us disgusted in My insula: the common neural basis of seeing and feeling disgust. Neuron, 40(3), 655-664.

About Michael A. Arbib

Michael Arbib is a pioneer in the study of computational models of brain mechanisms, especially those linking vision and action, and their application to artificial intelligence and robotics. Currently his two main projects are “how the brain got language” through biological and cultural evolution as inferred from data from comparative (neuro)primatology, and the conversation between neuroscience and architecture. He serves as Coordinator of ANFA’s Advisory Council and is currently Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of California at San Diego and a Contributing Faculty Member in Architecture at NewSchool of Architecture and Design. The author or editor of more than 40 books, Arbib is currently at work on When Brains Meet Buildings, integrating exposition of relevant neuroscience with discussions of the experience of architecture, the design of architecture, and neuromorphic architecture.