A Space for Being: A Neuroaesthetics Exhibit Featuring Design’s Impact on Our Biology
Susan Magsamen/ Executive Director / International Arts and Mind Lab, Brain Science Institute, Johns Hopkins University /Baltimore, MD
It was a long shot or maybe it was just a connection that was a long time coming. A few years ago, without introduction, I dropped a note to Ivy Ross, Google’s VP of Hardware Design. We had been in each other’s orbit for decades, and I wanted to trade notes as I launched the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) at Johns Hopkins.
We set up a phone call where I walked Ivy through our work and the field of neuroaesthetics—or, as I like to call it, the study of “how our brain changes on the arts.” Though she had never heard of the term neuroaesthetics before, Ivy immediately understood what we were trying to achieve. We were discussing a vocabulary for concepts that had unwittingly informed her decades of successful creative work, first as a world-renowned jewelry designer and then as an industrial design executive at Mattel and Disney. Ivy is a voracious learner, and we both wanted to keep the conversation going. Our initial meeting blossomed into a beautiful and ongoing collaboration with Google, culminating most recently in a neuroaesthetics exhibit at Milan Design Week.
Much like the field of neuroaesthetics, the project was a true cross-sector collaboration led by Google in partnership with Reddymade Architecture and Design, Danish furniture brand Muuto and the International Arts + Mind Lab.
The exhibit, called A Space for Being, showcased design’s impact on our biology and well-being. We invited our guests to observe their biological responses to three separate rooms, each curated with different sensory experiences—from lighting, color and textures to scents and sounds. IAM Lab’s mission was to inform the design of each room with neuroaesthetic principles based upon sensory and motor research.
To create a baseline experience amongst the three rooms, each space was residential, featuring a living and dining space, and furnishings from the Muuto line. Then, different combinations of sights, sounds, scents and textures were layered in to create unique atmospheres.
NY-based architect Suchi Reddy of Reddymade oversaw the interior and architectural design of the installation. In an interview with Wallpaper*, Reddy explained, “This was a great opportunity to explore the poetry of architecture, with science as the driver of the design. Knowing that the goal was to create three different moods or feelings, I made particularly conscious choices for every element of the rooms, giving careful thought to the sequence of the experience as well. It was a fine balance of checking the work against published scientific research, and a good old-fashioned gut check of the aesthetic experience.”
The results were three distinct rooms given names to evoke what they offered:
● ESSENTIAL – Appeals to our primitive mind for a potentially grounding effect.
● VITAL – Sparks our curiosity in a way that may feel uplifting.
● TRANSFORMATIVE – A high-contrast yet balanced aesthetic that may prove awe-inspiring.
Guests wore wristbands with multiple sensors designed by Google that monitored their biomarkers such as heart rate and skin temperature as they moved throughout the exhibit. They were invited to touch and interact with the spaces but were asked to refrain from talking. At the end of their experience, guests received a beautiful visualization of their data in the form of a watercolor that displayed the room where they felt most at ease.
For many guests, top designers around the world, the experience validated was they’ve always known intuitively—that design or more specifically, the built environment impacts our personal biology. Research is just playing catch up here. With improvements in non-invasive brain imaging like fMRI and other technology over the last two decades, we now have more data than ever to consider as we build new hospitals, schools, workplaces and homes.
There is some natural skepticism when discussing the co-mingling of design and data. As I spoke with guests leaving the exhibit, some were surprised by their results. They felt the rooms they preferred did not necessarily match the rooms in which the report showed they were most at ease. But this was a fantastic conversation to have with practicing designers. The spaces we respond to intellectually or creatively in our minds may just elicit a different type of response in the body. The data is a mirror back to ourselves, as Ivy often says.
Our biology innately responds to all the aesthetic experiences that make up our environment. But how we each respond is truly personal, governed by a mixture of genetics, conditioning and past experiences.
Google, for the record, has no plans to produce or sell the wristbands and didn’t keep any of the data or results from the exhibit. The goal was to spark a conversation about the relationship between design and biology and empower the design community to create a world that supports human health and well-being.
A Space for Being was just a demonstration, not a scientific study (although a case study is forthcoming). But IAM Lab is already starting to pursue evidence-based design interventions using our translational research approach called Impact Thinking. This consensus framework applies rigorous brain science research methods to arts, architecture and music interventions by engaging a broad and multidisciplinary team.
As one example, we are partnering with our colleague Suchi Reddy of Reddymade and the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University to design multi-sensory care rooms for children with disorders of consciousness, like coma. Using neuroaesthetic principles, these rooms will be personalized to the needs of individual patients, helping them wake up better and faster, while supporting their caregivers.
In medicine, we are finding that our most pressing health issues can’t be solved by pharmaceutical or surgical interventions alone. The solutions must be more holistic and come from collaborations between the fields of art, science and technology. A Space for Being was not only a demonstration of neuroaesthetics in action but also this type of collaboration amongst professionals across diverse fields. At IAM Lab, we hope to replicate this form of partnership again and again and produce innovative, arts-based solutions to advance human health and well-being.
To experience A Space for Being, watch this video.
About Susan Magsamen
Susan Magsamen is the founder and Executive Director of the International Arts + Mind Lab, a pioneering neuroaesthetics initiative from the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her body of work lies at the intersection of brain sciences and the arts—and how our unique response to aesthetic experiences can amplify human potential.
Magsamen is the author of the Impact Thinking model, an evidence-based research approach to accelerate how we use the arts to solve problems in health, well-being, and learning. She also serves as Senior Advisor to the Science of Learning Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Magsamen is a Fellow at the Royal Society of the Arts and a strategic advisor to several innovative organizations and initiatives, including the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, the American Psychological Association, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, Brain Futures, Learning Landscapes, and Creating Healthy Communities: Arts + Public Health in America.
Coburn, A., Vartanian, O., & Chatterjee, A. (2017). Buildings, Beauty, and the Brain: A Neuroscience of Architectural Experience. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 29:9, 1521-1531. https://doi.org/10.1162/jocn_a_01146
Banaei, M., Hatami, J., Yazdanfar, A, & Gramann, K. (2017). Walking through Architectural Spaces: The impact of interior forms on human brain dynamics. Front. Hum. Neurosci.11:477. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2017.0047
Sternberg, E.M. & Wilson, M.A. (2008). Neuroscience and Architecture: Seeking common ground. Cell, 127. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2006.10.012
Impact Thinking: A Research Approach to Enhance Human Potential in Health, Wellbeing and Learning Through the Arts http://www.artsandmindlab.org/wp-content/publications/ArtsMindLab-postition-paper/#page=1