Brains, Behavior, and Baukultur

Colin Ellard

This past January, I was invited to participate in a remarkable event in Davos, Switzerland. The event, held as a side conference to the well-known World Economic Forum, was set up to ratify what was called the Davos Declaration, a statement of support for the idea that the design of the built environment plays a critical role in the promotion of human wellbeing. My role in the event was modest. Along with Yvonne Farrell of Grafton Architects in Ireland, I was asked to give a short keynote in support of the Declaration. The real interest at the meeting, and its overall importance, was that it brought together a large group of Ministers of Culture and Heritage, mostly but not exclusively from the European Union, to sign a declaration in support of Baukultur. This German word, literally the “culture of building,” doesn’t translate well into English. I could roughly triangulate on a meaning for the term by suggesting that it has to do with the mindset that, written or otherwise, determines how we build. More succinctly, perhaps, one might say that Baukultur suggests the manner in which we might build environments that support wellbeing (and indeed most of the discussion at the event in Davos, including both keynotes but also, significantly, most of the political statements in support of the Declaration, focused on exactly this.). An even better account of Baukultur can be found in Harry Mallgrave’s tremendous new book From Object to Experience: The New Culture of Architectural Design.

The Declaration itself, though written at a very high level and so somewhat short on specifics, contains some interesting key elements. In the section entitled “Our vision for a high-quality Baukultur,” there is more than one reference to the claim that our built surroundings, including their materials, spatiality, and context, will affect our health and psychological wellbeing and that a conscious effort to build commodious designs should take precedence over short-term economic benefit. Among the many presumed benefits of building for such quality is included greater social cohesion (especially when applied to mixed use residential designs), health, and biodiversity. Importantly, the Declaration also includes an explicit commitment for stakeholder countries to re-convene in ten years to assess progress.

Why do I think the Davos Declaration matters? After all, the words written and ratified in Davos have less teeth than policy. The Declaration does not require direct action. It is not codified at the level of municipal decision-makers who approve or reject proposals from developers. But while all of this is true, in my view the event in Davos represents a shifting of the winds in the direction of psychologically sustainable design. It suggests that there is broad agreement not only that we should build in a way that sustains human life (for this seems obvious!) but also that we might know how to do this, or, at the very least, that we might be able to use our scientific tools, our powers of observation and analysis, to figure it out.

For many years now, those of us who have worked in any field that tries to relate the design of the built environment to human behavior have been motivated by the conviction that studying such relationships might lead to better buildings and cities. And, indeed, we have sometimes been emboldened by our success stories. Showing that exposure to natural environments can produce profoundly positive changes in behaviour and physiological state or that the details of high-density residential design can influence affiliation and promote social capital, are promising. Such findings suggest that trying to find ways to study psychological problems in real-world settings and outside of the cloistered laboratory is worth the trouble. And not only can we discern the key relationships between the design of built settings and what makes our brains tick, but these relationships can sometimes lead to real action. Health care settings have been improved by the use of natural light, materials, and landscaping. Streetscape designs made more compatible with the voracious human appetite for information have improved walkability and promoted physical activity and health.

Although it isn’t hard to find examples of the successful incorporation into design of principles born of studies in the human sciences, one might also argue that our approach so far has been somewhat scattershot. And indeed, I fear that the modest amount of momentum that has been achieved so far in the marriage of architectural and urban design with neuroscience and psychology through organizations such as ANFA runs the risk of petering out without a stronger track record of real-world successes. Ultimately, I think that whether or not our current momentum results in positive change and effective human-centred design will depend in part on whether the field can attract the right talent. The best minds in science or in anything else will gravitate to the most interesting and important problems but perhaps only when there is also evidence that a larger infrastructure is in place that will promote the matching of problems with solutions. Some of this larger infrastructure can come from us: the development of start-ups like Itai Palti’s new Hume Studio and Sarah Goldhagen’s new Turfadvisory, to name a couple of recent initiatives, show great promise as potential clearinghouses to connect those who are building with those who can advise on human-centered design or even conduct bespoke research. Government policy can help as well, by bringing to the attention of developers, planners, and politicians at every level the value of human-centered design.

But what of ANFA? By now, we should have moved beyond our tentative beginnings, where more than anything else most of us just wanted to pose the question: does neuroscience really have a role to play in architectural design? I’m reminded of the first ANFA meeting in 2012 which, heady though it was, reminded me of the boys and girls lined up separately against the walls of the gymnasium at high-school dances of my youth: neuroscientists on one side of the room and architects on the other, filled with enthusiasm and intent, but clueless as to what should happen next. Then, it was as though the language barrier between us was insurmountable. We were almost aliens to one another. Now, I think many of us find the challenge of overcoming such barriers delectable. I know that I do. Relationships have matured, partnerships have grown, interesting collaborations are beginning to emerge. But yet there is far to go. Perhaps most importantly, we need to think more deeply about the ‘N’ in ANFA. Michael Arbib has pointed out with some force both at past ANFA meetings and on other occasions that there is a paucity of truly engaging and convincing connection of architecture to neuroscience in the work that is showcased by the organization. And as a trained neuroscientist and a habitual presenter at ANFA, I will say that I am just as guilty of this accusation as anyone. Almost all of the work that I have presented at the meeting could better be described as cognitive science than as neuroscience. I’ve got enough reductionist blood in my veins that I know that any behavioral finding that I report could be described at the level of neurons or brain areas, but I’m not always certain that it should be.

It would be easy enough these days to take some of the good behavioral research that is being done to inform architectural design and to add a “neural overlay.” We can measure psychological state in a built setting (say, in virtual reality) and at the same time we can measure brain activity using some form of imaging. In my own work, we often use psychophysiological measures that, carefully interpreted, can tell us things about the state of the brain of our participants. But the real question is whether such an overlay truly adds value to our findings, other than to take advantage of the well-documented finding that the non-specialist is more likely to believe something—almost anything, it seems—if the claim is accompanied by a colorful brain scan.

I’m of at least a couple of minds (brains?) about this. On the one hand, I think that if a cognitivist, behavioral, or phenomenological approach yields the information that we want, then we shouldn’t force the issue. Adding a pro forma measure to an experiment so that it can be called “neuroscience” is, I think, very much to be discouraged. On the other hand, I think that there can be genuine cases where a neuroscientific approach makes sense, and it might not even have to do with the selection of experimental methods that are used, but more to do with the context. Tom Albright’s argument that one can identify some of the features that might predict pleasing designs or perhaps even beauty based on the organization of visual cortical areas and their responses to statistical regularities in scenes is one example.

Another example comes from my own work in collaboration with architect Robert Condia from Kansas State University. Condia and I are trying to understand the separate and combined contributions of the central and peripheral visual fields to architectural experience. Though we might all think that we have a general familiarity with how what we see with the fovea and what we see with the periphery differs (for instance, the one gives detail and sharp focus; the other seems fuzzy and blobby), there is a well-developed body of neuroscience that describes in great detail how these two parts of the eye, and their corresponding connections all the way to the highest reaches of visual cortex, differ. Condia and I are working with the provisional hypothesis that the peripheral visual field might play a special role in the development of architectural atmosphere. So here, we are working in an area of architectural experience that is of key importance to a designer, but we are using a framework that is clearly inspired by neurobiology. The facts of anatomy and physiology, though they don’t necessarily penetrate our methodology directly (so far we haven’t imaged or recorded anything from the brain, though this might change), motivate our approach. Without what we know of the neuroscience of the systems we are studying, it would almost certainly not have occurred to us to collaborate on this work.

To me, this might be the best way to woo the N into ANFA—not to force the issue too soon by insisting that our experiments must include brain signals from the outset, but to take the gentler approach of insisting that our collaborative projects must at least be grounded in what is known of brain systems, even if we aren’t necessarily poking around in the brain with electrodes and magnets. Ultimately, I think that what will be more likely to build fruitful research programs at the interface of neuroscience and architecture will be this kind of effort to find the natural affinities between important concepts in architecture and key ideas in neuroscience.

About Colin Ellard

Dr. Colin Ellard is a professor of psychology, specializing in cognitive neuroscience, at the University of Waterloo in Canada. After spending his early career working on basic problems in visual neuroscience related to spatial function in animals, he has recently turned his attention to exploring the human relationship with built settings. Dr. Ellard is particularly interested in the emotional effects of architectural settings, which he explores in both field settings and in synthetic environments using immersive virtual reality. His current projects include exploration of the contribution of peripheral vision to architectural atmosphere, architectural contributions to the emotion of awe, and physiological stress in high-density urban environments. Dr. Ellard’s work focuses on emotional and cognitive effects of built settings, using both field or laboratory approaches. Collin collaborates with architects to bridge the interdisciplinary divide. His recent book is Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life.

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