August in San Diego 1. Introduction + Evidence Based Design

Neuroscience For Architecture, Urbanism & Design

Michael A. Arbib

This is the first of a series of nine posts on the A«N blog that offers an integrated report on the “Neuroscience For Architecture, Urbanism & Design” Intersession held at NewSchool of Architecture & Design (the missing gap is intentional) in San Diego on August 12-15, 2019. The report combines extracts from my 40 pages of notes from the Intersession with personal observations on the presentations and discussion thereof:

Monday, August 12 – Embodiment and Aesthetics

In Search of Paradise | Harry Francis Mallgrave
Neuroscience of Beauty | Tom Albright
Neuroscience for Architectural Practice | Alison Whitelaw
Light and Circadian Rhythm | Satchin Panda + Fred Marks

Tuesday, August 13 – Human Centered Design

Baukultur, Corbusier, and Buildings that have Brains | Michael Arbib
User experience Design and, well, everything | Don Norman
Designing for Active Healthy Cities at the Macro and Micro Levels | Jim Sallis
Eco- and Neuro- Logical based Design for a post Anthropocentric era | Ilaria Mazzoleni

Wednesday, August 14 – Technologies and Tools

Measuring Neurophysiological Responses to the Built Environment | Eduardo Macagno
Exploring the Spatial Relationships Between Real and Virtual Environments | Dane Clemenson
Rethinking Architectural Methods with Neuroscientific Modalities | Biayna Bogosian, Kris Mun
Responsive Architecture through Neuroscience-Based Material Programing | Elie Al-Chaer
Mapping Trans-Disciplinary Processes | Myles Sciotto
Emotive Matter: Neuroscience In Design | Behnaz Farahi
Spatial Intelligence: Cyberphysical Architecture and Brain-Computer Interfaces | Guvenc Ozel

Thursday, August 15 – Sense and Perception

Kinds of space | Sergei Gepshtein
Enacting Civilization: Neuroaesthetics and the Thermodynamics of Beauty | Marcos Novak
Home(ostasis): Towards an Architecture of the Extended Mind | Neil Leach

The meeting was organized by Kris Mun, Tatiana Berger, Mike Stepner, Kurt Hunker and Elena Pacenti of NewSchool. Eleven of the speakers and organizers were members of the Board of Directors or the Advisory Council of ANFA, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture.

Given that my typing for one subtopic might distract me during the beginning of the next, or that I might take time to jot down my own thoughts on the subtopic, the coverage of the lectures must be incomplete and at times inaccurate. Moreover, my own interests will have led to fuller notes on some topics than others for which I had less interest or understanding. Nonetheless, I hope that the edited notes will convey much of what was presented at NewSchool.

The posts do NOT offer talk-by-talk summaries in the order of presentation. Rather, in reviewing the notes, I sought to identify a variety of themes which, in some cases, cut across several talks, and then arrange them in an order which offers one possible path for cumulative understanding of the Intersession’s themes. Each blog post, then, is focused on just one or two of these themes so that readers can define their own path. The division of talks into topics and the division of the topics into individual posts is thus somewhat arbitrary, designed both to provide one way of getting an integrated and cumulative view of the Intersession while also keeping the length of posts below 3000 words (some are half this length). For those who – inspired by NETFLIX –prefer binge reading, a PDF of the whole series may be found here.

Another feature of these posts is that they emphasize the neuroscience relevant to each theme, even though in many cases psychology, cognitive science, or artificial intelligence may also be crucial. Thus all posts except this Introduction contain a section or two on Core Neuroscience. Specifically, these subsections introduce the action-perception cycle and affordances; the autonomic nervous system; place cells, navigation and episodic memory; synaptic plasticity; mirror neurons; the visual system; circadian rhythms; and emotion. Here are all the topics covered in the nine posts:

August in San Diego 1. Introduction + Evidence Based Design

Neuroscience For Architecture, Urbanism & Design
NfA and ANFA
Evidence-based design

August in San Diego 2. From Neuroscience to Architecture and Back Again

The Spectrum from Neuroscience to Architecture
Core Neuroscience/Cognitive Science: The Action-Perception Cycle and Affordances
Embodied Cognition/Embrained Bodies
Linking Music and Architecture

August in San Diego 3. Measuring Physiological and Neural Correlates

Core Neuroscience: The Autonomic Nervous System
What can we measure and what does it mean?
Architecture education
Physical Reality “versus” Virtual Reality.

August in San Diego 4. Memory, Wayfinding and Design

Core Neuroscience: Episodic Memory, Place Cells, and Navigation
Wayfindingin and out of Virtual Reality
Design from Devices to Buildings
Neuroscience of the design process

August in San Diego 5. Learning and Creativity

Core Neuroscience: From Synaptic Plasticity to Deep Learning
Artificial Intelligence, Creativity and Consciousness

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

Empathy, Einfühlung and Mirror Neurons
Core Neuroscience: Mirror Neurons and Systems
From Paradise to Courtyard

August in San Diego 7. Baukultur and Community

What makes a good environment?
From Loneliness to Community

August in San Diego 8. Biology, Light, and Aesthetics

Core Neuroscience: Circadian rhythms
Light and Architecture
Core Neuroscience: The Visual System
What makes beauty?

August in San Diego 9. Neuromorphic and Dynamic Architecture

Neuromorphic Architecture
Core Neuroscience: Neuroscience of Emotion
Emotions in a Neuromorphic Architecture
Buildings as robots

I will rarely attribute “ownership” in the Core Neuroscience sections, but elsewhere, I will provide the surname of the person, e.g., Macagno, Mallgrave or Mun, on whose talk , or contribution to discussion, any material is based. In particular, I will use Arbib when summarizing my overt contributions at the meeting, but me or I or brackets […] when my own observations or opinions need explicit labeling. Note that portions of the talk by any particular speaker may be distributed across several posts.

Q indicates a comment or question by a participant who was not a speaker or organizer.

NfA and ANFA

NfA denotes the discipline that ANFA was created to promote, but it has become clear that this must extend beyond “Neuroscience for Architecture” alone. Indeed, this blog is “the N«A blog” to emphasize that the conversation goes both ways. To paraphrase JFK, “Ask not only what neuroscience can do for architecture, ask also what architecture can do for neuroscience.” However, this does not go far enough, in that each term may be taken in the narrow sense or in a broad sense. Architecture may be stretched to include, say, Interior Design and Urbanism; Neuroscience may at times expand to include Psychology and Cognitive Science on the one hand, and biological inspiration or neural net based artificial intelligence (AI) on the other. “The Spectrum from Neuroscience to Architecture” in this broader sense will be a core topic of the second post in the series.

Alison Whitelaw gave us a hint of ANFA’s history, citing John Eberhard’s Brain Landscape(Eberhard, 2008)as the founding document, posing questions to neuroscientists concerning sustainable development – environmental, social and economic justice – with the built environment serving human well-being. Eberhard worked with Alison, Fred Marks, Gil Cooke and other architects to reach out to neuroscientists like Fred (Rusty) Gage, Tom Albright and Eduardo Macagno, leading to the foundation of ANFA. Considerations included sensory perception, the role of memory, the impact on affect and value. ANFA was created to promote scientific knowledge that may inform the design of the built environment. Architecture today is multi-disciplinary with a vast knowledge base. Technology provides tools, and neuroscience can create links from, e.g., synaptic details to health and well-being. At AIA 2003, Rusty Gage captured architect’s attention with his talk on neurogenesis.

How can we add basic science protocols to architectural practice? It is hard to translate basic science into design. A roadblock has been the lack of funding for neuroscience studies on linking the built environment to enhancing the healthy human brain, though some large architectural firms are beginning to factor research in neuroscience (at least in the broad sense) into their planning.

Evidence Based Design

After her perspective on ANFA, Whitelaw focused on examples of evidence-based designthat may in due course be illuminated by research in basic science and neuroscience, rather than on direct links between architecture and design. Perhaps the most cited study is “View through a window may influence recovery” (Ulrich, 1984)in which people with a view of nature through their hospital room windows recovered faster than those with a view of a brick wall. [I wonder whether wealthier people had access to better rooms?]. A PG&E study of schools showed that in classrooms with more natural daylight, students tended to have better test scores. Another study showed that stress responses can be reduced by access to good lighting in workplace settings. All this raises the challenge of factoring basic science into the design in a quest to understand the underlying physiological mechanisms.

Dr Stanley Graven looked at neonatal ICUs, seeking to understand the differential effects of the environment on neonatal development. There is a huge leap in synaptic connectivity in the third trimester and early months after birth. First and second trimesters get structure in place with few connections. Senses develop in a certain order, with audition and then vision maturing last. The sleep cycle starts at 28 weeks. Premature babies thus need ICUs that provide the necessary stimulation. Graven showed that single family rooms are beneficial, with lower sound and light levels. Kangaroo rearing (the baby spending time in a pouch against the parent’s chest) gave the baby more human contact that had beneficial effects including more sleeping time. The single room for ICUs are now established as preferred for hospital design.

What might such studies imply for other aspects of hospital design? Or schools? Or …? In kindergartens, less distraction, natural light, and children working at tables in small groups can all be beneficial. And then there are jails and prisons. The US has the highest rate of incarceration, with over 50% for drugs and immigration, offenses but only 2.5% for homicide and violent crime. Despite lots of data on the terrible side-effects of solitary confinement, some prisoners in Pelican Bay had been in solitary confinement for over 20 years — yet the law did not realize mental harm, only physical harm. Perhaps a case could be made by seeking neural correlates – mental harm as physical harm to the brain, in the hippocampus and amygdala, and loss of visual ability and depth perception, orientation and wayfinding. Whitelaw has worked on a juvenile detention facility, a learning and research experience. Prefrontal cortex is not well developed till young adulthood. 62% of convicted juveniles had experienced abuse prior to incarceration, many with deleterious impacts on brain. A positive example was provided by the Missouri project that replaced juvenile halls by small cottages, more counseling, etc., with a marked reduction in recidivism. How can we design juvenile detention centers based on these insights, a trauma-based care model? Can one explore this scientifically without invoking inappropriate protocols? Empathy is a crucial part of this, developing role models and trust. We discuss mirror neurons and empathy in the sixth post.

Eduardo Macagno introduced the notion of Lifespan Architecture. Already an expert on neural development, he became interested in the neurobiology of aging when his mother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and he found that a sense of space and place was one of the first skills to degrade. This motivated a concern with how space impacts people across the lifespan, and with strategies that can support varying requirements that change across the lifespan. Even for schools, a kindergarten student has very different needs from a college student.

Turning from neuroscience, Jim Sallis looked at evidence that lack of exercise impacts diabetes, stroke, mental health problem, etc. Lack of activity is particularly a problem of lower income societies. Sallis focused on beneficial elements of an active living neighborhood with a particular emphasis on the benefits of walking and biking – with a transportation system that requires people to walk or bike that last segment. 7 minutes per day of even slow walking adds up to 100 miles per year which, if one doesn’t eat more, can reduce weight by 3 lb./year.

Public health is almost never factored into the design of public facilities and the neighborhoods and towns of which they are part. Active living research seeks to change this. On a macro level, cities can be designed to move people or to move cars. In fact, Manhattan is the most walkable city in the US. One secret is mixed-use neighborhoods, with multiple paths to vary walks between places. Freeways block connectivity for walkers.

Sallis looks not only at the science literature but also data from “gray literature,” e.g., a transportation department evaluating effects of a new intersection or bike lane. This provides useful information that is not in the scientific literature. Conversely, scientists may get so hung up on details they lose the big picture. Lacking scientific studies of urban design and cycling, one may yet find cities with reports on relevant data that can be assessed to suggest useful innovations that are not scientifically proven.

Among the comments made in the related discussion: If you need data for design, don’t ask a scientist ask a technologist. Their forte is basic research, not how best to apply it. But I still note the value of neuroscience, while stressing the difficulty of the multi-pronged conversation that has satisfactory design at the other end. Another comment noted the value of learning about the science: to provide inspiration not just information, helping reframe the problem. Basic insights may inspire the necessary reframing and later posts will show the diversity of ways thinking about biology may inspire new questions and the differences this implies for design. One attendee spoke of learning so much here and from earlier meetings that he takes back to practice: designing the sound of opening a hotel door, placing a rose in a hotel bathroom to create a welcoming scent, providing the basis to help people tell stories about their experience. Another (little developed) discussion thread involved Architecture education.  I will address this in the third post.


Eberhard, J. P. (2008). Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press.

Ulrich, R. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery. Science, 224(4647), 224-225.

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.

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