By Andréa de Paiva
Perception has been the subject of studies in psychology and neuroscience for a long time. Understanding how the senses capture information about the world outside the body, such as images, sounds, smells, textures, temperatures, flavors and how the brain interprets all of this, helps architects and designers make better decisions in their projects. After all, one of the most discussed subjects when it comes to perception is: it is relative ! That is, different factors can influence how we perceive the same reality . In the case of architecture and design, how can NeuroArchitecture contribute to the understanding of how different sensory characteristics of environments can affect users’ perceptions?
The first step in trying to understand more fully how the environments we create can be perceived is to seek to understand who the main groups of users are . Differences in sensory organs (such as the deficiency of one or more senses, for example), can cause the simplest reality to be perceived in a completely different way. But there are other variations that are worth mentioning. The age of users can also directly affect the functioning of sensory organs, such as the eyes or ears, or even the functioning of their brain when receiving and interpreting information from the environment. An elderly person, for example, may have difficulty visualizing some information or even perceive distances as being longer due to muscle fatigue. A child whose brain is developing, on the other hand, may have difficulty integrating information about routes, making it difficult to navigate in a more complex building. The importance of understanding who the main groups of users are doesn’t stop there. Several studies have shown that cultural differences directly affect perception. For example, a study conducted in the United States compared the brain reactions of several individuals when taking Coca-Cola and Pepsi. What was noticed is that taking one of the soft drinks without receiving any information about the brand activated the brain differently than when the brand was revealed. More than that, when individuals knew they would drink Coca-Cola (not Pepsi), areas related to the brain’s reward circuitry were activated. That is, despite the fact that the sensory information of the taste is practically the same for both soft drinks, the simple fact of knowing that one of them was Coca-Cola affected the interpretation that the brain made. But of course, it only works when people share the same cultural memory. Probably, if this test were carried out in isolated indigenous tribes, without the influence of globalization, in which there is no shared cultural memory about what Coca-Cola is, the results would be quite different. In this sense, better understanding who are the different groups of users of the same space can help architects and designers to find elements that have a stronger meaning for each group, facilitating the connection with the space, its memorization and, even, impacting the intensity emotional of the experiences lived there . Finally, it is worth mentioning another factor that impacts the perception of the environment: the sum of information brought by different senses. That’s right, to create its interpretation of reality, the brain not only makes use of memories of previous experiences (as in the case of Coca-Cola), but it also integrates the different senses. Thus, a sense can influence the perception of others. Several studies have been discussing themes such as sonic seasoning, for example, which points out that the sound of the environment can influence our perception of taste . Other studies indicate that the color of the lighting in a space affects not only the perception of taste, but also the perception of the value of a product . Therefore, when working on a new project, designers and architects must think not only about visual and functional information, but about the atmosphere of each environment generated by the combination of all sensory information. Colors, textures, sounds, lighting, smells, temperatures and others must be thought of in order to create a unique atmosphere that contributes to the users’ experience in each environment . In short, it is not enough to create interesting and aesthetically pleasing projects in our own opinion. For each environment in a project, it is important to understand how different user groups can perceive that space. Not always an interesting project for us, architects, will be interesting from the client’s point of view, because he has different cultural memories of ours and, as we have seen, this influences perception. In addition, it is also important that sensory information is aligned to create atmospheres that contribute to the experience of space . Just thinking about the appearance of an environment is not enough to create a complete atmosphere. It is necessary to plan for all the senses and in an integrated way.
This article is inspired by the work we presented at The Science of Consciousness Conference, organized by the University of Arizona in 2020.
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