NeuroArchitecture and the Role of Emotions

By Andréa de Paiva

has been proving that the buildings and cities we design affect people’s brain and behavior in a deeper way than originally thought by architectural psychology or environmental psychology. The built space can generate emotions that change our mental states, impacting directly on decision making, creativity, attention, socialization, memory and learning, and also wellbeing and happiness. Having said that, do we know what emotions our buildings and cities are evoking?

First of all, let’s understand what emotions actually are. According to neuroscientist António Damásio [1] emotions are generated in the brain and experienced by the whole body. They are innate reactions of the brain that are expressed through facial expressions, body language and attitudes [2]. They affect the way people feel (consciously or unconsciously), since feelings are mental experiences of body states, which arise as the brain interprets emotions [3]. That, in turn, triggers changes in behavior and wellbeing. 

The role of emotions, in an evolutionary perspective, is to help biological regulation. This means: to help the body to adapt to the environment in order to keep us alive. Changes in the environment or in the internal state are perceived by the brain and it responds adapting our body to the new conditions. If there is a threat in the environment, for instance, as soon as we perceive it our heart rate will raise, our muscles will contract and we will breathe faster, preparing our body to fight or flight. In such case, the threat worked as a trigger to change body and mental state.

There are many levels of changes that happen for biological regulation. Damásio’s tree illustrates them. Emotions and feelings are only the top of the tree, while the most primitive stages are in the base, varying from metabolic regulation to basic reflexes and immune responses. Those are the basic responses to keep us alive, and the physical space can affect most of them, from the bottom to the top of the tree.

Our brain and body are always responding to changes that happen in the environment, even when we do not feel it consciously. And the more primitive the regulation, the less we are aware of it. You may not feel that your immune system is getting weak until you get sick, for instance. Biophilia, the field that studies how nature can impact the brain and the body, reveals that the closer we are to nature, the better immune response we get [5].

Going back to the tree and analyzing its next levels (pain and pleasure behaviors and drivers and motivations) we also find that architecture does affect them. Can architecture be harmful? Perhaps if we consider experiencing architecture in a passive way, as an observer who stays briefly, the answer is no. However, most of the time, we have an active relation with spaces. We go to schools to learn, to hospitals to recover, to our home to rest and socialize with our family, to work to create, collaborate and produce. And our permanence on those spaces is not as short as the one of an observer. We spend hours at work, days at hospitals, our life at home. And even if on the short term such spaces can seem neutral, on the long term they can cause harm. So, yes, architects and designers should worry about the long-term effects their buildings can have on its users.

Going back to the tree, what about the top? Cognition, emotion and feelings are the most complex behaviors. And they have a crucial role on decision making (see article NeuroArchitecture, Emotion and Decision) . People who damaged the brain areas responsible for processing emotions experienced changes their personalities and behavior [1]. This means that when we change an emotional state, we will be changing behavior as well. And, as everyone may have already experienced, architecture can impact feelings and behavior. A beautiful church, a dark prison, a colorful garden. All of them can cause goose bumps in different ways and alter how we feel.

But what environmental features will change emotional states? And how does it happen? The brain uses the information brought by all senses to create its own perception of reality. And it is hard-wired to respond to some stimuli with emotions to help survival. Sizes, shapes, colors, proportions, temperatures, smells, movements, sounds, those are some of the features that alone or combined can induce the brain to react generating a specific emotional state.

Each sense will bring different kinds of information to the brain. For instance, vision will bring info about color, shape, movement and distance while the skin will bring information about temperature, pressure and texture. However, before being processed by the brain, it will integrate all the information received in order to make its best interpretation of reality. After integrating, the information will be separated again and processed in the responsible areas for each sense in the brain. And finally, an image of the reality will be formed for each person.

This is why sometimes different people have such different perceptions of the same reality. It can be just an image, a movie, a person or a building. People will perceive them differently because our perception of reality is unique, formed by each one’s brain. This means that architecture might evoke different feelings and emotions on people from different cultures. 

This is why architects must take into consideration who will be the users of their buildings. Because one same building can be perceived differently by different kinds of public (see article Who do Neuroarchitects Work for?​). This is why there is no one answer about what is the perfect house, the perfect hospital, the perfect school. It all depends on the particular activities that will happen on those buildings and the people that will use them.

If people perceive reality in such different ways, their brains and body responses will also vary. Children can be afraid of a dark room, while adults will feel relaxed. Some people may feel powerful when working in a building while others can feel oppressed, for example. But, what is most important is that what people feel (consciously or unconsciously) will affect the way they behave, even if they do not realize it. People can be more aggressive or calm, more collaborative or individualistic, memorize better or worse, be more creative or more critical. 

This leads us to the main question: are the buildings and cities we design evoking emotions that enhance positive behaviors? Perhaps we need more insights from neuroscientists and sociologists to make sure that our designs are not only beautiful, but also that they are helping people to perform at their best, to improve wellbeing and satisfaction. 

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[1] Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes’ Error. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras 

[2] Eberhard, J.P. (2009) Brain Landscape: The Coexistance of Neuroscience and Architecture. Oxford: University Press 

[3] Damásio, A. (2003) Looking for Spinoza. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

[4] Eberhard, J.P. (2009) Brain Landscape: The Coexistance of Neuroscience and Architecture. Oxford: University Press 

[4] Ekman, P. (2007) Emotions Revealed: recognizing faces and feelings to improve communication and emotional life. New York: Times Books 

[5] SALINGAROS, N. (2015) Biophilia & Healing Environments Healthy Principles for Designing the Built World. Terrapin Bright Green.