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Mind-set: Research Project Will Study Architecture's Impact on the Brain

MAY 5, 2003

By Ann Jarmusch
ARCHITECTURE CRITIC, San Diego Union-Tribune

How the brain responds to design will be a focus of the new Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. The Neurosciences Institute, La Jolla, uses architectural serenity to stimulate discovery and discussion.
(Howard Lipin / Photo illustration)

As you read this, your surroundings are shaping your brain. Or at least tweaking it.

For better or worse, the buildings where we work, learn, worship or meditate, sleep and play make neurons fire in certain areas of our brains. Much more than just the senses are involved.

After extensive research, neuroscientists now know that our behavior - which is influenced by our built environment among countless other things - affects the structural organization of the brain. The brain continues to be shaped by our actions, emotions and perceptions.

Neuroscientists don't yet fully understand what these findings mean, but at the urging of a group of mostly San Diego architects they aim to find out.

After a year of planning and discussion among professionals in both fields, a unique research venture called the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture will be launched Friday during the American Institute of Architects national meeting at the San Diego Convention Center.

Architects view helping people achieve their full potential as a major goal and responsibility. Neuroscience - one of the fastest evolving scientific fields today - holds essential keys to meeting this goal, say architects and scientists involved in the nonprofit academy.

The academy, supported in its fledgling phase by the San Diego Architectural Foundation, will encourage neuroscientists across the country, and perhaps around the world, to undertake research that could result in beneficial new design tools. The academy also will establish a database to share evolving research findings with scientists, architects and architecture students.

"It's a very novel concept. Neuroscience research has tended to concentrate on medical problems or brain dysfunction," said Alison M. Whitelaw, San Diego Architectural Foundation president and an academy founder. "We're looking at this as a whole other discipline."

Researchers will focus on normal brain functions that control or affect memory, spatial perception, emotional responses from pleasure to pain, among other things, some not yet even envisioned.

"This is a new investigation, an opening up of things that haven't done before," said W. Einar Gall, research director of The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla and a member of the academy's advisory board. "That makes it exciting, first of all. But (the intent) is also very practical."

The graying of America is a fact scientists and architects both face. Neuroscience can help us "understand our aging population" and improve the way people's minds work in later life, noted Eduardo Macagno, the founding dean of UCSD's Division of Biological Sciences. Added architect Whitelaw: "There will be more emphasis on design for the aging."

Environmental psychology and some scientific research has already led architects to change the way they design hospitals, schools and group homes for Alzheimer's patients.

Studies have shown, for example, that students achieved higher test scores in classrooms with increased natural light, and that, at least according to research done in London, unfashionable "hospital green" walls did help speed the healing process. In San Diego, hospital patients, their families and medical staff report positive effects from exposure to uplifting art and healing gardens.

But why? What is going on in the brain when it responds to these environmental factors? That's what the architects are asking the scientists to find out.

and proof

The potential impact of neuroscience on their profession is news to many architects, but that's likely to change for the 18,000 of them expected at this week's national AIA convention Thursday through Saturday at the San Diego Convention Center.

"Design Matters: Poetry + Proof," the convention theme, refers to the art and science that merge in fine architecture, but with a new accent on scientific proof.

Like the convention theme, the academy capitalizes on San Diego's role as a leading center for neuroscience. The academy also serves as an AIA legacy project, a tradition begun in 1995 when the Atlanta AIA chapter hosted the national convention. Atlanta architects worked alongside Habitat for Humanity volunteers to build houses.

A Salk Institute neuroscientist, Fred H. Gage, will deliver one of the convention's keynote speeches. He recently discovered that, with enrichment and exercise, the adult brain can be retooled and even grow new cells.

"Our environment is having an effect on our brains, on who we are as individuals," Gage said. "To what extent are architects taking this into consideration when they design buildings? The unanimous answer (at an academy advisory board meeting) was not at all" because architects and scientists typically occupy "two parallel worlds."

John P. Eberhard, an architect and the national AIA's director of research planning, is a rare exception. Since 1995, he's been instrumental in bringing architects and neuroscientists together. His presentation at the convention might be called Neuroscience 101 for Architects.

"I think it's possible that within 10 years there will be a body of knowledge and instruments associated with it that will make it possible for architects to approach design in a new way," Eberhard said from Washington, D.C.

Eberhard, whose first job title at the AIA was "director of discovery" and who reads The Journal of Neuroscience and Architectural Record every month, "has a deep knowledge of neuroscience," said Whitelaw. "In some ways, he's our translator."

Eberhard has developed a Web site ( presents a compelling argument for linking neuroscience and architecture to improve design's impact on human development and well being. He includes several fascinating case studies, including one on how 5-year-olds the world over tend to draw remarkably similar pictures of houses and another on the harmful effects of bright light and loud sounds on premature babies.

Eberhard is also in touch with neuroscientists around the country, including several at universities who found a part of the brain that "lights up like fireworks" when people, wearing special goggles, are shown photographs of buildings.

A related study, now in the planning stages with Eberhard's input at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will test people's responses to photographs of "warm" and "cool" buildings. These are code words for well-designed and attractive vs. ugly and sterile buildings.

risky venture

Architects, clients, builders and the rest of us who live our lives in and around buildings may learn worlds of information - or nothing - from studies like the one on buildings or others to come. Ths always the chance results may be meaningless, cautioned Eberhard, who is a major force in forming the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture.

Still, architects and neuroscientists on the academy's advisory board are willing to take the risk and the time necessary. Whitelaw's students at the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego have already expressed interest in plunging into master's thesis projects based on neuroscience.

The prospect of designing rooms, buildings and public spaces that are in tune with human biology could have far-reaching social, personal and economic benefits, Whitelaw said.

If design and building costs turn out to be higher to achieve these results, she predicted they will be offset by long-term assets such as a better educated population, higher worker productivity and reduced medical costs.

Like the Salk Institute's Gage, several board members are already studying aspects of the brain that could influence architecture.

UCSD's Macagno thinks future data on what stimulates the mind to become creative and excited, or comfortable and calm could inspire "new forms, new juxtapositions" in architecture.

Larry Squire, a neuroscientist at UCSD and the San Diego VA Medical Center who works in the area of memory, has helped amnesia and Alzheimer's patients. Like other researchers, he employs new technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which indicates which areas of a subject's brain are in use or are being stimulated. Some of what he's learned could be applied to architecture, from Las Vegas to prisons to shopping centers.

"There's tension between novelty and familiarity. The brain cares about novelty, because it presents more information and interest," Squires said. Familiarity, on the other hand, can be calming or stem from "practice or expertise."

But what about the flip side of learning how the brain works? What if the data is used to manipulate or harm people? That's a possibility the architects and neuroscientists acknowledge, but they said the positive insights they anticipate will outweigh the risk of the information being misused.

"The truth is (manipulation) is probably being done already," Gage said. "By publishing the information and making it available on a data base, our studies will be overt. Knowledge is dangerous, but lack of knowledge is much more dangerous."

Like neuroscience itself, the academy-sponsored research will bridge the brain, which The Web site calls "the single most complex organ in the known universe," and the mind, which distinguishes humans from other living creatures.

"For some unknown reason, we are unique in having developed the ability to speak and write language, to think about the past and the future," said Eberhard. "Are intangibles like consciousness better left alone? That's not an easy question to answer."

Macagno, who is establishing the Brain & Institute at UCSD, isn't at all worried that neuroscientists will be one day zoom in on and decode the mysteries of life.

"The idea that more understanding robs us of wonder - that's a big mistake. I don't think we'll ever lose the ability to wonder," he said.

"This is another level of exploration of humanity. In understanding the brain more thoroughly, we are not going to lose the ability to create music and paintings and architecture, but I hope we will be able to enjoy it longer and, possibly, more intensely."

Ann Jarmusch: (619) 293-1019;

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

originally published on May 4th, 2003 at