How environment affects brain functioning and cultural meaning
-- Fred H. Gage, - neuroscientist
“Architectural spaces can inspire the imagination of its inhabitants.”
– Ricardo Legoretta, designer of the Ft. Worth Museum
of Science and History, Annual Report (Oct 2009)
Place as mental context
The human mind is highly situational. Although we rarely think in any conscious way about the power of our physical surroundings, our subconscious mind is ultra-sensitive to them, and changes gears with the slightest change in location. Human situational awareness and the factors that create thematic cognition are just beginning to be studied and appreciated. Brain research is now becoming capable of telling us, through imaging, what these factors are and how they work. There are even indications that the qualities of place – lighting, sound, thermotics (heating and cooling), can inhibit or promote brain cell growth. But this research is just starting to reveal how fine-tuned our brains are to respond to the places we find ourselves – from the neo-natal hospital unit at birth to the places we travel, sleep, eat, work, play, bond with others, heal from illness and injury, and finally die—most often, in the hospital setting of birth.
Where we find ourselves at any given moment determines what we think about, and how we process that thought. This process is driven by social surroundings (who we are with), the cultural imprint of place (meaning) along a behavioral range (action within place), and the potential and outcomes of what happens in various venues (expectations, preferred values, and decision making).
Cultural studies can define and analyze these factors to
explore the potentials of a variety of settings and their effects—from simple
seating design to the layered complexity of theme parks. All five senses, especially sight and sound, play
a role in the setting’s physiological
These contexts richly influence how we feel at any given moment, and our brains are fine-tuned (though largely at a subconscious operating level) to our surroundings. Most of our information comes from our highly developed visual sense, but it has been pointed out by perception experts that sound often outranks sight as the cueing system that cuts past our conscious and rational prefrontal awareness to connect with our more primal brain centers. (In watching film, for example, the musical score sets the emotional tone of the screen image, not vice-versa.)
Dozens of disciplines—from art history and archaeology to neuroscience and industrial psychology—study environments, from ancient sites to space station design. But there is far more to these environments and their artifacts than their physical qualities and ingenuity. In terms of the human mind and its prime output, culture, the core reason to study material culture is ultimately to understand how it works on our minds. Besides its utility as props in daily life (shelter, workplace, tools, decoration), the most essential question is:
What role do these artifacts and landscapes play in human thinking and behavior across time and in space? In other words, how do our creations affect us as we live with and within them?
As an example, try this simple thought experiment. Think about a range of contexts: conference room, swimming pool, jet cabin, bedroom, car, classroom, theater box, stadium – all with their own sensory inputs, comfort levels, and stressors (the demands on the brain and sensory systems).
As a mental shortcut, think of several chairs: a throne, an armchair, an electric chair, a beach chaise, a church pew, a roller-coaster seat, a massage chair. How do each of these mini-environments operate as “thinking boxes” – influencing the way we process, making us smarter, dumber, present- or future-oriented, more social, or more private? Virtually superimpose your body onto these various mini-settings and you can feel the mental shift that follows instantly. Shift the context, shift the mentality. This principle comes as close to being a human universal as it gets.
Where we are, in fact, seems to be essential to consciousness – which is why medical rescue teams will ask you where you are as an index to awareness. Where you are, in fact is key to who you are at any given moment; following the Japanese proverb (quoted in the TV series Mad Men), “A man is whatever room he is in.” Further measures of general intelligence are orientation to person, place, and time.
Neuroscience seeks to define place impact in order to discover just how essential human activities can be enhanced: these include learning, mood, social motivation, brain activity levels, productivity, stress, even memory. Mall designers long ago realized that expanding the field of choices available was central to raising sales; as was making customers feel affluent by keying the room tone to spaciousness, glamour lighting, and muted crowd-noise levels. Food plays a role by raising the sense of safety and gratification; so that food courts are actually a core feature of successful malls in raising the earnings per square foot.
Cognitive science is bringing on the future of design. Based on these research outcomes and their implications for “experience architecture”--the design of spaces to become the places of human activity--cultural analysis is on a quest for the cultural geography of the mind. This means looking at the built environment not just for its intended pragmatic uses, but for something more sophisticated--as the delivery mechanism for mental and neurological states that it often inadvertently creates and encourages. “Room tone” is a term that can be adapted to describe the mind-setting effect of our surroundings. Place, through room tone, works like a channel changer, by evoking different styles and moods along the dial – tied into different brain regions and functions.
The brain on place
Place dynamics as a way to understand culture and cultural values enlists the collated wisdom of cultural geography, material culture study, neuroarchitecture, and social history and psychology. The overall question is to discover and define the cultural logic that follows from the spatial logic in any given venue. To do this, the challenge is to discern from the way that places are actually used (their function, which is not necessarily the way they are designed to be used) by a series of basic questions, answered from the point of view of the space user: (source: David Pesanelli Design)
1. What is this place ABOUT? Basic cultural purpose based on themeatics: holistic meaning, not at the level of discrete detail
2. How does this place make me feel? (neurological) Security is Number One – Stimulation is Number Two
3. Who am I in this context? – How do I fit the context? Do I belong?
4. How does this place call on me to think and act? Who else is here? What’s at stake?” – (risks and opportunities)
Design as experience
In fact, the purpose of all places is to induce various behaviors for a range of purposes—expressing the full span of human experiences on earth. Built environments are designed to evoke and manipulate our mindsets, through leveraging memory, themeatics (our collective ideas about other times and places on exhibit), shared cultural values, and social consilience (groupthink or the “wisdom of crowds”).
Historically, built design is more or less effective at this purpose—but there are far more less-effective designs than effective ones, and we need to know how to become much better at what people need, want, and respond to. Urban sociologist William Whyte remarked, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”
The more we know about the power of place and what drives it, the better our “thinking boxes” can be designed to act on and assist thought, decision-making, and behavior. This is one definition of liberating human potential--matching our surroundings to the way our brain works. And of course this has always been the mandate of the designer, if not always the achievement, in making places better at their intended goals.
Novelist John Fowles described the novel itself as a “filmic form,” based on cutting, dialogue, and a series of settings envisioned as film sets. Since film became a major artform, it is the rare novelist who does not imagine what he writes as taking place on a procession of sets. In two dimensions, film combines many alternative realities into a single channel, as the theme park does in three dimensions. This is the multiverse made possible by multi-channel mixed media. As media innovations take up more and more of our stage settings, these must respond by becoming better and better at incorporating them. This idea has become a central tenet of any design project.