Cerebrum Article

Architecture with the Brain in Mind

A soaring cathedral, a brightly lit classroom, a dim maze of hospital corridors: Most of us associate certain emotions, energy levels, and even mental states with the various spaces in which we spend our lives. What underlies these responses? How important are they? Architects and neuroscientists now beginning to grapple with those questions are coming up with discoveries that have important implications for how we design spaces as diverse as neonatal care units, schools, and residences for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The benefits of collaboration between brain science and architecture are sure to increase, writes architect John Eberhard, founding president of the new Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Some research even suggests that certain designed environments encourage the proliferation of new brain cells.

Published: April 1, 2004

If we allow discoveries in neuroscience and cognitive science to butt up against old philosophical problems … we will see intuitions urprised and dogma routed.
— Patricia Churchland, Ph.D.

For centuries, architects have recognized that the buildings in which we live, learn, work, and worship influence how we feel and act, setting the stage for quiet reflection, invigorating interaction, or inspiration. Recently, neuroscientists began to extend that intuitive understanding by showing how our brains are fine-tuned to our environment and how they respond and adapt to information—including awareness of our orientation in space—that reaches us through our senses.

As these two paths to understanding intersect, what are neuroscientists and architects learning from one another? Can the tools of brain science demonstrate a neurobiological basis for what architects have believed intuitively? Conversely, can brain research learn about what moves and delights us from the challenges of designing exceptional spaces?

Judging from the response to a new Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (the Academy), professionals in both fields are eager to answer these and other questions. Among architects, recognition is growing that design has the maximum effect when it reflects our understanding of how the brain reacts to different environments. Among neuroscientists, a readiness exists to apply their tools and knowledge to planning spaces that liberate the potential of people who use them.

The San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects launched the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture in 2003 to stimulate research that could connect the disparate worlds of neuroscience and architecture. The architects, engineers, and brain scientists involved believe that society can be better served by architectural design that takes into account the immense knowledge that neuroscience has generated. Building design can become more consciously based in evidence of how and why the brain responds to particular features of architectural space. Far from stifling the creative process of architectural design, insights from brain research should yield richer, more rewarding outcomes.

We already have good examples of this reward from health care. For example, we know now that certain levels of light and noise in neonatal care units can interfere with critical sensory development in premature infants. We know that healthy behavior among people with Alzheimer’s disease in group housing can be supported by specific features of their physical environment. In other situations, we must seek more definite guidance from science on things we believe to be true: that adjusting natural light and air flow in classrooms can improve student learning, for example, or that certain spaces—perhaps cathedrals or sites of natural wonder—induce a sense of sacredness in beholders.

It will be neither quick nor easy to recast the intuitions of architects as testable scientific hypotheses. Questions of study design, identification of the outcomes to be measured, validation, and funding all must be addressed. But knowing how a given designed space affects our brain is a worthwhile long-term goal, and we must at least begin.

Marrying Disparate Disciplines

Architects of the ancient world understood intuitively how design influences people’s states of mind, but the tools and techniques to test what goes on in the brain as it responds to a particular architectural environment are, at most, a few decades old.

Polio vaccine inventor Jonas Salk, M.D., was among the first to advance the idea that neuroscience research could benefit architecture. Salk tells a fascinating story. In the early 1950s, finding himself stuck intellectually in his research to cure polio, he decided to take a kind of personal sabbatical at Italy’s famous Abbey at Assisi. Something about the abbey’s architecture was so stimulating to his imagination, he later recalled, that he had a crucial insight into the impasse that had blocked his progress. He left the abbey with the germ of the solution that would become the life-saving vaccine. Subsequently, Salk advocated for a partnership between architects and neuroscientists that would probe the type of experience he had in Assisi and—more broadly—use the insights of neuroscience to find out how architectural settings influence our experience. Fittingly, Salk Institute neuroscientist Fred H. Gage, Ph.D., presented the keynote address at the American Institute of Architecture’s 2003 annual meeting.

A neurobiologist who studies (among other things) how the brain changes in response to enriched environments, Gage has been at the forefront of recent revelations that the brain continues to generate new, functional neurons throughout life, a process called neurogenesis. He demonstrated that stimulating environments can increase development of new neurons by as much as 50 percent in the brains of mice. For these animals, the environment was a cage filled with toys that engage the senses and promote active play and experiential learning. When researchers increased the rate of neurogenesis through rearing animals in these enriched environments, the scientists found commensurate improvements in the animals’ ability to learn. Take away the stimulating environment and the neurogenesis decreases; learning fails to improve. Or, as Gage puts it, “Change the environment, change the brain, change the behavior.”

These discoveries put into question neuroscience dogma about how neurons act in the adult brain. Is it reasonable to expect that enriching the environments in which we work, live, learn, or heal might induce brain and behavioral changes in us? This is part of what the Academy wants to learn.

People cannot be kept in cages full of toys to make controlled experiments possible, nor can scientists count dividing cells in the living human brain. But brain-imaging techniques and other tools of neuroscience can help us measure aspects of brain physiology and behavior that offer clues to the answers we seek. For example, heart rate, perspiration, and levels of certain hormones and chemicals can be useful as markers of emotional response, and imaging modalities such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) can zero in on the brain regions that could be involved in given responses. Devices that track eye movements might be useful in finding out where people’s attention is focused when they enter a space and what types of architectural elements have enduring interest, as opposed to initial novelty. In the not-too-distant future, it could be possible to ask these types of questions in studies that use virtual reality technologies to replicate various architectural spaces, immersing the subject in a three-dimensional representation that can more accurately re-create the real-life experience of architecture.

Identifying useful hypotheses and ways to test them was the goal of a workshop in Washington, DC, in December 2003, bringing together architects and neuroscientists to fashion a road map for collaborative research. The participants agreed that relevant knowledge is available in several scientific disciplines to suggest directions for investigation. For instance, much has been studied and written about what contributes to a “healthy” building, and we have begun to learn how a workplace’s spatial organization and environmental attributes can affect productivity. The National Institutes of Health and the Public Buildings Services of the General Services Administration (the government’s landlord) are planning to study how office environments affect physical and mental stress levels. Participants in the study will wear portable monitors that track their heart rate over a 24-hour period. During that time, they will carefully note their activities, so researchers can look for correlations between environment, activity, and physiologic response. Understanding the conditions that can induce (or alleviate) workplace stress should enable architects to design environments that are healthier and, at the same time, could improve productivity.

Does one design stimulate emotional centers in the core of the brain, whereas another lights up the deep-thinking cortex? Such investigations are the first steps of an infant discipline conceived in the marriage of architecture and neuroscience.

The Academy initiated a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that will use fMRI scans to compare patterns of brain activity that occur when volunteers look at images of distinct architectural styles. Might a classical design, such as the Lincoln Memorial, activate a different area of the brain than, say, the daring contemporary lines of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao? What might we deduce from that activity, based on what scientists know about the functions of various brain regions? Does one design stimulate emotional centers in the core of the brain, whereas another lights up the deep-thinking cortex? Such investigations are the first steps of an infant discipline conceived in the marriage of architecture and neuroscience.

How Science Shapes Architecture

Although the application of neuroscience to architectural design is new, it follows a well-known pattern. In 1895, when he accepted a challenge to turn an acoustically impossible lecture hall at Harvard College into a usable room, physics professor Wallace Sabine embarked on his pioneering journey into architectural acoustics by utilizing knowledge from his field. For several years, Sabine and his assistants studied the sound characteristics of the room. Some nights, they borrowed hundreds of seat cushions from Sanders Theater, a lecture hall known for its acoustic excellence, and, playing organ pipes, measured the time it took for different frequencies of sound to decay to inaudibility when reflected off the surfaces of various materials.

Sabine’s experiments produced the empirical data for the concept and measurement of reverberation time (the time required for a sound to diminish to one millionth of its original intensity), now stated in units called “sabines.” An appreciable reverberation time improves acoustical effects, especially of music. A loud sound in an auditorium should be barely audible only one to two seconds after the source of the sound has stopped. In a private home, a shorter (but still discernible) reverberation time is desirable. To ensure the best acoustic qualities, architects now design rooms to achieve a reverberation time that comes as close as possible to producing natural sound.

Sabine’s fledgling research was among the first to use new discoveries in physics to create architectural design tools. Today, physics undergirds not only acoustics design but structural design, lighting design, and thermal design (heating and cooling). For the most part, these tools were developed not by physicists but by engineers who understood physics and saw ways to apply it to solve design problems.

Other developments in science or engineering also gave rise to far-reaching changes in architecture. When steel became more plentiful and affordable with the invention of the Bessemer furnace in 1855, architects could use steel beams in building design. These beams made using exterior masonry walls for structural support unnecessary and eventually led to the design of skyscrapers. Elisha Otis’s invention of the elevator in 1857 made it practical for people to move up and down in taller and taller buildings. And Thomas Edison’s invention of the electric light bulb in 1879 sparked a new era in lighting, freed from the danger of fire from gas lamps. Each of these breakthroughs continues to shape architectural design today.

In their book Liars, Lovers, and Heroes, Steven R. Quartz, Ph.D., and Terrence J. Sejnowski, Ph.D., write that “Progress in science is made by focused experiments under highly controlled conditions, usually communicated in brief articles to scientific peers. As powerful an engine of knowledge creation as this enterprise has been, there is also value in occasionally stepping back and attempting to make connections across disciplinary boundaries.” Let us consider several cases in which the boundaries between brain science and architecture are already being crossed and which have exciting implications for influencing the way architects design spaces in the future. We also explore examples of design questions that neuroscience might help to answer. But all of these together are only the beginning of this new field.

Neonatal Intensive Care Units

A striking example of the applicability of neuroscience research to architecture is the work of professor of pediatrics Stanley Graven, M.D., who studied the impact on premature infants of environmental conditions in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs).* Until Graven began his work, no evidence from brain science was available to guide design decisions in planning an NICU to support and facilitate infants’ normal, healthy development. Graven’s premise—that lighting, noise levels, and staff activities that interfered with infants’ sleep cycles could have long-term consequences for their development—was rooted in the growing understanding of how the brain develops before and immediately after birth.

In the early stages of fetal life, the genetic code directs creation of the basic structure of the central nervous system, including core brain regions, primary nerves, sensory organs, and a scaffolding of synapses and pathways that link them. Rudimentary eye and ear structures take form and forge pathways into the brain’s interior and cortex. Associated areas in the visual and auditory cortices grow in the absence of outside stimulation, their progress driven purely by genes turning on and off. It is as if the fetal brain uses the blueprint encoded in its DNA to construct a framework, like the shell of a building, for its own future growth. Eventually, however, outside stimuli become critical as fetal brain development advances. These stimuli profoundly influence how the sensory organs develop and what they will be capable of responding to in later life. At this stage, the fetus’s external environment drives the neurodevelopment processes already set in motion by preprogrammed genetic switches. In other words, environmental influences modify what genetics has laid down.

Like any intensive care unit, an NICU tends to be noisy. Air-handling units, monitoring equipment, and communications systems can raise ambient noise levels, which, in turn, provoke staff members and visitors to speak more loudly to be heard. Researchers found that constant high levels of background noise can interfere with normal auditory development in premature infants. In a noisy environment, the ear’s bandwidth for the reception of sound increases or widens, sometimes leading to a life-long inability to discriminate between different sound frequencies. These bandwidth abnormalities can lead to learning and language difficulties years later.

The visual system of an infant in a traditional NICU can also be affected. Healthy development of a fetus’s visual system requires no visual stimulation (as in the womb). The eyes, retina, neural tracks, and visual cortex all develop without exposure to light. At about 32 weeks into the fetus’s life, the brain spontaneously activates neural pathways connecting the eye to associated cortical regions, apparently during periods of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This automatic firing, which occurs in the absence of outside stimuli, seems to prepare the cortex for the infant’s first visual encounters with the environment. A child who is born prematurely and immediately exposed to bright uncontrolled light can lose some of the optic system’s potential acuity and be more prone to developing myopia later in life.

Graven’s work and other advances in developmental neurobiology have provided architects and engineers with a foundation for evidence-based design of neonatal care units.

Group Homes for People with Alzheimer’s Disease

Just as discoveries from neuroscience can inspire ideas for architectural applications, a better understanding of the specific needs that architectural spaces must meet can inspire neuroscientists to investigate new areas. An example is the design of residences for people with Alzheimer’s disease, who face progressive and inexorable (though highly variable) cognitive decline. With the understanding of how the brain changes in Alzheimer’s and how perception and behavior are affected, it should be possible to design better spaces for these patients. What are the architectural design issues that can generate testable neuroscience hypotheses?

John Zeisel, Ph.D., whose training includes both sociology and architecture, researched nursing home special care units, correlating particular environmental design features with changes in symptoms such as psychological problems, agitated or aggressive behavior, social withdrawal, depression, misidentification, and hallucinations. Reporting his research in the Gerontologist in 2003, Zeisel wrote that it “demonstrates the great opportunity systematic attention to environmental factors opens for improving Alzheimer’s symptoms.” Indeed, he asserts that in treatment of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, environmental modifications are often more effective than pharmacologic and behavioral therapies.

Although the question of how changing the environment improves Alzheimer’s symptoms remains largely unexplored, the research so far offers clues. “Environments conventionally designed for the cognitively able appear to put stress on the cognitive abilities of those with Alzheimer’s,” Zeisel notes, suggesting that environmental modifications can alleviate stress, which could reduce anxiety and aggressiveness in the patient. Other design features could afford people with Alzheimer’s greater control over their lives, reducing social withdrawal and feelings of helplessness.

We know that people with Alzheimer’s disease lose the ability to form and use cognitive maps of their environment, because of damage in the hippocampus. They may not be able to discriminate objects in the foreground from the background or to focus on details like doors of certain colors, so a conventional corridor might frustrate them. To address these issues, designers could limit egress from a space by using strategically placed walls, fences, or doors, which should be safely locked but as unobtrusive as possible, perhaps by camouflaging them with paint or in other ways. Exits within corridors should be on side walls, not at the end.

Informed architectural design can also alleviate the common problem of wandering among people with Alzheimer’s by providing spaces that facilitate purposeful walking, where patients can easily recognize destinations and remain safe and engaged. Objects that provide orientation at strategic points along pathways and walls can focus attention on particular areas and provide a sense of place identity.

By combining the viewpoints of architecture and neuroscience to explore design questions in new ways, we can begin to develop models and hypotheses that can be tested and validated by science. An example of this approach comes from Zeisel’s experiences using therapeutic gardens in group homes for people with Alzheimer’s. The gardens provide a safe, accessible, and interesting space, and, when residents are appropriately supervised, they can care for plants and maintain awareness of the time of day and the changing seasons. Although physicians and caregivers in Alzheimer’s care units anecdotally attest to the positive results from such gardens, it would be useful to determine how gardens influence specific behaviors and what the underlying brain mechanisms might be.

Elementary School Classrooms

Architects have designed elementary schools for more than a century, during which ideas about how to light the classroom have changed frequently. Early in the 20th century, when artificial lighting was first introduced, classrooms tended to have high ceilings and tall windows to provide adequate ventilation, especially in warm climates. After World War II, when both mechanical equipment for providing fresh air and fluorescent lighting fixtures came into wider use, ceiling heights were lowered and window size was reduced. During the energy crisis of the 1970s, many school districts required the elimination of windows altogether to reduce the load on air conditioning equipment and to save energy. Today, the advent of large urban schools on small parcels of land often dictates that classrooms be located in the core of a building, with no access to daylight or natural air circulation. As a result, even if an architect has the best intentions about providing natural light and fresh air in a classroom, school-board design guidelines and mechanical engineering considerations are likely to trump them.

Meanwhile, social and behavioral scientists have studied the effect of lighting on children in classrooms and almost universally report that learning improves when artificial light is reduced and daylight increased. The benefits include better grades and fewer absences (presumably correlated with enhanced learning) and improvements in student behavior as reported by teachers. But notably missing is definitive research that investigates how lighting levels correlate with cognitive functioning in children of various ages.

Research on how the brain develops over the first two decades of life could hold clues. Such research shows that the different brain regions and systems develop on different schedules. For instance, postnatal development in the hippocampus continues until about 4 to 5 years of age, but development of the visual cortex continues until ages 7 to 11. The prefrontal cortex, where higher cognitive functions such as planning and reasoning occur, is not fully mature until young adulthood. Age-appropriate environments that take into account these different developmental stages could be beneficial, but first we need more information and ways to test the effect of specific environmental features on learning.

Today, no evidence exists to guide architects in designing classrooms with different levels of lighting that might enhance learning in various age groups. The assumption is that classrooms are interchangeable, at least from first grade through sixth grade. It would be useful for scientists to ascertain the effect of lighting, if any, on cognitive activities of children at different ages. On the basis of research with newborns, we also know that children’s brains respond differently to ambient noise at various stages of development. Studies testing the effects of lighting on learning, therefore, must take into consideration how the senses other than vision develop also, including hearing and possibly proprioception.

Sacred Architecture

In his two-volume series The Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture, Lindsay Jones, Ph.D., proposes a method of studying sacred spaces not as architectural objects (that is, as buildings), but as settings for ritual occasions, so that we can understand how these spaces are intended to be experienced. What are some of the applicable questions? Should we separate the concept of worshiping from the concept of “having an experience” in a sacred place? Many visitors to European cathedrals would agree that they have experienced a sacred place, whether or not they participated in a worship service. The cathedral could be sacred because a congregation has set it aside as their place of worship, but there could also be certain attributes of the architectural setting that imbue the space with an air of sacredness.

Architectural settings that are considered sacred can intensify the experience of those who hold religious beliefs. But some sacred experiences seem to be common to all humans, even people who do not have religious beliefs. Most people who have visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, would agree that they had a special experience, one that seemed sacred in some way. Others would say the same about the Vietnam Memorial, or a clearing deep in the forest, or any one of a hundred other natural or created spaces. Could brain research illuminate how and why visitors have these seemingly universal impressions about certain spaces?

Because neuroscientists have discovered so much about how the brain processes awareness, thoughts, and feelings, it seems natural for them to examine what might help explain the human response to sacred spaces. This investigation also offers another approach to the question of consciousness, currently of great interest to many neuroscientists. The scientific study of consciousness has generated research from psychology, medicine, biology, philosophy, artificial intelligence, anthropology, sociology, religion, education, and even quantum physics, but neuroscience now offers its own unique perspective. Might exploring the religious experience of individuals and communities within specific architectural or natural settings be a fruitful way to learn more about some of the more subtle manifestations of human consciousness?

In April 2004, about 30 architects, brain scientists, religious leaders, and others gathered in Columbus, Indiana, home to a stunning collection of churches and other architectural gems, to develop an agenda for research using neuroscience to examine the effect of architectural settings that are, or are intended to be, sacred spaces. A central question for discussion, as with previous conferences on architecture and the brain, was how to develop guidance based on hard scientific evidence that can be applied to architectural design.

The Columbus workshop inspired new approaches to understanding the emotive power of sacred architecture and identified many areas of convergence among theological reflection, architectural design, and neuroscience investigation that can now be developed into a road map for research. For example, the perception of vertical spaces requires the eyes to be raised. Does this vertical movement translate, through the visual system, into an emotional experience? Moving from a dark entryway with a low ceiling (the part of a cathedral known as the narthex) into a large expanse with light and a high ceiling produces a sense of awe. Using virtual reality images, can this experience be measured with fMRI?

Moving Beyond Intuition

We could be seeing here only a small beginning of the benefits that could result from active collaboration between researchers who study the brain and architects who design buildings and spaces. The possibilities seem endless, limited only by our imagination. As architect Norman Koonce asked in the AIA Journal in 2003: “What would it mean for architects to move beyond an intuitive and anecdotal rationale in their design? How much better could we serve our clients and the public if we understood how their brains enable perception of their physical environment and generate physiological responses to it?”

Developing and establishing this richer knowledge base will take a decade, perhaps more. It will take changes in architectural education that are not simple to implement. And, it will likely take developments in neuroscience methodology not now contemplated.

As intellectual links are forged and sufficient research is accomplished, changes in architectural practice are likely to be dramatic. One is reminded of the “tipping point” that was reached in medicine at the beginning of the 20th century, when a series of distinct events—the articulation of the germ theory of disease, the development of the microscope, the formation of a pharmaceutical industry, and the emergence of a clinical basis for medical education, among others—converged to propel the field forward. Although architects will benefit from the new collaboration with brain scientists, the ultimate beneficiaries will be every school child, every patient in a hospital, every office worker—indeed, all people, because all our lives are affected by our physical environment.


  1. Graven, S. The Physical and Developmental Environment of the NICU and Infant Outcome. Department of Community & Family Health, College of Public Health, University of South Florida (unpublished).