The AIA Journal of Architecture | Spring 2003

John P. Eberhard, FAIA
Consultant, The American Institute of Architects

Remember the time you first visited the Lincoln Memorial in Washington? You passed from a busy world to the quiet of Henry Bacon's architectural setting. Even as your eyes adapted to the dim light, you became conscious of an inner feeling of awe as you stood before the statue of the "Great Emancipator" by Daniel French. Even without looking at his memorable words, inscribed on the walls, you heard them boom in your mind: ". . . that a government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." You turned to look down the length of mall, past the Washington Monument to the Capitol, and were filled with the majesty of it all.

Whether you were 7, 17, or 70 at the time, your sensory system was exercised to its maximum to produce this sublime experience. Your eyes were providing images to the visual cortex in your brain that linked with memories stored in the subconscious depths. As they swept around the inner spaces of the memorial recording impressions at the rate of 700 times per second, you simultaneously were able to recall images of the majestic exterior and to "hear" Lincoln's stirring words in the recesses of your auditory cortex.

In 1992, Sylvester Damianos, FAIA, and Norman Koonce, FAIA, were inspired by Dr. Jonas Salk to explore this power of architecture to elevate and enrich the human experience. As leaders of The American Architectural Foundation, they launched, and the AIA now continues, an exploration of this very real but uncharted realm.

They looked to the research community studying the brain and mind, known by the collective term "neuroscience." As the appointed leader exploring the links between neuroscience and architecture, I found this community generating a huge body of knowledge growing at a very fast pace and predicted to be one of the most important bodies of work in this century. Such studies promise to so substantially change the understanding of our profession that how we advise and serve our clients in the future will be changed greatly. The resulting "predictive knowledge" will allow architects to assess the consequences of design decisions early and accurately and present them to clients with hard, verifiable data to back proposals and plans.

Alison Whitelaw, president of the San Diego Architectural Foundation, says, "If we truly can design environments for people that are more relevant to their basic needs -- whether it's a school environment that maximizes the learning potential of students or the healing environment that restores patients to good health -- our buildings will endure and they will better serve our users in the community well into the future."

The basics of perception
How the body relates to a space can be studied independently of what is going on in the mind (e.g., ergonomics), but how the mind engages space has to include the body and the brain of the individual. At the level of core, or basic, consciousness, we are "unconsciously" registering the environmental variables' effects on our nervous system -- heat, light, noise, smells, tactile sensations, and our perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself. All of these sensations are silently registering in our viscera as well as our somatosensory cortex via signals of which we are not aware. At the level of extended consciousness, we are simultaneously experiencing space as assembled by our sensory system and combining this experience with memories of places similar to the one we are in. Our minds are sorting through all of this to let us know if we are dealing with "reality." Part of the brain's internal environment is generated by a ceaseless pressure to seek out new stimuli. This greed for information is one of the fundamental properties of the brain, and it is reflected in our most basic reactions.

A workshop conducted in Woods Hole, Mass., in August 2002 by the AIA found architects and academics involved in the design of health-care facilities having productive discussions with neuroscientists from government and private laboratories.

Dr. Einar Gall, the director of research for the Neuroscience Institute, observes, "A fundamental part of the biology of the brain's development is that we learn about our world by trying all sorts of moves, the way that babies do. Your brain is constantly modified by these experiences. These modifications become our memories."

The promise of applications

Architecture matters most when the ideas incorporated in building design are serious reflections of concepts like those underlying perception that have been examined by knowledgeable professionals. And knowledgeable professionals will increasingly be required to explore the rich research base of neuroscience to help them in understanding scientifically what have historically been intuitive observations. Marrying this knowledge could lead to numerous real-world applications: · The nervous system and brain form the communications network for undertaking work. By understanding the biological basis for workplace stress, we understand the potential for induced illness within the cognitive environment as well as how to induce wellness. · By understanding how lighting, acoustics, thermal conditions, and windows affect the cognitive activity of children in a learning environment, we will have evidence for enriching the school environment. · By understanding how human brains lead some people to find their way more easily than others, we may be able to provide more easily used navigation in complex buildings. · Neuropathologic changes associated with neurodegenerative disorders are known to cause Alzheimer's. By understanding how such damage to the brain changes perceptions, we may determine why certain facility designs can calm those afflicted by this disease. · Neuro-theology research explores how ritual behavior elicits brain states that bring on deep spiritual unity. Understanding how the feeling of "sacred" is present in the mind of a visitor in a religious structure will enable researchers to evaluate more elevating designs. Work is already well under way on these fronts. In November 2001, the AIA began a ground breaking project to use neuroscience to study productivity at the Adaptable Workplace Laboratory (see stories, pp. 3 and 9). Sponsored by the Public Building Service of the General Service Administration in Washington, D.C., a team of neuroscientists from the National Institutes of Health will test office workers to determine how their cognitive functions are affected by their architectural setting.

David Kirsh, associate professor at the Department of Cognitive Science at University of California, San Diego, says of the workplace, "To discover the structure of people's behavior, it was assumed sufficient to observe their movement and look at the goals they have and the methods embodied in their actions. We now know this is inadequate. Behavior is far more complex, more densely interactive than this simple approach assumes." Similar discussion has begun regarding health-care facilities. A workshop conducted in Woods Hole, Mass., in August 2002 by the AIA found architects and academics involved in the design of health-care facilities having productive discussions with neuroscientists from government and private laboratories.

Joan L. Saba, AIA, president of the AIA Academy of Architecture for Health and one of the participants, remarks, "It would be fantastic if we could tell our clients not only what was needed for well designed health care facilities, but why we knew this was so." And Alison Whitelaw was instrumental in getting the AIA Chapter in San Diego to organize an Academy on Neuroscience for Architecture, a collaborative effort between the architectural community and neuroscience laboratories located in the San Diego area (see story, below). Research fostered by the Academy will explore techniques to address relevant questions and create linkages between architects and neuroscientists that can provide direction to both disciplines. (For more information, visit

The outlook for the future

When physics was in the process of becoming a science in the 19th century, it would have been too early to ask scientists to give architects tools to properly select light fixtures based on lighting calculations, provide tools for measuring how much energy a building would use, or provide formulas for selecting steel beams. All of these things eventually became possible as physics matured and basic means of measurement were translated into engineering applications. We are now in a similar situation with respect to neuroscience. How to measure the brain/mind response to experiences in architectural settings is just beginning to be explored. But Terry Sejnowski, a senior scientist at the Salk Institute, notes, "Very highly developed cortical systems that give us as human beings the ability to create enormously complicated structures like buildings also provide us with the ability to appreciate them aesthetically... They somehow resonate with our inner sense of beauty and intuitive understanding of complexity."

Neuroscientists need to develop new concepts for understanding how the brain enables humans to have such experiences. Architects will be able eventually to ask questions they cannot now imagine. As we develop these new tools of understanding, we will not only know that people have such experiences, but will also be able to answer that allimportant question: How? Eberhard can be reached via e-mail at