International rock stars of science are coming up with ways to measure our responses to all things aesthetic, including architecture and design. Armed with technology such as brain scans, blood analysis and O2 and pulse rate read outs, scientists from around the world including Johns Hopkins, Yale and the Salk Institute are taking a very close look at how our environments affect our emotions, ability to focus and learn, stress levels and feelings of general well-being. According to interior designer Stephanie Parisi, who focuses on well-being as well as aesthetics in her work says “now, more than ever, designers need to provide meaningful experiences for people as they interact in and with environmental spaces. The relationship between design and well-being is fast becoming a focus for many design professionals.”
Designers have always known that the environment affects people. However, it is only recently that we have been able to quantify these effects with scientific data. This data is providing us with a deeper understanding of how design can be used to create positive experiences and improve well-being. As we learn more about the impact of design on human health, well-being and emotional response we will be able to create even better spaces that support and enhance our lives.
As a renowned professor and Chair at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Thomas Albright is uniquely qualified to speak on the subject of architecture and its impact on humans. Albright has spent his career studying information capacities of the brain, and he believes that a better understanding of the relationship between human response to build environments will lead to novel design principles. Through his work with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, Albright has helped to advance knowledge in this area and promote dialogue between different disciplines. The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture sponsors conferences, lectures and workshops to enhance cross-discipline knowledge sharing in the field. By bringing together leading experts from science and architecture, the Academy is working to advance understanding of how humans interact with their surroundings and built environments that better meet our needs.
“Good architects have lots of intuition, and that’s why good architecture works” says Albright. “Our hope is that we can identify principles backing up these intuitions that are more deeply rooted in knowledge about how the brain works.”
Johns Hopkins is also paying serious attention to well-being factors associated with the arts through their International Arts + Mind Lab which studies how the brain responds to the arts and aesthetic experience. This includes our reactions to all of the arts, music, poetry, dance etc. and includes natural and built environments. Their goal is also accelerate the role that arts and mind can play in serving health challenges such as Alzheimer’s, PTSD, autism, etc. and also apply their findings to enhance human potential in the general population.
Susan Magsamen, founder of the International Arts + Mind Lab, examines the impact aesthetics of art and architecture has on our sense of well-being.
As a society, we tend to think of aesthetics as being primarily about style or current fashion. Susan is finding that certain aesthetic choices can have positive effects on our health and well-being. The Lab’s installation “A Space for Being” was recently exhibited at the Milan Furniture Show, Salone del Mobiles. The multi-room installation showcased design using neuroaesthetics principles—including light, sound, scent, texture—and explored how our biology changes in different environments. According to Susan “Art and design have been used as healing tools since the beginning of humankind. Research is really just catching up to the why.”
Research is indeed catching up with hundreds of studies having been conducted and available for review. There are, of course, individual differences being found in response to environments based on culture, genetics and personal history. As one scientist explained “There is no such thing as a universal brain.”
However, the research is revealing certain universals as we know with certainty that stress levels, memory, healing rates and emotional states can be altered by the physical environment. Let’s take a look at some specific ingredients which appear to be universal in their power to affect human emotion and biology.
We often hear the phrase “form follows function” in regards to design. Susan Magsamen has coined the phrase “form follows feeling” to describe how the right aesthetic choices can lead to positive experiences. Through the neurosciences we are developing a tool box of ingredients – shapes, light, color, scale, tactility, scent – which can inform and guide aesthetic decisions. The research is revealing how these ingredients can be used with purpose to bridge science and intuition bringing people, design and spaces we inhabit into the formula of supporting balanced lifestyles.