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Centre for Digital Built Britain

Guest Blog - Araceli Camargo - Relating Neuroscience to the Built Environment

Araceli Camargo is the Director of The Centric Lab that works in partnership with researchers at University College London to relate neuroscience to the built environment. In this blog for CDBB Arceli considers the science of buildings.

Science is a tool that has helped commercial industries become more effective and productive. Its influence is everywhere – engineering, manufacturing, technology and athletics.

From artificial intelligence and machine learning to materiality, science is breaking barriers to innovation. Even art, which is often seen as divorced from science, is experiencing a scientific renaissance. However, one industry that is lacking in the benefits of scientific rigour is the built environment – specifically the design of buildings and cities.

For the last 15 years neuroscientists have been studying how the physical world shapes our cognition and wellbeing. The information and research is outstanding; from understanding how artificial light impacts circadian rhythms, to how the brain navigates streets, to correlating urban stressors like pollution and noise to mental illness.

It is widely acknowledged that buildings and cities can have a fundamental affect on people. Take the identification of Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) in the 1980s as one example. SBS is a series of symptoms caused by poorly constructed buildings presenting a symptomatology including nausea, fatigue, headaches, lack of concentration, stress and even low staff morale. This symptomatology goes beyond someone not liking a building; it shows that buildings can have a profound effect on our physical and mental health.

Despite years of scholarship on the relationship between the built environment and our wellbeing, mental health is often treated as an after thought to city planning and design. So, why has the built environment not experienced vast improvements? I believe it is due to the lack of science in this sector – there are no human-based metrics to help guide the design and construction of buildings. This is where cognitive neuroscience can be introduced; it can help ask better questions about the relationship between the human and the physical world. It can also create a methodology of approaching building to enhance wellbeing, such as creating schools that are sensorially orchestrated for learning and teaching.

The only tools we currently have are the intuition of architects and the efficiency models of engineers, which are both devoid of human data and knowledge. Well-respected architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa has been referencing neuroscience in his work for many years. He argues: "the current promise of neuroscience is to valorise the qualities in our environments, which have so far been neglected or left to the individual designer’s sensitivity and creative intuition."

Some architects and engineers possess, through practice, study, and observation, a distinguishable instinct about how to create a good building. However, buildings are not simply about housing people in a well-designed and efficient structure. As Pallasmaa says, buildings "house our minds, memories, desires and dreams". So, it makes sense that architects and others in the built environment turn to science to help them understand how people interact, communicate, feel, learn, and heal.

For example, why do certain buildings inspire some people whilst intimidating others? Why can we concentrate in one space but not in another? What is the relationship between artificial light exposure and long-term stress? Are plants inside buildings just an aesthetic, or do they have calming elements? What amount of light is better for sustained attention required to get through a long task?

If we look at buildings as places where people experience life, have conversations, solve complex problems, heal, learn, or discover new innovations, we can start a conversation about adequacy. In other words, is a space adequate for working, collaborating, resting or innovating? This approach would not only give us buildings that are truly supportive of human life but offer an economic reason to push science into the built environment. Imagine being able to tell an asset owner that their building is not supportive of productivity; how might that affect their bottom line?

Using neuroscience in the built environment does come with a caveat. The science is still at an infancy and we need better tools to study people in real-time to provide probability models of affect. We need to chart how physical elements affect people through the course of a day, weeks and years in real-life environments. And neuroscience should never be used in a reductive manner – there is little to be gained from observing that the amygdala area of the brain lights up when presented with a red wall versus a yellow one, and deciding that yellow walls are better for people.

Neuroscience already has vast historical data we can mine to provide us with the opportunity to make design and construction decisions using human data rather than just intuition.

Contact/Further Information:

Araceli Camargo
The Centric Lab
Araceli Camargo interviewed about neuroscience and the built environment on YouTube