Neuroscience Says Buildings Can Reshape Our Brains

A new piece in Pacific Standard explores how neurobiology is driving emergent thinking about how certain types of spaces affect our behaviors and, ultimately, our brains.

Science has always led architecture, a profession that soaks up knowledge from other fields like a sponge. In the late 1800s, new insights in physics led to a revolution in how steel buildings were built; cutting-edge aerospace engineering in the 1960s migrated into architecture within a matter of years. According to a fascinating piece in Pacific Standard, architecture is now on the brink of another revolution–this one stemming from neuroscience.


Emily Badger introduces us to a group of scientists who believe that our brains are deeply affected by the spaces around us. Led by the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, an organization of neuroscientists and architects, a growing body of evidence proves that certain types of spaces actually promote the growth of new neurons. Such an insight could have huge implications–Badger points to Jonas Salk’s own anecdotal story about retreating to a 13th-century monastery where he felt the most mental clarity (foreshadowing his work with Louis Kahn). “Architects could even design environments expressly to foster research breakthroughs,” she suggests.

Let’s backtrack for a second, and parse some of the evidence brought to light in the story. First we meet Fred Gage, the neurobiologist behind a study that proves our brains don’t actually stop growing in our 20s, as previously thought. In fact, Gage’s research suggests that our stuffy old brains are capable of something called neurogenesis, or, the growth of new neurons in adults, which seems spurred at least in part by our environments. At the 2003 AIA conference, Gage presented his findings, saying, “changes in the environment change the brain, and therefore they change our behavior.”

Another major insight comes thanks to advancements in brain-imaging techniques, which are helping scientists better empirically gauge how our brains react to specific types of spaces, light, and noise. Badger talks to Eduardo Macagno, a UC San Diego biologist who runs a virtual reality lab testing new types of hospital design (here’s a great video about it). Premature babies, brain damaged patients, or those suffering from dementia will all spend significant amounts of time in hospitals, which means that Gage’s and Macagno’s insights could help create spaces conducive to their sensitive brains. Badger explains:

If architects understood both fields, they might be able, in designing hospitals, schools, and homes for people with all manner of disabilities, to create places that would support the development of premature babies, the treatment of children with autism, the fostering of learning abilities of students. Imagine hospitals with such intuitive way-finding that no one gets lost (or stressed as a result); imagine an Alzheimer’s facility that could help its residents remember who they are.

Of course, architects have been interested in exploiting how our brains interpret space for ages. Just think back to Bruno Taut, who argued in the 1910s that buildings with certain shades of glass could affect their occupants’ emotions. That was a totally unscientific observation, of course, but surely Taut would have been tickled to know such ideas are now being tested in earnest.

Head over to Pacific Standard to check out the full article.


About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.