Artists’ And Architects’ Brains Work Differently

A new study examines how creatives understand images.

Artists’ And Architects’ Brains Work Differently
[Photo: Rike_/Getty Images]

Does working in a spatially oriented profession like art or architecture shape the way you think?


That was the question that psychology and language researchers at Australian National University, University College London, and Bangor University posed. Their work, recently published in the journal Cognitive Science, provides evidence that architects, sculptors, and artists talk about space in distinct ways–which means they likely think differently from each other as well.

In order to test their hypothesis, the researchers studied 32 architects, sculptors, and artists who had eight or more years of experience in their field and compared them to 32 professionals who didn’t use any spatial reasoning skills in their job.

They found that painters tended to shift constantly between two- dimensional and three-dimensional shapes, while architects thought about space in terms of its boundaries—sculptors had a mix of both of these perspectives. When compared to a control group of people who didn’t work in spatial professions, all three professional groups–artists, architects, and sculptors–were more detailed in their conceptualizations about space. The researchers draw the conclusion that because each group spoke differently about space, they likely think differently about it–and that their profession may have even fundamentally affected the way their brain works.

There is a wide body of research on the links between language and thought; that the structure and properties of a particular language deeply influence the way the speakers of that language think about the world. If this is true, the researchers hypothesize, then profession likely also shapes language and way of thinking.

“A person’s individual background necessarily shapes her thinking; this includes both cultural and professional aspects, at least after a number of years,” they write in the paper. “Accordingly, professional experience, intended as the acquisition and practice of skills over a relatively long period of time, should affect a person’s way of speaking about states and relations in the world.”

The participants were shown three horizontal images–a Google street view image of a streetscape, a painting of the inside of St. Peter’s Cathedral, and a computer-generated image by the graphic artist George Grie that has elements of both indoor and outdoor spaces. The researchers asked each participant to describe the image, where in the image they would want to explore, and what they would change about the environment in each image. They were then asked afterward to describe what “space” means to them.


The researchers analyzed the recordings of each interview using a technique called Cognitive Discourse Analysis that was created by one of the coauthors, Thora Tenbrink from Bangor University. It highlights linguistic phrases that point to particular ways of thinking.

Architects focused on the borders and edges of spaces, the researchers found; architects also tended to focus on inhabiting each space, indicating a more three-dimensional perspective. Artists, on the other hand, were much more focused on the two-dimensional planes and detail of the images.

So does your profession change the way you think, or do you choose your profession based on how you already think? This study doesn’t offer any insights, but it does provide evidence for a link between what you do and who you are.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.