Urban Chronicles met with Andrea De Paiva, researcher in the field of neuro architecture. She introduced us to the topic of neuro architecture; what is neuro architecture ? How can we use it to enhance our well-being in cities ? Read more about it in this interview.

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Can you explain what neuroarchitecture is ?

Neuroarchitecture is an interdisciplinary field, it connects neuroscience with architecture. When we say neuroscience we do not only talk about the brain; neuroarchitecture also includes studies about environmental psychology and cognitive science. Similarly, the architecture bit of neuroarchitecture is also about interior design and urbanism.

The main purpose of neuroscience is to have a better understanding of how the physical environment affect our brain. It tries to understand the subconscious effects on our brain. This is particularly important as we only process about 1% of the information that gets to us, the rest is processed by the subconscious. Thus, we do not always realise the extent to which the built environment can affect us.

We do not always realise the extent to which the built environment can affect us

How do you measure the effects that the built environment has on our brain ?

Today we have very good technology that enables us to measure the body’s responses and the brain activity.  By showing a picture, taking a math test, or performing any activity, we can measure hormone levels, heart breathe, and other factors. Moreover, we can see which area of your brain is activated and associate it to the activity of this area of the brain.

We also use the existing knowledge on biology, neuroscience, and behaviour. The combination of tests and existing knowledge enables us to understand how the built environment affects us.

Can you give us some examples of how architecture can shape our brains ? Are there any differences between the long-term and short-term effects ?

The whole set of sensorial qualities of the space, shapes, views, etc, stimulate our brain. They can affect us on the short term and long term. On the short term we can adapt. In other words, if we go to a room that has more light, we quickly adapt. While changes will impact our performance, it will not be definitive.

Frequent exposure, and repeated stimuli, however, will have long-term effects. It can have effects on the brain structure. For example, it can change the connections between neurons. We can strengthen or loose connections depending on how we are stimulated. Workspaces and home spaces are some an example of long-term places that can have an effect on our brain.

Can you give us some examples of how different environments have influenced the populations in different times and places ?

When we talk about neuroarchitecture, we talk about the whole physical environment. In other words, all the information the physical environment can carry. Esquimals for example live surrounded by white environments. This has shaped their brains in a way that they are able to perceive different types of whites better than we do.

Babies, are another example. They are particularly vulnerable to their environment. Studies have shown that as they develop, they need to get the right stimuli from their environment, but it cannot be too much. For example, good light levels are essential. Thus, hospitals have designed spaces that focus around the well-being of babies.

At the urban level, different studies have shown that citizens can be very affected by urban environments. Different studies have shown that cities enhance the chances of developing a mental disorder. High density, lack of nature, chaos, are some of the factors that could enhance it.

Citizens can be very affected by urban environments

How can you improve cities to prevent the negative effects on the brain ?

We are still learning, and do not have all the answers. Nevertheless, we can point to the right directions:

Density: Cities should be careful with high density. Although in built cities this is something hard to change, it should be taken into account in emerging areas.

Safety: When you feel unsafe, stress levels will rise. While this is not an issue once in a while, it can become a big issue in the long-term. Our brain neurons can die, and the connections amongst them, which are essential for brain efficiency, can become weaker or die. Safety is not only about criminality but also about the features in a city. For example, favoring cars over pedestrians can create feelings of unsafety for pedestrians, and affect their brains.

Nature: Presence of nature is essential for citizens. A lot of studies have shown that contact with nature will enhance the well-being of people. For example, a study showed that if you have natural sites in in a hospital, your chances of feeling less pain and recover faster increase.The impact is subconscious. Your blood pressure, heart pressure, stress levels can calm you. Another study took animals from a natural site to a minimalistic place and observed their behaviour. When the animals were moved to the minimalistic place, animals had aggressive and antisocial behaviours. When they were taken back to the natural site, their behaviour improved. We can infer that many of our problems such as aggressivity, panic syndrome, burnout, are influenced by the lack of nature.

Walkability: Physical exercise is essential to brain health. When we walk we stimulate a process called neurogenesis; we produce new neurons. Walkability is essential in order to have a brain that ages healthily. Thus, cities should find strategies to stimulate physical activity for the population.

Many problems such as aggressivity, panic syndrome, burnout, are influenced by the lack of nature.

What are some essential characteristics that every office should have to improve the performance of their workers ?

For the office design we must consider the company’s culture and who are the people working in the company. There is no formula for neuro architecture, you need to understand who the people are. Different people will have different needs. The age of the employees, whether they have mental disorders, where they come from, etc, needs to be understood. Moreover, it is important to know which will be their activities; a great space for analytical thinking will not be the same as for a great space to be creative. Once you have understood these, you can design spaces adapted to the people in the building.

Nevertheless there are some basic characteristics that an office should have. First of all it is essential to offer different and balanced options for workers. You should create different types of spaces to give a range of options to workers. For instance, you need to offer privacy to workers but also connections to collaborate.

Moreover, biophilic design, which is about incorporating nature in our design, can have several benefits for workers. Biophilic design includes the direct experience of nature, which is about bringing in more plants, water, natural views, etc. But also the indirect experience of nature by using artificial plants, a color palette that brings inspiration of nature, or even building materials such as wood.

Offices should also take into account the body and posture of its workers. There are many studies that show that the body plays a constitutive role in cognitive processing. The way we move through the space, the posture when we sit in a chair or sofa, will create different stimuli processed by our brains. Thus, having good furniture can have a big impact on the performance of workers.

With lockdown, how do you think it will affect the workers’ well-being ?

Our homes were not designed to be a long-term occupation space. Being continuously in the same space, is problematic. Novelty is very important to keep the brain stimulated; changes in the environment that happen when taking the subway, going home, etc, are essential to stay stimulated. Staying at home all the time can become very problematic for our brains.

Moreover, staying at home means remaining in built environment. This means that contact with nature is completely lost. Combined with the lack of physical activity, this can become very problematic for our well-being.

The lack of connection with other people is also an issue. Nevertheless, there are some benefits associated with staying at home. For example,at home you feel more in control, and this is something positive.

In order to deal with the situation, in the long-term companies should balance office work and home work.

Today, how is neuroarchitecture knowledge taken in consideration by architects ?

It is a growing field nowadays,since the opening of the ANFA academy in 2003, the discussions have been growing. There are some challenges to the development of neuroarchitecture. Because most of the research is done by scientists, and their language is very specific, it is complicated for designers and architects to apply it.

In the context of the pandemic, the discussions have been growing even more; we are feeling how the environment can impact us.

Interview by Green Soluce