Think of a time when you felt vulnerable. Perhaps you were in a hospital hallway or an exam room, about to be tested. Now focus on the building you were in. What if, without you knowing it, the design of this space affected you?
We study environmental psychology, a burgeoning field of research that studies the relationship between humans and the outside world. This includes natural and man-made environments, such as buildings.
Researchers could simply ask people how they feel when they are inside a building – how pleasant or unpleasant they feel, how intense that feeling is, and how safe they feel. control.
But we use neuroscience to see how the brain is stimulated inside a building. The idea is that people will one day use this information to design better buildings – classrooms that help us focus or hospital waiting rooms that reduce our anxiety.
Why study buildings this way?
We spend at least 80% of our life inside buildings. It is therefore essential that we understand if the buildings we occupy affect our brains and our bodies.
Buildings – hospitals, schools, offices, homes – are often complex. They can have different contents (equipment, equipment and objects), comfort levels (such as light, sound and air quality). Other people occupy the space.
There is also a range of design features that we can notice inside a building. These include color (wall paint, chair color), texture (carpet tiles, wooden gym floor), geometry (curved or straight, angular walls), and scale ( height and width proportions of a room).
What have we done?
We wanted to see what effect changing some of these characteristics had on the brain and the body.
So we asked participants to sit in the middle of a virtual reality (VR) room for 20 minutes.
We designed the room with a door (to show height) and a chair (to show depth), keeping it clear of other clues that might sway people. We modeled the room using the dimensions defined by the local building code.
Other studies have compared complex environments, which are more realistic in everyday life. But we chose to use a simple virtual reality room in order to understand the impact of changing one characteristic at a time.
To measure brain activity, we used a technique called electroencephalography. This is where we placed electrodes on the scalp to measure electrical activity as brain cells (neurons) send messages to each other.
We also monitored the body by measuring heart rate, respiration, and sweat response. This could reveal if someone could detect a change in the environment, without being aware of the change.
Finally, we asked participants to report their emotions to understand if it matched their brain and body responses.
What did we find?
We have published a series of studies looking at the impact of room size and color.
Magnifying the room resulted in brain activity generally related to attention and cognitive performance. This is the kind of brain activity we would see if you were doing a crossword puzzle, your homework, or concentrating on a tricky report you were writing for work.
A blue piece caused brain activity associated with emotional processing. This is the pattern we would typically see if you were watching something you felt positive about, like a smiling face or a scenic sunset.
Changing the size and color of a room also changed communication through the cerebral network. This is when different parts of the brain “talk” to each other. It could be communication between the parts of the brain involved in vision and attention, the kind of communication needed when viewing a complex scene, like scanning a crowded room to spot a friend.
The chambers also altered participants’ autonomic response (their breathing, cardiac activity, and sweating patterns).
Despite these brain and body responses, we found no changes in what the participants told us about their emotions in each of these different conditions.
This suggests the need to move from simply asking people about their emotions to capturing effects that they may not consciously perceive or understand.
What does this mean for building design?
This work teaches us that the characteristics of buildings have an impact on our brain and our body.
Our next steps are to test whether a larger room affects the brain processes we use in daily life. These include working memory (which we would use to remember our shopping list) and emotion recognition (how we recognize the meaning of different facial expressions).
This will allow us to understand if we can design spaces to optimize our cognitive performance.
We also want to understand the implications on a broader population, including people who may have poor mental health or who have been diagnosed with an underlying condition where the environment may have a greater impact on their response.
It will help us understand if we can change our built environment for better health and performance.
Why is this important?
Architects have long called for buildings affect our emotion. But there has been a lack of brain-based evidence to back this up.
We hope our work can help shape the planning and design of buildings, to support the brain processes and emotions we might need in different circumstances.
Isabelle Bowerresearcher and doctoral student, Deakin University; Pierre Enticottprofessor of psychology (cognitive neuroscience), Deakin Universityand Richard TuckerAssociate Lecturer, Associate School Director (Research), co-head of the HOME research network, Deakin University