25th Jan 2016

The hard problem facing the collaboration between neuroscience and architecture is a tangible and seamless integration. There already is an understanding that the brain and nervous system is highly influenced by our physical world, there is also been an understanding that we need to create better buildings and cities which increase our quality of life, there is also an understanding that the built environment affects cognitive outputs like decision making, emotions, and problem solving. However, despite all of these developments, we are still missing a full integration that can satisfy critics who yearn for causation and quantifiable data. In other words we need to see exactly how a  piece of neuroscience research leads to “x” effect and a presentation of data which supports it. This of course not an incorrect expectation, we just have a bit more work to do before we get there.

The catalyst of the problem lies in the differences of perspectives, methods, and processes each industry has to adopt in order to implement their respective work. For instance, neuroscience is still a young science and at the moment it does not adopt the perspective causality. That is to say neuroscience and its scientific community does not at this point believe that one specific “part” of the brain leads to a specific function. For example, happiness is not located in a certain part of the brain, therefore it cannot be said that tapping into x, y, z chemicals, pathways, or areas would increase happiness.

Neuroscience also has to be precise and at times incredibly micro. It delves straight down to the most inner depths of the brain, down to a protein or an ion channel. The field of neuroscience is like a submarine exploring the very depths of the ocean right to where only extremophiles survive. Back at the surface, architecture gives us a  macro perspective; it builds up, it has to cater to the many, and it has to think in terms of “the big picture”.

These difference are still a couple years from being satisfactorily settled however, there are small steps that can already be taken towards integration given that there are important commonalities between the fields;  they both have the human at the core of their work, are data driven, and both are driven by precision.  In the last five years there has been an increase of laboratories and architecture firms that are commencing the journey. For example, leading neuroscientist Dr. Hugo Spiers, in his lab at UCL Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience, explores how our brain constructs representations of the world and uses them to navigate, imagine the future, and remember the past. He uses brain imaging, neuropsychological testing, virtual reality, eye-tracking and single cell recording as methods to understand brain function and spatial cognition.

Understanding how the brain relates to the built environment is the first step into extracting knowledge which can be implemented in the field of architecture. With neuroscience we have the opportunity to create buildings that work with us and our desired cognitive outputs. We can form a more human centric and intelligent relationship with our built environment.

To learn more about the work Dr. Spiers is doing in his lab and how we can relate it to built environment, attend our conference on the 1 March 2016 at Arup’s offices in Fitzrovia.