Inside Neuroarchitecture: The Movement Designing with the Mind in Mind

Innovative architects and interior designers are using a greater understanding of the brain to transform how we experience spaces

As far back as Roman times, architects have considered how buildings have an impact on their occupants. Now, they’re turning to neuroarchitecture to apply the insights of neuroscience, and a greater understanding of the brain, to their designs. The result: spaces that not only respond to the way our minds perceive our environment, but that also increase our well-being—from stimulating learning in a school and boosting creativity at work to benefiting patients and staff in healthcare environments.

“The healthcare industry is founded on evidence-based outcomes. With neuroarchitecture, the architecture industry is trying to do the same thing,” says Frederick Marks, an architect who specializes in designing healthcare and science facilities, and a founding board member of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (A.N.F.A.).

Sunset from a top floor of the Salk Institute
Situated on a beachfront site in La Jolla, California, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies utilizes neuroarchitecture to create spaces that can adapt to technological advances and emphasize the well-being of the researchers who work there.

A Collaborative History

Founded in 2002, A.N.F.A. was formed to promote neuroscience research in architecture and advance an understanding of the ways in which humans respond to the built environment. But the history of neuroarchitecture itself can be traced back to the 1950s, and the scientist responsible for developing the polio vaccine, Jonas Salk.

“Salk received funding to start his own institution and went on to establish the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California,” Marks explains. “He felt that if he was going to build something, he wanted to change how laboratory designs at that time separated different specialists. He saw that much more could be accomplished through a collaborative effort.”

Together with architect Louis Kahn, Salk laid the groundwork for neuroarchitecture and set a precedent for the future. Decades later, when the American Institute of Architects recognized the building with an award, he used his acceptance speech to predict that “the field of neuroscience is growing and will probably be the most important focus of our attention in the 20th century.”

Human-Building Interaction

Today, several leading designers take part in A.N.F.A. symposiums on neuroarchitecture. Most recently, top architects such as Patrik Schumacher, principal of Zaha Hadid Architects, attended the group’s “Quantified Buildings, Quantified Self” seminar, which explored how data on people’s activity in a building can guide better design decisions.

A view from the ground up the side of a building at the Salk institute
Salk’s directive for acclaimed architect Louis Kahn was to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso”—but one that was also to be welcoming, simple, and durable, requiring minimal maintenance.

For instance, this activity data could be gathered in a building such as a hospital, specifically designed with technology to track its patients’ heart rates or sleep patterns, “so there’s an interplay between people and the building,” says Marks. “Such data will become knowledge that eventually benefits the building’s occupants.”

Specific ideas presented at the symposium also included the implementation of eye tracking for interior branding or for wayfinding—a topic London-based architect Niall McLaughlin, founder of Niall McLaughlin Architects, is especially interested in, thanks to his research into designing spaces for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

“I wanted to know what was driving their loss of ability to navigate,” McLaughlin says. “It occurred to me that, if we knew what they were losing, we would be much more aware of the extraordinary faculties we already possess. Understanding the cognitive processes that allow us to situate ourselves in time and space gives us a context from which to create versions of the world.”

So, when designing a respite center for people with dementia in Dublin, McLaughlin considered the relationship between remembering and planning in navigating. The resulting building’s architecture creates “calm, coherent spaces that aid orientation and encourage mobility,” he explains.

A social space within the Alzheimers Respite Center by Niall McLaughlin Architects
Niall McLaughlin Architects’ design of the Alzheimer’s Respite Centre in Dublin offers spaces that promote sociable interaction and a sense of security, and alleviates disorientation through a series of pathways that naturally loop back on themselves.

Neuroarchitecture in Interiors

Of course, when it comes to designing a building, neuroscience’s applications extend to its interiors, too—a fact that’s been duly recognized by the American Society of Interior Designers (A.S.I.D.), which recently presented A.N.F.A. with its 2021 Design Innovation award.

“Interior designers are conscious of neuro responses to a space, such as perception, behavior, memory, and learning,” explains Dr. Susan Chung, A.S.I.D.’s vice president of research and knowledge. “Whatever the human experience is in a space, interior designers take that evidence and apply it to their design.”

Chung explains that several of A.S.I.D.’s members are using the term “passageways” to reference our experiences throughout the day and the ways in which they shape our cognitive responses. She points out that the changes wrought by the pandemic are of particular interest.

“As we’ve been isolating at home, experiences are limited—those passageways reduce our memory, because memory is triggered through external cues.” For example, she says, once you’ve repeated an action often enough, you do it automatically and “that memory muscle is exercised less, compared with more diverse experiences that trigger your memory.”

A floating bed which can be moved upwards to reveal a desk beneath
The retractable Cloud Bed, Table Edition by Ori Living, a member of A.S.I.D., creates different passageways within the home by effortlessly moving from working space to sleeping space. Image: Courtesy Ori Living

To combat this, interior designers are using neuroscience to understand memory triggers and how a greater variety of experiences can be created within a limited space. This includes creating interchangeable spaces at home for work, study, and exercise, or designing an office set-up that can easily be moved after work hours to signify a mental shift.

Chung is optimistic about the benefits of such an approach, as well as its potential to boost our well-being. “There was a real silver lining from the pandemic,” she says, “and that’s a heightened awareness of our surroundings and how they can impact our day-to-day.”

Banner image: The courtyard of the Salk Institute