Emotional Awareness and the Physical Environment: contributions from NeuroArchitecture

By Andréa de Paiva

Emotional awareness is the ability to identify the emotions we experience. Emotional intelligence, on its turn, is the ability to identify, access and, in a way, regulate emotions through reflection rather than acting on impulse in the heat of the moment [1]. Discussions about these themes have been gaining more and more attention in science, as it was possible to observe in the Science & Wisdom of Emotions event [2], which took place in May 2021 and was attended by participants such as Paul and Eve Ekman, Daniel Golleman, Alan Wallace and even the Dalai Lama. In this article, we will discuss possible NeuroArchitecture contributions to this field of knowledge that is so important for well-being and happiness: emotional intelligence.

NeuroArchitecture and Emotional Awareness
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

First of all, let's highlight some important information when it comes to emotion. Despite this being a subject that has not been fully unveiled by science, there is already a consensus in relation to several of its characteristics. Therefore, we selected three of them to highlight.

The first is that pioneering studies conducted by Paul Ekman with members of an isolated New Guinea culture (South Fore) revealed that even people who live without the influence of other cultures have facial expressions similar to those in societies influenced by globalization. "The ability of Americans to understand these New Guinea expressions cannot be attributed to prior contact between these groups or to both having learned their expressions through the mass media" [3, p.712]. Therefore, it is possible to say that there are emotions that are universal, innate. That is, emotions that exist independently of cultural influences. Another characteristic of emotions is that they lead to action. The very etymology of the word suggests an external direction from the body: “outward movement”. Emotions play an important role in selecting adaptive responses to the situations we experience [4]. Even in behavioral economics, works such as those by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrate that our day-to-day decisions are less influenced by "objective reasoning" and more influenced by automatic processes controlled by a quick thinking system of which emotions are part [5].

Finally, a third characteristic of emotions is that they can all lead to a positive or negative reaction. Even emotions considered naturally negative, such as anger, can generate constructive results (for example, when observing an unfair situation, anger can lead us to try to change it). On the other hand, positive emotions such as joy can also lead to destructive actions (like when someone feels pleasure watching someone else's suffering). That means that every emotion is important (including for our survival) and what varies between positive and negative is the reaction we present when we feel the emotion and not the emotion itself [6]. For those who want to know more about this, it's worth taking a look at the Atlas of Emotions [6], a project that involved the participation of Paul and Eve Ekman and the Dalai-lama. They created a "map" of emotions, subdividing them into 5 stages: pre-condition, trigger, emotional state, action (constructive or destructive) and post-condition. For this article, we're going to focus on the two initial stages.

Emotional Episode Timeline - Atlas of Emotions. Access at: atlasofemotions.org
Emotional Episode Timeline - Atlas of Emotions. Access at: atlasofemotions.org

According to the atlas, the event that triggers the emotion can be "a person, place, situation, image, thought, memory, smell, sound, taste or idea that we find from the outside world or from our own mind". Our reaction to this event varies individually. That is, it can be a trigger for some and not for others. This will depend on the combination of several factors, such as the learned memories of each individual. This is the first correlation we can make with the physical environment in which we are: it can be a trigger for emotions. But this is nothing new. You don't have to be an architect or designer to identify that a visit to the Coliseum can send a shiver of emotion down your spine. Or that walking alone in a dark street at night can create fear. Or that being in a stuffy room or with a bad smell can generate disgust. But we need to keep in mind that not every trigger is easily recognized consciously. According to Paul Ekman, "the appraisal that triggers an emotion can be very complex, but it often involves very fast mental processes that are operating in a way that consciousness cannot enter" [7, p. 68]. But there is another important correlation between the physical environment and our emotions: in addition to being a trigger for them, the environment also affects our "pre-condition." According to the Atlas of Emotions, the pre-condition is a context or situations that can influence the way we experience emotion. The precondition can be physiological (being hungry or tired) or emotional (having a very nice day or just having had an argument with a friend or getting a promotion at work, for example). This "context" that generates the precondition includes the environment we are in and how it is affecting us. That is, our condition, physiological and emotional, is also continually affected by the physical environment. Factors such as lighting [8], the presence of windows [9], ventilation, sounds, smells, shapes and textures, colors, the presence of nature [10], layout and even the height of the ceiling [11] are examples of features of the physical environment that can alter our condition. Therefore, it is possible to affirm that the environment, in addition to directly affecting emotions, also has the potential to indirectly impact our reaction to emotion by changing our pre-condition. But if identifying the triggers is not an easy task, realizing these changes that the environment generates in our pre-condition is even more challenging. However, identifying the physical environment as an element that affects us can be an important step in developing our emotional intelligence. If we can understand the impact that the environment has on our mind and body, we can transform spaces in our favor. This is true both for architects/designers, who can create environments with a focus on the short- and long-term effects they generate on the organism [12], as well as for the users of the space in question. For example, if I find that working all day with the shade closed is making me feel down and with no energy, I can open it. Or if I notice that the ambient sounds are raising my stress levels or impairing my concentration, I can look for an alternative, be it the adoption of a sound mask, the inclusion of an acoustic barrier or materials that absorb the sound or even change from environment to a quieter place. However, these impacts can be very subtle and are often not immediate, not happening as soon as we enter the environment in question. More critical than this is that we often get used to the conditions that the environment offers us, reducing the feeling of discomfort, but not necessarily reducing the physiological effects on our body. That is, we fail to notice, but the environment does not fail to impact us [13]. This makes it even more difficult to identify that where we are is affecting our precondition and our emotions. In this sense, to try to increase our ability to perceive the impacts of the environment, we suggest three solutions:

  • The first is attention to our internal emotional state (emotional awareness, which we mentioned at the beginning of the article);

  • The second is attention to the environment, after all, we cannot ignore that the space around us has an influence on us. Recognizing this is an important step towards emotional intelligence. Rather than judging ourselves so drastically when we can't control our emotions, we can realize that the physical environment may be making this task more difficult;

  • Finally, the third option is knowledge: we need to understand more deeply how different physical-sensory characteristics of environments can affect us. That's why studies in the field of NeuroArchitecture are so important.

The physical environment is one of the elements that shape our emotions and how we deal with them. But we are the ones who shape our environments (even those who are not architects or designers can control some characteristics of the spaces they occupy, or choose to change across environments). Still, it is important to point out that the environment should not be used as an excuse for how we deal with our emotions, as its effects on the mind and body result from a series of factors that go beyond the space itself, such as genetic factors, cultural memories and previous individual experiences. But, by being aware of the impacts that the physical environment can have on how we deal with our emotions, we can work not only on self-control, but also on the control of space. Transform it when possible instead of just passively accepting an environment that, in some way, may be harming us emotionally or hindering our emotional regulation. As Laurie Santos said at the Science & Wisdom of Emotions event, “happiness doesn't come from circumstances, it comes from behaviors”. By transforming our environment, we can increase well-being and facilitate emotional regulation, enhancing psychological balance and the perception of happiness. Would you like to know more about the subject? Follow us on Facebook or Instagram! =)


[1] Mayer, J. D., & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? In P. Salovey & D. J. Sluyter (Eds.), Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications (p. 3–34). Basic Books.

[2] https://www.scienceandwisdomofemotions.com/summit-home-2021/

[3] Ekman, P., Friesen, W. V., O'Sullivan, M., Chan, A., Diacoyanni-Tarlatzis, I., Heider, K., Krause, R., LeCompte, W. A., Pitcairn, T., & Ricci-Bitti, P. E. (1987). Universals and cultural differences in the judgments of facial expressions of emotion. Journal of personality and social psychology, 53(4), 712–717.

[4] Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes' error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: G.P. Putnam.

[5] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[6] Ekman, P. & Ekman, E. Supported by the Dalai Lama. http://atlasofemotions.org/

[7] Ekman, P. (2008). Emotional awareness: overcoming the obstacles to psychological balance and compassion : a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman. New York: Times Books.

[8] Shishegar, N., & Boubekri, M. Natural Light and Productivity : Analyzing the Impacts of Daylighting on Students ’ and Workers ’ Health and Alertness.

[9] Ulrich R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science (New York, N.Y.), 224(4647), 420–421.

[10] Kellert, S., Heerwagen, J., Mador, M. (2008). "Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life". Nova York: Wiley.

[11] Meyers-Levy, J., Zhu, R. (2004) The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use. Journal of Consumer Research.

[10] Paiva, A., Jedon, R. (2019) Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical formalization. Frontiers of Architectural Research. Volume 8, Issue 4, December 2019, Pages 564-571

[11] Goldhagen, S. W. (2017). Welcome to your world: how the built environment shapes our lives. First edition. New York, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.