NeuroArchitecture and Spaces with a Focus on Creativity

By Andréa de Paiva

To what extent can the environment where we are influence our way of thinking? Neuroscience has shown us that in addition to influencing our perception and behavior, the environment has the potential to also affect our way of thinking. The set of physical-sensory characteristics of spaces can affect our mental state, stimulating, among other things, more analytical and logical thinking or more creative and imaginative thinking. Have you ever experienced, when you felt "stuck" in an activity - such as writing a report or trying to find a solution to a problem -, to change your environment and try to solve it elsewhere? It is common for this "creative block" to decrease when we change the environment when creating, which helps to observe how the environment can influence us. But which features of the environment can affect our mental state and have such an impact on our creativity? This is the topic we will discuss in this article.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Lab. Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay
Assisi Abbey, Italy. Fonte: wikipedia

Comparing the traditional environment of a laboratory with the environment of the monastery, it is possible to note significant differences: the amplitude and landscape of the surroundings are among the most striking. But, of course, we will hardly have a chance to create a space like this in our companies or schools to stimulate the creativity of employees and students, for example. So what does cognitive science tell us about the different characteristics of environments that can encourage people to think outside the box and gain new insights?

The famous “cathedral effect” can be a good start. This term was coined by Edward T Hall in the 1960s [2]. He realized that there was a difference of sensation when entering a chapel, which is more contained, or a cathedral. While the first stimulates a state of more introspection, the second favors more intense emotions, awe and even goose bumps. Currently, more recent studies reveal that higher ceilings can contribute to more creative mental states. According to Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui Zhu, they allow a greater sense of freedom, which facilitates more abstract thoughts and more holistic and relational perceptions, important characteristics for creativity. The low ceiling height contributes to mental states of greater focus and concentration, facilitating analytical thinking [3]. However, just thinking about the height of the ceiling height may not be enough since the ceiling height is not the only characteristic of the environment that can affect creativity. Especially since the environment contains several sensory elements that act together and not in isolation. That is, if other elements are not taken into account in the same way, they can even hinder the effects that the height of the ceiling can induce [4]. Room lighting, for example, is a factor that significantly influences our mental states. First of all, several studies point to the importance of natural lighting to regulate the circadian cycle (our biological clock) [4]. Natural light helps our bodies reach their peak of energy, attention and productivity during the day and peak of relaxation at night, which allows better sleeping. Some studies have been discussing the importance of REM sleep for creativity and problem solving [5]. That is, the lighting of the environments is important both in order to make people more alert and attentive during the day and in order to stimulate the proper functioning of our biological clock, favoring a good night's sleep, which is such an important element for creativity. In addition, other studies in the field of NeuroArchitecture have shown that darker spaces can also stimulate more creative states of mind. Darker environments can favor greater freedom from restrictions, allowing more holistic and exploratory thoughts, which in turn facilitate creativity. A study conducted by Anna Steidle and Lioba Werth revealed that the participants had more creative thoughts when the lighting decreased and more analytical and logical thoughts when the environment was clearer and better lit [6]. This means that, in specific cases, turning off the lights or creating spaces with milder lighting can help creative thinking to flow more easily. But be careful, spending a lot of time in a dark place, in addition to impairing vision, will stimulate melatonin production, leading to lower energy levels. Therefore, this strategy should be used in a timely manner, in specific situations, such as in a brainstorming meeting. Although we usually associate creativity with the brain, our body can directly affect its functioning. Therefore, the next element to be considered in a space with a focus on stimulating creativity is the body, especially the body in motion. This is another ally when it comes to designing spaces that stimulate creativity. Walking helps to stimulate creative thinking both while walking and immediately afterwards [6]. It is no coincidence that Aristotle founded the Peripatetic School (peripatetic means "traveling" or "itinerant", in which his disciples had an outdoor class (yes, nature also stimulates creativity) and walked with him while discussing philosophy. Walking allows a freer flow of thoughts, which can facilitate insights and connections between ideas. [7] In addition, walks help to oxygenate the brain and improve mood, stimulating the production of substances such as serotonin and dopamine [8]. In this sense, the layout of the environments, communication strategies on the floor and the placement of stairs and elevators, for example, can induce longer walks and the use of stairs. Finally, the more architects and designers expand their knowledge zone to contemplate the insights brought by NeuroArchitecture, the greater the chances of creating even more efficient environments. The characteristics of the environment that stimulate more creative mental states are not limited to those discussed here. Other elements, such as the presence of nature, the view from the windows, the colors and other sensory stimuli that arrive through other senses besides vision and the opportunities for action in each environment can also influence creativity. And all of these elements affect the brain jointly and not just individually [9]. Therefore, the more elements that are combined, the greater the chances that the space created will impact its users in the intended way. On the other hand, while some of the stimuli may be favoring a certain mental state, others, present in the same environment, may be generating opposite effects. So thinking about applying just one of these elements may not be efficient [9]. It is important to know NeuroArchitecture in a deeper way, in order to understand the interaction between the various stimuli of the environment and not just its individual effects.

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[1] Eberhard, J, P. (2008) Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Edward, T. H. (1966) The hidden dimension. New York: Doubleday

[3] 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.

[4] Paiva, A. Neuroscience for Architecture: How Building Design Can Influence Behaviors and Performance. Journal of Civil Engineering and Architecture 12(2)

[4] Bedrosian, T., Nelson, R. (2017) Timing of light exposure affects mood and brain circuits. Transl Psychiatry. 2017 Jan 31;7(1):e1017.

[5] Lewis PA, Knoblich G, Poe G. (2018) How Memory Replay in Sleep Boosts Creative Problem-Solving. Trends Cogn Sci. 22(6):491-503. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2018.03.009. PMID: 29776467; PMCID: PMC7543772.

[6] Steidle, A., Werth, L. (2013) Freedom from constraints: Darkness and dim illumination promote creativity. Journal of Environmental Psychology Volume 35, September 2013, Pages 67-80

[7] Oppezzo, M., Schartz, D. (2014) Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1142–1152

[8] Suzuki, W. (2017) Os benefícios transformadores da atividade física para o cérebro. TED Women 2017

[9] Spence, C. (2020) Senses of Place: Architectural Design for the Multisensory Mind. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications (CRPI)

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© 2018 by Andréa de Paiva