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NeuroArchitecture and Empathy: fuel to creativity

By Andréa de Paiva

When a new client comes to your office, what do you do to get to know him better? How do you find out about his necessities, values and dreams? How do you connect with him? Just talking and asking questions straight to the point might not always be the best strategy to find answers. And without answers, the imaginary target to where the architect points when creating appears fogged by his own values and opinions. The results are more complicated discussions with the client, difficulties in the creative process and less satisfying projects. In today's article we will discuss a vast field of research inside NeuroArchitecture: empathy.

Empatia NeuroArquitetura
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

In several of our articles about NeuroArchitecture, you read about inborn behaviors that are a response to determined triggers, what we called primitive memories, stored in our DNA through evolution. However, such memories are not the only ones that influence behavior. Besides the specific differences in individuals' genetic fingerprint, since birth we are influenced by the cultures of our groups (family, school, work, city, country, etc) and by our personal experiences. This is why we are so different from each other, even when the others are our neighbours or family. Hence each client must be understood in a unique way. Even when the same project has more than one client (a family or partners, for instance), not always the necessities, values and dreams of the group will be the same.

Therefore, to understand clients and what they seek it is important to perform empathy exercises. But, after all, what is empathy? It is the capacity of putting your self in someone else's shoes, to feel what they feel and to see the world through their eyes. Empathy is much more complex than a rational and objective understanding. In evolutive terms, it is possible to claim that our brain is wired to be empathetic. Decades ago, the neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti found that the brain of many primates, especially the human brain, has a system of mirror neurons [1]. According to Rizzolatti, one of its many functions is to understand the action of others in order to identify their motivations and recognise when they are friendly or threatening.

It is not without reason that when we watch a movie we identify ourselves with some characters and we start to feel with them, becoming happy when they are cheerful, sad when they suffer or scared when they are in danger. We all have mirror neuron systems in full operation, but there are some exercises and techniques to improve the precision of our empathetic capacity.

In architecture, the capacity to see the world through the client's eyes, to feel what he feels, is one of the main sources of inspiration to architect. Without it, the solutions adopted tend to be always related to the same patterns to which the architect is familiar with, generating less satisfaction to the client and a weaker connection with the built space among its users. Public housing projects can be a good example to illustrate this situation. Generally, the main ideas that guide the conception of such projects are the reduction of costs and the increase in the offer of worthy dwelling to the families that used to live in precarious conditions. But how many architects who designed these buildings went to talk to these families, tried to understand their values, their real necessities and dreams? The result is the lack of connection between dweller and dwelling. As it was discussed in the article How much NeuroArchitecture can be found on Public Housing? [2], the consequence is the lack of care about the space, the depredation of common areas of buildings, the lack of connection between neighbours, the growth of perception of insecurity and even the desire of abandoning the place, as it happened with several of the apartments from Pruitt-Igoe Complex in the USA [3].

Some of the main barriers to the exercise of empathy are unconscious biases, which were discussed in our last article [4]. As soon as the brain identifies a set of elements similar to previous experiences, it tends to use "shortcuts" to save energy instead of processing all the information, anticipating the results. However, this automatic anticipation is not always accurate and might lead to wrong conclusions. In the case of clients, maybe because of how they look, or of the way they talk or act, they might remind us of other people we've known, and we may make conclusions about the clients based on what we know about the others.

Another field of study inside neuroscience and NeuroArchitecture is how creative processes happen in the brain [5]. Creativity is the capacity of recombining existing information to solve problems in new ways. It is the ability to perceive the world in different manners, to notice hidden patterns, to make connections between elements apparently not related and to generate new solutions in any field. The more information we accumulate, the higher are the possibilities of combination between them. In the case of architecture design, which is created according to what the client seeks, part of those informations to be recombined will be the ones found through empathy. The more precise and profound is the exercise of empathy, the more the architect will have material to create according to the particularities of each client, raising the possibilities of identification and satisfaction with the project.

To conclude, it is worth to mention an important element that must not be forgotten: many times the client who goes to the architect and hires the project is not the final user of the space to be designed (read the article Who do NeuroArchitects Work For?). In such cases, the challenge of empathy is multiplied since the space must also be connected to and attend the needs of its users [6]. The architect must be careful not to forget or exclude any of the main groups of users and not to get lost with too much information. Hospital buildings are a great example of complex environments full of different users with different necessities [7]. The solution in such cases is to pay attention to the several groups of users and clients, hierarchizing and prioritising the needs of those that can be most impacted by the built space.

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