By Andréa de Paiva
How long will users spend on the projects we create? Customers may spend a few minutes in a store space; or students may spend a few hours a day throughout the school year in a particular classroom; or the residents of an apartment may spend all day at home doing home office. The duration and frequency of occupation of a space is directly related with how it can affect us. Therefore, understanding the link between time and effect is an important step for those who want to apply NeuroArchitecture.
We know that there are many variables that influence how the physical environment affects people's behavior and well-being. Among all of them, one of the most important is the occupation time, or exposure time. In most cases, the longer we are exposed to a particular stimulus, the greater the chances that it will affect us in a more enduring way. When we go to the gym to improve muscle definition or when we want to learn a sport, for instance, the time we dedicate to these activities will directly affect how much they will transform us. It will not be a one-off training that will turn an aspiring player into a professional player. Nor an intense unique day at the gym will get our muscles defined. To achieve such changes, we need more time of exposure to such stimuli, we need continuity. Long-term and frequent stimuli are those with the greatest potential to generate persistent changes. In the case of architecture and urbanism, the more time we spend in a given environment and the frequency with which we return to it can interfere with how it impacts us. Therefore, homes, workplaces and cities are examples of spaces that tend to be occupied for many hours frequently over the years and, therefore, have the greatest potential to generate more lasting effects on their users. For example, spending a day at home can be useful to reduce stress levels and relax (short term effect), but spending months almost without leaving home - as happened during the most critical period of lockdown in 2020 - can be harmful to physical and mental health. In fact, research in neuroscience has already proven that the environment can generate physical changes in the brain, altering the connections between neurons. In the case of environments poor in physical-sensory stimuli, the effects on the brain are loss of volume in some areas, resulting from the decrease in and weakening of synapses. Going back to the training example, even if a single day at the gym does not serve to define the muscles, it does not mean that we will not be affected by it. Certainly the metabolic activity will be impacted, the body will sweat and expend energy and, after training, in addition to feeling hungry in order to replace the spent energy, the muscles will probably be sore on the following day. Even so, it can be said that these effects are more punctual and of short duration. Regarding the physical environment, faster occupations also tend to generate more immediate reactions, which are not long lasting. They happen mainly to help individuals adapt while they are still in the space that triggered the change. These alterations include changes in emotions, working memory, hormone levels, heart rate, skin conductance, blood pressure, body temperature and muscle tension. A person who enters a store in a mall, for example, may be impacted by the ceiling height, which can stimulate a more analytical or more imaginative mental state; the lighting that can direct gaze and stimulate relaxation or attentiveness; the sound that can influence rhythm, emotions and products' choice; the smell that can activate affective memories and influence decision making; among others. These effects, however, persist mainly during the occupation of the space that triggered them, which, in the case of the consumer in the store, is at most a few hours. In other words, such reactions do not persist for long after the environment that triggered them has been vacated, given that the exposure to space was punctual. It is worth noting that the same place that is short-lived for certain groups of users, may be long-lived for other groups. In the case of the store, for the consumer this is a short-term space, but it is a long-term space for the team that works there. Therefore, the average occupation time must always be considered by environment and by group of users. It will hardly be the same for everyone. In short, the effects of architecture do not depend only on the physical characteristics of the space. There are other important variables to be considered and, among them, we highlight here the time and frequency of occupation. A short occupation, in most cases, results in a more immediate - but less permanent adaptation. On the other hand, a long and frequent occupation can result in a complex and structural change that lasts longer. In this sense, we recommend that the application of NeuroArchitecture also takes into account the average occupation time that different groups of users present for each environment. This can be an important strategy for architects and designers to support decision-making. This article was inspired by the scientific article that we published together with psychologist Richard Jedon, from Eindhoven University of Technology. To access this complete paper, click here.