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NeuroArchitecture: limits and possibilities

By Andréa de Paiva

Over the last years, discussions about NeuroArchitecture and all other subjects encompassed by this interdisciplinary field have been growing. Applied neuroscience allows us to have a deeper understanding about how the environment can impact our brain and body. And the search for a better comprehension of the relation individual-environment has driven architects and urban designers to study fields that vary from neuroscience to psychology and even behavioral economics. However, the expectations about NeuroArchitecture and its findings are not always the same. In today's article we will discuss some of the possibilities and limits inside this vast field.

The advances in neuroscience made possible the observation, among other things, of alterations in brain waves and blood flow as well as anatomical ones such as the rise, the straightening or the loss of synapses. All these, associated with researches that measure alterations in hormone levels, sweating, heart beating, blood pressure and breathing amplifies the possibilities of research and comprehension of how our organism reacts to adapt to external stimuli. Such measures, together with the empirical observation of behavior and studies made with other animals in psychology, can help to achieve a more profound knowledge about the brain and behavior.

With all this, there are many possibilities that arise. Questions that have always been of the interest of architecture and urbanism might finally be answered. For instance, how can the design of a building or of a city affect those that use such spaces? Questions such as this help to orient the decision making of architects and designers. Until now, such decisions have been made in an intuitive way or having as basis the observation of how people behave in different environments or the answers given in opinion researches.

When we have the opportunity to link neuroscience to architecture and urbanism to have a more complete view of how the spaces impact their users, huge expectations arise among architects and other professionals. More than that, such expectations are different for each one. In lectures and classes about NeuroArchitecture its common to hear questions such as how to create places that improve the wellbeing of all people occupying it. Or which is the best color to evoke specific sensations or behaviors.

In many discussions about NeuroArchitecture and its possibilities, it is common that the space is considered as an agent ("spaces that generate anxiety", "spaces that heal", etc.) and this can contribute to the creation of false expectations. The space do not act, we are the ones that act in spaces. The environment is one variable that can influence our action, our perception, our mental state. We can have different behaviors and perceptions depending on the features of the place we are at, we react differently in different spaces, but not everyone will answer in a similar way to the same environment.

NeuroArchitecture does not have the purpose of creating a recipe to be followed by architects. Our relation with the environment is too complex to have a simple answer that will work for every project. Each individual is unique and has a different level of susceptibility to the environment [1]. Besides, personal memories and cultural memories of the different groups and individual experiences influence on the relation with the environment. Depending on the culture and personal experience, the same space can evoke distinct reactions and sensations on different people. For instance, a Brazilian that goes to India might be stunned with how the traffic works there and the the noises that come from the street. On the other hand, an Indian that goes live in London might miss the sounds and costumes of her country. Another example is that the use of a specific color, such as red, can evoke memories related to love and passion or to a political ideology depending on the culture of the observer [2].

NeuroArchitecture does not seek for the creation of "perfect spaces" because the concept of perfection depends on the point of view. A surgery room, for instance, is not a pleasant space due to its clean appearance, its bright illumination, its lack of windows and natural ventilation. However, it has to be the way it is in order to optimize the conditions for the activities that are supposed to take place there: illumination that allows doctors and nurses to observe every detail, lack of distraction elements and cleaning to avoid contamination. The function of this space justifies the discomfort generated by it. The same features that can be seen as negative in another space are important to the surgery room due to the activities that happen there.

The efficiency of a space and how it affects those that occupy it will always depend on many factors such as who are the users, what are the activities that will happen in that space, how long will the users occupy it and what is its relation to the system where it is inserted. Spaces of long-term occupation, such as our home, our work or the city where we live in can affect us differently than spaces of short-term occupation, such as a store or a restaurante in which we spend only a few hours [3].

To sum up, we need to be careful when discussing and studying NeuroArchitecture. This field of knowledge is still relatively new and presuppose complex discussions about how the environment affects its users. It will not give general answers that will fit every situation. Brain, behavior and architecture are all three very complex fields and to offer simple answers about any of them might mean that we are not being able to deeply understand it. Even though NeuroArchitecture does not offer all the answers, it can give architects and urban planners new tools to help ​in decision making and designing process, giving space to rethink old solutions and to transform their mindset, changing how they perceive and create spaces.

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