What needs to be taken into account when it comes to designing effective workplaces centred on people's wellbeing?
Science is the answer, according to Fred Gage, a neuroscientist with Salk Institute. He puts forward the argument that when we design the buildings we inhabit, the resulting environments change our behaviour and alter our brains. This emphasises how buildings made of inert materials can make us feel anxious or happy, bored or stimulated, engaged or indifferent. This explains the close relationship and significant synergy between architecture and neuroscience when it comes to designing spaces that will help to improve the experience of those living, learning and working there. Understanding how the human brain works with regards to perception and space navigation will allow us to incorporate design strategies that incorporate the need for functionality, comfort and profitability.
Neurosciences & Architecture
A well-designed building must respond to its occupants’ functional needs as well as their comfort requirements. However, as Le Corbusier used to say, architecture should not only serve us, but also move us.
Nowadays, thanks to breakthroughs in the field of neurophysiology, we are able to explain how we perceive the world that surrounds us, and the ways in which cognition, problem-solving and mood are affected by our physical environment. Incorporating this knowledge supplies new tools with which to plan the spaces we occupy, and in which we spend 90% of our lives.
Therefore, neuroarchitecture can be defined as any built environment which has been designed whilst following principles derived from neurosciences, thus helping to create spaces which benefit memory, improved cognitive capacity and mental stimulation, while simultaneously avoiding stress .
Elements of Neuroscience
The Academy of Neurosciences for Architecture (created in 2003 with the goal of directing neuroscientific research that could be linked to the practice of architecture), has studied the functional requirements for different types of buildings, based on which it has defined the 5 main areas of study to be addressed.
1. Sensory Perception
Perception is a multi-sensory event which involves memory, emotions and the experiences of sensory organs. It impacts behaviour and imagination, as well as the way new information is processed and people's reaction to the environment.
Points of reference and routes found in any given space are two characteristics which define both its form and its function, while simultaneously helping to signify spatial perception . Research shows that, within spaces that can be traversed in two different directions, each is represented by different patterns of neuron activity, so that our brains treat each direction as a separate environment. It can be inferred that spaces which foster free exploration will create representations which are less informed by routes, thus improving personal experience.
3. Learning & Memory
Spatial memory requires visual cues to determine our location and orientation within any given environment. When these points of reference are missing, location learning is delayed and the stress response is activated. This underscores the importance of incorporating design elements which support spatial recognition and recall.
Built environments are initially perceived through emotion, a fast and effective system provided by evolution so that we can distinguish good from bad, safe from dangerous, and so on, in order to survive. Before the sensations evoked by a building acquire conscious expression, we have already passed judgment on its materials, spatial relations, proportions, scale, rhythms, comfort, and so on.
Given that emotional responses include the areas of the brain related to bodily movements and the autonomic nervous system—which regulates homeostasis—, architecture has become an element capable of altering our physiological state.
5. Space & Place
Although places are mostly associated with spatial environments, the notion of “place” differs from that of “space” in one fundamental aspect: an individual's interaction. The internal representation of a place is deeply informed by the way in which people move through it. A glass partition—which impedes movement but not viewing—can be enough for the brain to perceive two physically adjacent spaces as different. This means that sense of place is built through movement and the spatial connections that can be made, together with one's personal spatial configuration.
A Guide to Neuroarchitecture
Understanding the principles of neuroscience can serve as a guide to designing buildings with a view to improving spatial orientation, strengthening cognitive capacities and facilitating positive emotions and motivation.
What follows is a list of 7 aspects that can be taken into account when it comes to designing effective workplaces centred on people's wellbeing:
1. Chronobiology & Circadian Rhythms
Sunlight is fundamental for the regulation of the immune and endocrine systems, and it impacts how well circadian rhythms function throughout the day and the seasons. When we lack an adequate supply of light, there can follow issues such as alterations in the sleep-wake cycle, fatigue, lack of concentration, depression, stress, and so on.
Changes in level and colour temperature of natural light also affect people's moods and activities: while cold light has a stimulating effect, warm light relaxes. Concurrently, a high intensity of lighting causes excitement and therefore a surge in activity and an improvement in mood. Low intensity induces relaxation and rest.
2. Ceiling Height
A study by the University of Minnesota suggests that ceiling height affects problem-solving abilities and behaviour, inducing different types of mental processing.
While high-ceilinged spaces foster conceptual thinking and activate a sense of freedom and imagination which stimulates creative thinking, low-ceilinged spaces improve concentration and activate a type of thinking that is more concrete, focused and detail-oriented.
3. Outside Views
There are a significant number of studies which confirm an empirical reality that is verified in every single workplace: the possibility of having a view of the outside—especially if the outside is a natural environment—improves employees’ wellbeing and state of mind. Apparently, green landscapes provide the best effect, while bodies of water seem to be preferable to urban vistas.
The concept of proxemics refers to the physical distances which people maintain with regard to one another in order to remain within a comfort zone as dictated by their mutual relationship and the nature of their interaction. There are four basic spatial distances: intimate, personal, social and public. Any violation of these boundaries of personal space causes different degrees of discomfort . The workplace would seem to dovetail with people's social environment, where private spaces have diminished drastically in the last few years, giving way to public areas.
Later studies have revealed that the amygdala—a structure related to the perception of fear—activates in the presence of other people and participates actively in the development of emotional reactions associated with the regulation of interpersonal distance during social interaction.
5. Eye Contact
According to research conducted by the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development at the University of London , eye contact is the basis of human connections both biologically and culturally speaking. Seeing other people activates “mirror neurons”—fundamental for socialization—which react with greater intensity during face-to-face contact. Looking at each other allows us to obtain feedback from our interlocutors; it works to signal synchronicity and it allows us to interpret other people's disposition.
Some factors, such as the spatial distribution of equipment, can impact the possibility of making eye contact, thus maximizing or minimizing the opportunities for interrelation and socialization.
Noise in the office is a major cause of distraction, dwindling efficiency, increasing stress and professional dissatisfaction. Noise-induced stress can lead to the release of cortisol, a hormone which helps the body restore homeostasis after a negative experience. Excess cortisol affects emotional processing, learning, reasoning and impulse control, thus altering our capacity to think clearly and retain information.
The shapes in which a workplace materializes can provide sensory triggers. A study conducted by scientists at Harvard Medical School indicates that we prefer curves and soft outlines to sharp ones because we feel instinctively afraid of sharp objects, and it was discovered that the amygdala was more active when people looked at sharp objects. It can be inferred that angular shapes benefit a state of alertness and concentration whereas soft and rounded ones might satisfy our emotional need for security and protection.
“While the brain controls our behaviour and genes control the blueprint for the design and structure of the brain, the environment can modulate the function of genes and, ultimately, the structure of our brain, and therefore they change our behaviour. In planning the environments in which we live, architectural design changes our brain and behaviour.” Fred Gage .
Nowadays, technological progress and studies in neuroscience are able to reveal the reactions of our bodies and minds to built environments. In light of this knowledge, architecture must be undertaken with a mindfulness of the effects that design can have both on the physiology and the psychology of the occupants of a space. In this way, we will be able to create spaces which take into account the end-users’ biological disposition in order to improve the experience of working in a healthy, motivational environment.
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