John Medina
Photography: Carl Bower John Medina, author of bestseller Brain Rules and professor at the University of Washington

In 2014, international architecture firm NBBJ announced a new fellowship program for scientific researchers in fields that impact and inform design. The inaugural fellow for this innovative program is developmental molecular biologist John Medina, author of The New York Times bestseller Brain Rules (Pear Press, 2008) and a professor at the University of Washington. Medina has spent years studying how the human brain responds to the surrounding world. Among his roles at NBBJ has been a lecture series on how the brain works, providing scientific evidence that confirms tried-and-true methods architects have relied on for years and explores new considerations for the future.

To borrow a quote from [Salk Institute for Biological Studies neuroscientist] Fred Gage, “We have no clue how design affects the nervous system.” We still don’t know the right questions to ask. That was the first thing I wanted NBBJ to know when this opportunity arose. For 99.8 percent of our time on this planet, we have lived in settings composed of natural elements. Edward O. Wilson, the scientist behind the “biophilia” hypothesis, said that human beings are biologically predisposed to require contact with natural forms. They aren’t capable of living a healthy life detached from nature. It’s marinated into our evolutionary history. [NBBJ partner] Rich Dallam, FAIA, and the leadership of the firm, recognizing the need to integrate those innate desires into their process, started asking the questions that led to this fellowship.

So we don’t know exactly how the brain works, but we do understand its performance envelope—the conditions under which it appears to process information optimally. The brain is designed to solve problems related to surviving in an outdoor setting, and to do so in constant motion. So if you put us in a small rectangle that’s climate-controlled with the lights always on, you create processing conditions counter to that envelope. Based on that framework, I knew there were a lot of things we could try from a design perspective, some insights from brain research, as long as we’re allowing for grumpiness on occasion.

For example, take open office spaces. We know that environmental noise, when it rises above 55 decibels, causes your stress levels to soar. If something like a voice breaks that barrier, you stop concentrating. Then there’s something called a “halfalogue”—or half a conversation—which is the single most distracting element in all our audio space. Even if you’re focused elsewhere, if you hear only half of a conversation you start filling in what the other side might be saying. Compare that idea with the work of Jay Appleton, a spatial scientist who came up with the “prospect-refuge theory.” He took a hint from our evolution on the Serengeti and said that people prefer environments where they can easily survey their surroundings and then hide, or retreat to safety. If all you have in a design is the open office—a prospect—that’s only half the equation. You also need a cave—a retreat space—where you can return to the privacy of your own thoughts.

Humans process information in 100-millisecond increments. So if you’re walking down a hallway, there’s a bit of a delay in how you’re walking and where you’re walking. So how do you navigate? Your brain is constantly remembering the other hallways you’ve walked, and it makes predictions about where your next foot is going to land based on prior experiences. And you can fool your brain. Frank Lloyd Wright did this constantly—you take a 90-degree turn into what you think is a hallway, but you’re suddenly in a massive ballroom. There’s no reason why it should be a shock, but it is because you were unconsciously expecting something else. It’s sort of like a well-done horror movie; maybe you’re not scared, but there’s that same registered sense of surprise.

People are ridiculously sensitive to their environments, even to the words you’re using. John Bargh, a researcher at Yale University, was interested in the idea of spatial suggestion. He took a bunch of healthy young undergrads and told them they were taking part in a language proficiency test; but what he really was after was seeing how long it took them to walk down a hallway as they left the building post-test. In the lab, he showed the students a bunch of words associated with aging, such as “old,” and asked them to make sentences from the words.

To the subjects, this was basic memory and utilization. Not to John. After a period of time, he let them go but measured how long it took them to walk from the lab to the elevator and videotaped what they looked like. It took the test subjects much longer to go that short distance than controls who were primed with neutral non-aging-related words. They acted old. The environmental cues were mapped onto their behavior in the same way our physical environment influences our internal psychological—and even physiological—state.

I’ve been stunned throughout my collaboration with NBBJ. It’s their sense of curiosity, their sense of adventure, that I relate to. What I work with is so much larger than what I am, and that sense of wonder is something they all seem to share. NBBJ has convinced me that the brain sciences might also have a chair at the architectural table. I am grateful to have been invited to take a seat.—As told to Steve Cimino