The human response to architecture is usually based on subjective emotions: I like that building, I hate this space; this room is so open, this office is oppressive. But something more nuanced is happening to elicit these responses. Neuroscientists have found that distinctive processes occur in our brains—consciously and subconsciously, cognitively and physiologically—from the moment we step into a space. These processes affect our emotions, our health, and even the development of memory.

Interest in the way architecture can support how our brains work and evolve is growing. Approximately 200 people attended the Sept. 18 to 20 conference of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA), held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. Founded in 2003, the organization’s members include architects, neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists, and academics of various stripes who are studying the intersections between architecture and the brain.

Researchers discussed everything from how to improve the design of therapy rooms for people with post-traumatic stress disorder to how virtual reality can be used to affect mood, and to how the brain’s spatial mapping may have influenced the orthogonal design of city layouts. While the work can be theoretical or complex, the neuroscientists in the crowd didn’t expect architects to begin working in the lab anytime soon and shared several key takeaways for designers.

The Space–Mind Continuum

Space, it turns out, is integral to the formation of memory. Our brains have specific neurons in the hippocampus—the region that controls memory forming and sits near the base of the brain—that fire in response to place- and position-related stimulus: the direction our head is turned, when we reach a wall or boundary, when we're moving at different speeds, and when we're at or return to specific locations in space. These neurons help us create an "internal construction of the outside world," said Jill Leutgeb, a neurobiology professor at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), during her presentation on the neurophysiology of the hippocampus in animals.

For example, all of our senses are engaged or influenced by the physical attributes of architecture—light, sound, surface textures, and the familiarity of the spaces—which are constantly flipping switches in our minds that can affect our cognition, mental state, and preservation of long-term memory. While the impact of these stimuli can affect us immediately—such as the sense of calm felt upon entering a daylight-filled space—others can take longer to manifest.

Being Different has Its Challenges

UCSD associated professor of neurosciences David Salmon said that people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease often have difficulty identifying unfamiliar objects, such as a doorknob with an unconventional design. When designing spaces for people who currently have acute or potential signs of these conditions, architects should be recognize that every detail can be a potential hang-up or trigger for confusion, disorientation, or stress.

In terms of processing space, our most important sense is vision, which provides upwards of 80 percent of the information we use to comprehend the physical world around us. It is notably important for its ability to tune multi-sensoral information—helping us to understand where a sound is coming from, for example. As vision impairment becomes more common, given our aging demographics, it becomes more important to understand how architecture can provide guidance. For example, the use of symmetry and the creation of focal points in architectural design can offer intuitive assistance, says Audrey Lustig Michal, a post-doctoral student studying spatial intelligence and learning at Northwestern University.

Why We Need Light

The importance of light in any interior space has been demonstrated many times over. Natural light is vital for physiological reasons, says Salk Institute scientist and associate professor Satchin Panda. Not having enough light can severely affect sleep patterns and mood. Exposure to 2,000 lux of light for 30 to 60 minutes per day can counter seasonal depression. Since around 2012, Panda and ANFA board member Frederick Marks, AIA, have been measuring light levels in architectural spaces. Recently, they compared two well-known works of Southern California architecture: the craftsman style Gamble House in Pasadena by Greene and Greene, and the midcentury modern Bailey House, or Case Study House #21 in Los Angeles by Pierre Koenig, FAIA.

The bedroom and living room of the Gamble House averaged between 10 and 50 lux of natural light throughout the day; light levels exceeded 100 lux for only about one hour. Meanwhile, Case Study House #21, with its expansive south-facing windows, averaged 800 lux throughout the day and experienced about seven hours of levels that surpassed 1,000 lux. While Panda and Marks didn’t comment on the relative happiness of the buildings’ occupants, their study illustrates that even renowned designs may theoretically fall short in supporting our psychological health.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the ANFA conference is just how much is unknown about the connection between architecture and how people think and learn. The presenters prodded the crowd of mostly mid-career architects and academicsto push for new ways to experiment with and measure the effects of design. How can architecture aging brains remember things? Can we actively use distractions to reset our focus in the workplace? How should we reconsider the standards for lighting design? Should we use scents to influence people’s moods?

These questions may not be answered for years, if ever. But they are being asked, which is a step toward the notion that architecture can and should make us and our brains healthier. As more neuroscientists and psychologists team up with architects and designers—on research projects, such as Panda and Marks’ light-measurement study, and on actual buildings—even more ways that architecture can benefit people will arise.