The body as the link between mind and space: A philosophical and neuroscientific discourse to understand the role of architecture in cognitive and emotional processing (2021)

Vecchiato, G., Robinson, S., Djebbara, Z., Papale, P. & Presti, P. (2021) ‘8th International Conference on Spatial Cognition: Cognition and Action in a Plurality of Spaces’. Rome/Virtual Conference.

Full proceedings can also be found here.

Outline. Architecture influences actions and emotions being the main stage of our everyday social interactions. This symposium will guide the auditory through selected neuroscientific knowledge and philosophy scholars to explain how architectural features impact on low and high level brain mechanisms, ultimately shaping human cognition. Recent research on how we experience architecture has highlighted that built spaces affect us much deeper at bodily and mental level thus shaping our actions and emotions (Mallgrave 2015). These talks will lead to the understanding that architectural experience goes beyond the mere visual processing and that sensorimotor mechanisms are fundamental to shape perception of space thus defining the whole social environment around us. The discourse will start from the perspective of the visual neuroscience showing how figure-ground perception (Papale et al. 2018), shape coding (Papale et al. 2020) and architectural expertise (Olivito et al. in preparation) are all features which could potentially inform architects to move from a ‘‘focused’’ design approach, i.e. considering architecture at the center of the visual scene, to a more ‘‘defocused’’ way of thinking about their projects, i.e. taking into account how we perceive at the periphery of the visual scene (Wallis et al. 2019). However, since architecture is a multisensorial subject, the mere visual processing does not explain the whole spatial perception which is completed through body representations. The phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Merleau-Ponty and the pragmatism of John Dewey show that embodied experience is a communal nexus of meaningful situations, expressive gestures and practical actions. From this point of view, architectural space is formed by human situations long before it is structured geometrically (Vesely 2004). The space beyond our skin becomes the field of possibility—tempered and conditioned by the possibilities it afford for action (Bo¨hme 2017). In configuring the concrete situations of daily life, architecture serves as the corporeal and topological ground of human becoming (Robinson 2021; Robinson and Pallasmaa 2015). Therefore, today it is urgent to integrate all the acquired knowledge to provide a neurophysiological and computational model of architectural affordances reflecting human experience (Djebbara et al. 2019). From this perspective, active inference and enactivism can be exploited because they centralize action-perception as a unifiedprocess reflected in sensorimotor dynamics for the inference of the world (Friston 2010; Jelic´ et al. 2016; O’Regan and Noe¨ 2001). Essentially, the dynamics are transition-patterns that accentuate the action in the genesis of perceptual experience, revealing that architecture enters the loop of cognition by designing actions. To date, the outcome is an attempt to go beyond traditional architectural methods and to synthesize phenomenological arguments with prominent neuroscientific theories. Among such theories, embodied cognition sets the motor system as the core hub processing spatial features, personal and other’s actions and emotions (Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia 2016). Recent findings already showed evidence of embodied mechanisms in architectural perception (Vecchiato et al. 2015). Recognizing also that observers are more accurate in recognizing body expressions when these are emotionally congruent with the emotional valence of the environment (Kret and de Gelder 2010), it becomes relevant to understand the role that sensorimotor processes play in cognitive adaptation mechanisms generated by architecture. We will show that such adaptation deeply impacts in social interactions shaping our daily behavior and mental states (Presti et al. 2020). This symposium fosters the design of environments towards the creation of proper atmosphere in specific places, and it is addressed to scientists, scholars, as well as private and public administration to highlight the impact that living environments have on society.


Neurophenomenology for Architecture: an embodied and enactive inference approach (2021)

Djebbara, Z. A Neurophenomenology for Architecture: an embodied and enactive inference approach. in 8th International Conference on Spatial Cognition: Cognition and Action in a Plurality of Spaces (2021).

The dynamic coupling within the brain, body, and environment has recently gained traction, making neuroscience attractive to architects. The aim was to draw parallels between the nature of human experienceand computational neuroscience to guide future studies. As our perception is enacted by the sensory and motor system, each action changes the perceived environment in line with our expectations. Our expectations are bound by our afforded actions, shaped by architectural affordances. Since affordances depend on the fit between the body and capacities for movement, our understanding of architecture relies on sensorimotor processes. Computational neuroscience proposes an auspicious Bayesian framework of cognition that provides a meaningful explanation of neuronal activity by way of ‘active inference’. Both active inference and enactivism centralize actionperception as a unified process reflected in sensorimotor dynamics for accessing the world. This demonstrates how the environment emerges in the dynamics as a loop rather than as an end-product. Essentially, the dynamics are transition patterns that accentuate the action in the genesis of experience, revealing that architecture enters the loop of cognition by designing actions. Integrating sensorimotor activity with active inference yields a computational model of architectural affordances that in turn reflects human experience. The outcome is an attempt to go beyond traditional architectural methods by synthesizing phenomenological arguments with a prominent theory of brain activity. To this end, a neurophenomenological account of the emergence of architectural experience is developed through an enactive inference, which in turn suggests how architecture impacts experience.

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