Tying architecture and homeostasis using affordances: An approach to well-being in the built environment (2022)

Djebbara, Z., Jelic, A. and Fich, L. B. (2022) ‘Tying architecture and homeostasis using affordances: An approach to well-being in the built environment’, in Structures and Architecture. A Viable Urban Perspective?: Proceedings of the Fifth International Conference on Structures and Architecture (ICSA 2022), July 6-8, 2022, Aalborg, Denmark. CRC Press, p. 353.

Link to the proceedings right here!

Abstract

In framing human well-being in the built environment as the support of the emotional, mental and physical health of the users, an approach that addresses that particular interface is principal. For the built environment to support well-being, this human-centered approach must integrate an understanding of the interplay between architectural space and the physiological and psychological processes that underly behavioral, mental, and cognitive functions. In this contribution, we draw a qualified approach by bridging brain, body, environment through ‘affordances’, namely the fit between the physical structure of the body and the potential possibilities for movement and interaction with the environment. Starting in homeostasis, we link affordances with sensorimotor brain dynamics, on which cognitive processes are based, to propose a biologically plausible view on human well-being through the design of the built environment.

Introduction

Understanding how the built environment affects human well-being using a combination of neuroimaging, physiological measures, and systematic architectural variation is still in its early stages. The recent empirical results display a wide field of interest, including aesthetic experiences (Vartanian et al., 2013, 2015), the role of the body (Vecchiato et al., 2015; Banaei et al., 2017), of action (Djebbara et al., 2019; Djebbara, Fich and Gramann, 2021), of affective processes (Fich et al., 2014; Shemesh et al., 2017), and of atmospheres (Canepa et al., 2019)—all of which have a human-centered approach. Collectively, these studies demonstrate how features of the environment have an implicit impact on our decisions and physiological processes, which together constitute a major part of our well-being. This is particularly important to better our comprehension as the built environment continues to affect us in unbeknownst positive or negative ways.

In this paper, we propose a psychobiological framework for well-being in the built environment with the starting point in the biology of human beings and argue for the importance of the dynamics between sensation and action in the psychological measures of well-being. The motivation for proposing such a framework is twofold. First, to contribute to the advancement of this very young field, the following aims to suggest a way of linking the built environment with the mental and physical health, which we associate with the general well-being of human beings, by using the emerging dynamics between brain, body, and environment as the common denominator. Second, as we unpack our framework, we discover that in our psychobiological approach to well-being, the preconceived distinction between mental and physical is indeed difficult, if not impossible, to defend. Instead, they form a unity where mental and physical parameters are inherently related to the forming of well-being in a circular fashion. We argue that these types of well-being all emerge from the very same dynamics found between brain, body, and environment and are thus considered coherent and inseparable. This naturally implicates that the study of physical well-being is thus also subject to mental parameters, and vice versa.

In applying this framework we review major depressive disorder as a case study because it applies to well-being. By focusing on the role of the built environment, we suggest how changes in everyday affordances can alter how we understand our relation to the world, essentially causing a shift in perspective that is known to have a positive impact on depressive patients. The relationship is bidirectional, so to change how we act is also to change the trajectory of thoughts and eventually a change of the mind, and vice versa. How did the built environment become this important to human beings?

Homeostasis and prediction

 By first introducing the biological history of human beings, we provide a proper grip of the very nature of how remaining alive and making sense of the environment are related. This argument builds around the conception that as life evolved, certain interactive capacities co-evolved with increasingly sophisticated biological structures that eventually paved the way for the human capacities we know today. Due to the continuous phylogenic process, we have many features in common with primitive creatures—in particular, that of staying alive (see e.g. Godfrey-Smith, 2020).

In the biological realm, the relationship between a cell and its environment is manifested in the various parallel processes unfolding to ensure its survival. Biochemical processes releasing chemicals to counterbalance the constant fluctuations generated by the environment are constantly taking place. The emerging balance aims to withhold the physiological processes of the organism within a narrow acceptable interval—this process is referred to as the homeostatic balance and is a basic process in all living cells (Damasio, 2010). If, for instance, the environment is sensed to be too cold, the organism must avoid homeostatic imbalance by accounting for the error (cold) by either moving to a warmer place or by generating heat through shaking and thereby regaining balance. Besides that some environments are more suitable for some organisms while potentially lethal to others, it is important to notice that survival chances are contingent on the interactive capacities of the majority of organisms. As we will elaborate, the interactive fit between an agent and its environment can be described by the affordances of the organism inherent to the physical structure of the organism and its potential for action (Gibson, 1986; Clark, 1999). However, for now, it is important to emphasize the importance of the environment for physiological changes in the body.

Therefore, organisms that remain to exist owe it to their capacity to self-organize homeostasis and reproduction while optimizing their respective strategies of these processes of life (Maturana and Varela, 1992). An important strategy is the ability to anticipate the error using cues in the environment, which essentially allowed initiating changes before the potentially lethal error could take place, e.g. putting on a jacket before getting a cold (Sterling, 2004). For an organism to remain alive, the most basic requirement is to implicitly engage in this error-correcting mechanism contingent on the numerous surprising observations one can sense about the environment. This process of instinctive prediction is entirely automatic. The objective is then to predict changes using the network of neurons in the brain before errors happen and avoid repulsive encounters by either (i) initiating internal physiological changes or (ii) initiating actions that cause the environment to change (Friston, 2010). Certain encounters emphasize the internal physiological changes reflected as emotions, while other encounters emphasize the movement—however, both processes are constantly unfolding. We will focus here on the possibilities for movement afforded by the environment given the human physical structure.

With increasingly complex and sophisticated organisms comes also more sophisticated capacities and functions such as complex movements, the extension of memory, capacities for planning, and abstractions. In other words, the cells have used their inherited prior experiences to develop highly qualified and temporally extended predictions about the environment given specific contextual cues. For instance, knowing it is winter season, you would have a specific expectation about the weather and thus type of clothes to wear, which words to use, what city decorations to see, and how to spend the evenings, as compared to the summer season. Essentially, our framework suggests that there is a bidirectional hierarchy to our predictions so that we can both infer from sensations (bottom-up) and from situations (top-down). The hierarchy is bidirectional so that it is both made of numerous small predictive processes that gradually form bigger contextual predictions[1], as well as bigger predictive processes that shape the smaller processes[2]. These contextual predictions are precisely what directs our emotions and actions so that contextual cues, e.g. being in a church, are continuously picked up and used to guide behavior, e.g. being silent.

According to this view, the homeostasis and the predictive nature of our biology account for a major part of our biological processes. Moving from broad strokes in biology to more concrete human beings, we want to briefly discuss the nature of acting and perceiving under the conviction that we have a predictive nature.

Sensorimotor dynamics

The term ‘dynamic’ refers to the pattern of change as the “[…] phenomena that produce time-changing patterns, the characteristics of the pattern at one time being interrelated with those at other times” (Luenberger, 1979, p. 1). At any moment, the sensation we have is interrelated with that which just has immediately passed and that which is immediately incoming. The ecological psychologist James J. Gibson emphasizes this particular point by indicating that discrete, individual stimuli cannot exist (Gibson, 1950). To Gibson, the prescriptive use of the concepts stimulus and response are problematic as they presume that both stimulus and response are temporally and spatially distinguishable from the incoming and outflowing array of sensory information and response. When analyzed from a temporal perspective, this view assumes that there is an instantaneous transition from one stimulus and response to another.

However, as an ecological alternative, stimuli are instead considered an array of energy with overlapping stimulus and responses occluding one another, which means that at any moment, any stimulus, as it were, cannot be considered in isolation as it is never detached from neither its prior nor incoming stimulus and response (Gibson, 1977; Spivey, 2008). Sensations and responses endure and are continuous while contingent on the dynamics of the brain, body, and environment—they co-exist through co-conditional sensory and motor dynamics. From this continuous view on cognition as process-oriented instead of substance-oriented (Rescher, 2000; Heraclitus, 2003; Nicholson and Dupré, 2018), it follows that there are no sudden changes or jumps neither in sensory flow nor in human experience. Rather, there is a flowing trajectory reflecting our behavior partially as a consequence of the environmental instances constituted by events, objects, and other human beings. It is in this sense that sensations and the processing thereof are directly related to our actions and the potential for action.

Fitting the body

By integrating the body and environment with the brain in understanding our well-being, we inevitably buy into an embodied view of cognition (Beer, 2008; Varela, Thompson and Rosch, 2016). Central to this view is the fit between the physical structure of the body and the potential possibilities for movement and interaction with the environment. This particular fit describes the relationship between an agent and its environment, typically referred to as the agent-environment system (Beer, 1995). As mentioned, this fit is described by the relational entity ‘affordances’, which essentially describes the relation, in terms of acting and perceiving, between an agent and its environment. Notice here that ‘perception’ requires a specific relational attitude towards the environment to make the leap from mere ‘sensation’ to understanding the environment. In other words, affordances reflect embodied predictions related to possible actions and desired external sensations and internal changes (Pezzulo, Rigoli and Friston, 2015; Friston et al., 2017). For instance, when feeling cold and one observes a spot of sunshine, that spot has better affordances (it affords to not be cold, which is desired and thus better) than remaining in the shadow.

Now, if our account is correct, then the sensory systems depend on the same underlying process as for acting, meaning their sensorimotor dynamics can reveal a great deal about the affordances of the users. In other words, the intimate relation between affordances and sensorimotor dynamics suggests that the state of the body and brain highly depends on the encounters with the environment. From an architectural point of view, this means that built architectural spaces constitute the affordances the users encounter in the designed office, living room, bedroom, city square, metro station, airport, classroom, etc. The built environment is difficult, if not impossible, to escape.

Some evidence is starting to surface for the importance of affordances on well-being. The impact of architectural affordances on the human stress system was investigated by Fich et al. (2014). Based on the literature on the fight-or-flight mechanism, they designed a social stress test experiment where cortisol levels would reflect the activity of stress levels. By conducting the social stress test in an open space, where one affords to leave the room, and a closed space, where one does not afford to leave, they showed that cortisol levels were significantly lower in spaces that afford to escape. By appealing to the hormonal system, the responses are slow and thus reflect internal and external changes at a temporal scale of minutes. Faster systems, such as the central nervous system, are reflected in the synaptic activity in the brain that another study attempted to record while varying the affordances of the built environment.

This study was conducted by Djebbara et al. (2019) using a mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) and Virtual Reality to measure the sensorimotor activity of the participants while crossing from one space into another one with varying widths of doors. Of three possible doors, the participants would not be able to pass one of them—the door did not afford to pass. As predicted according to the introduced framework, the dynamics of the sensorimotor brain region reflected the affordances of the doors. There was a significant and systematic change the followed the pattern of affordances of the doors so that the two passable doors did not significantly differ whereas this was the case for the impassable door compared to the others. This holds for both the initial perception of the doors and the continuous process while approaching the doors (Djebbara, Fich and Gramann, 2021).

Interestingly, these studies show that affordances of space affect the hormonal system and the coupling in the sensorimotor system, which according to our view of well-being appears to be critical systems. They thus serve as shreds of evidence that architectural affordances, through the lens of psychobiology, can affect mental, emotional, and physical well-being. The question remains whether there are any examples to demonstrate how this may be applied to encourage and in favor of well-being.

A case in psychopathology

We touch briefly on the major depressive disorder as it serves as an example of the absence of mental, and/or physical well-being. Following the report by American Psychiatric Association on Major Depressive Disorder (MDD)[3] (Gelenberg et al., 2010), common features in MDD include disturbed sleep pattern, appetite, or sexual desire, cognitive dysfunctions where slowed thoughts, poor concentration, distractibility, and reduced capacity to process information were common traits reported by patients. Moreover, diminished attention to self-care and their environment is also displayed by the patients (Belmaker and Agam, 2008; Gelenberg et al., 2010, pp. 60–61). With a massive loss of vitality and ability to enjoy life, the disorder affects the way one feels, thinks, and behaves—these are thus precisely also where the symptoms show.

Particularly stress in the form of cortisol is hypothesized to be involved in depression (Belmaker and Agam, 2008). Without unpacking the anatomical details, it suffices here to know that changing the affordances of the environment also had an impact on the cortisol levels of the users of the space. To be sure, we are not suggesting to perform some reverse inference to conclude that experiencing architecture and having a depression share the same underlying neural mechanisms. Instead, we suggest that designing spaces carefully customized to the affordances of the depressive patients could function like a system of scaffolds towards better concentration, less distractibility, better memory, and so forth.

As our framework emphasizes the sensorimotor system, we also briefly suggest how architectural affordances relate to MDD here. Studies on MDD patients show a reduced thalamic volume (Bora et al., 2012), while electroconvulsive therapy shows volumetric changes in the thalamus are associated with clinical improvements (Takamiya et al., 2020; Wei et al., 2020; Jehna et al., 2021). This is particularly interesting as all sensory information (except olfaction) about the body itself and the immediate environment is relayed through the thalamus, located in the deep brain structures, to the neocortex, located around the deep brain structures (Buzsáki, 2006, p. 177). Thus, the thalamus becomes a critical gate regarding communication between sensory and motor processes in the central nervous system. Furthermore, a new study demonstrates that sensorimotor information flow reflects the severity of depression serving now as a potential signature for clinical use (Ray et al., 2021). Taken together, these studies suggest that sensorimotor brain dynamics are useful to understand the severity of depression and thus function as a signature. Interestingly, as both architectural affordances and the severity of the depression are reflected in sensorimotor areas of the brain, it implies a possible, but unexplored, relation between the design of the environment and the depressive disorder. To unfold how this relation could be speculatively be related, consider the following simplified example.

Consider rearranging your bedroom and living room by moving around the bed, the dinner table, the office table, the books, and posters, etc. All routine movements can no longer unfold in the newly arranged spaces. Notice here that the interaction with the environment was shown to be reflected in the sensorimotor dynamics—similarly, depression-associated changes are identified in the flow of information in the very same dynamics. For instance, in the study by Ray (2021), it was discovered that signals with roots within the body were augmented, while signals from the environment were depreciated, which is typical of depressive symptomatology. Broadly speaking, changing the habituated environment, could generate a feeling of novelty to the routined user, forcing a new interpretation of their relation to the world and thereby enhancing the signals rooted in the environment. The simple alteration of affordances in the space will, according to our view, affect the relationship between body, brain, and environment—however, whether it is a positive or negative change remains up to the individual interpretation. In other words, a new space could mean ‘a new interpretation of me’. The key here is to create changes in the routine environment to enforce new interpretations of the body’s and brain’s relation to the environment. Rearranging the affordances to rearrange our relation with the world is but one speculative suggestion. In line with this thought, the environment can be changed through traveling as well. We emphasize that these suggestions are meant as supports of an extremely serious disorder. There will be challenges, e.g. making the effort to move things around or book traveling tickets, where affordances may serve in a different way, e.g. accessible office and furniture.

Whatever next?

We have attempted to establish a psychobiological framework that ties architecture, homeostasis, and affordances together to form an approach to understand well-being from the view of the built environment. By basing our argument on homeostasis and the emergent predictive nature, we have both a biological and cognitive fundament that takes the whole psychophysiological view seriously. If we understand emotions as the current physiological outcome of the interplay between brain, body, and environment, then we must necessarily integrate environmental features in our thinking and reasoning about the behavioral, bodily, and cortical states that we typically take to reflect well-being. To emphasize the importance of the body, social and affective neurosciences have claimed that since the human capacities that are important in school environments, e.g. learning, attention, memory, social functioning, and decision making, are deeply affected by emotional processes as these guide judgment and action, then a better understanding of the underlying neurobiology must form a new basis for the designing of learning environments (Immordino-Yang and Damasio, 2007).

The use of affordances has served as an important step from biological and cognitive processes, typically considered to be body and brain-related, towards the built environment. Affordances then serve both to inform us about the cognitive processes and the built environment as this embodied view suggests there is an intimate link. Applying this framework to MDD to demonstrate how one might use the environment to address sensorimotor dynamics have served as a medium to explain how architects can be more cautious about the users and to explain how a human-centered design approach could look like.

From a research perspective, the use of mobile neuroimaging techniques with experimental designs that allows natural behaviors to unfold with architectural variability could lead to discoveries regarding how the affordances of space affect the brain. On one hand, psychopathological groups with known brain lesions can reveal what networks in the brain are affected by the changes in the environment. On the other hand, qualitative interviews and questionnaires can also reveal the impact of architectural alterations on the experience. Neurophenomenology is the combination of both as it is a methodological attempt at coupling neuroimaging with subjective reports that involve deep interviews and fine-grained descriptions of experience. Ties between architecture and neurophenomenology have been suggested before (Jelić et al., 2016; Djebbara, 2021).

Essentially, we do not pretend that this framework is complete, but merely state that we have linked the first puzzles together for the many to come in the future, for instance by trying to understand other psychopathologies, the cultural layer of architecture, the importance of architecture during the developmental phase, and so on. In brief, the spaces we inhabit appear to be a part of us.

References

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[1] For instance, seeing a person on the roof that is dressed in red and white with a bag over the shoulders climbing down someone’s chimney and then inferring it must be burglars.
[2] For instance, inferring that it cannot be burglars and must be Santa Claus as it is in fact Christmas.
[3] MDD is an extremely complicated and serious disorder that goes beyond the scope of this relative short paper. We will, however, include that as comorbidity is not atypical in MDD, it is difficult to uncover the traits and features of exclusively MDD. The influence of dysthymic disorder, anxiety disorder, dementia, personality disorder, and so forth, complicates both treatment and the identification of MDD, and it is thus more complicated than we portray it in the paper.

Neuroscience and Architecture: Modulating behavior through sensorimotor responses to the built environment (2022)

Djebbara, Z. et al. (2022) ‘Neuroscience and Architecture: Modulating behavior through sensorimotor responses to the built environment’, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, p. 104715. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2022.104715.

Open access, right here.

Abstract

As we move through the world, natural and built environments implicitly guide behavior by appealing to certain sensory and motor dynamics. This process can be motivated by automatic attention to environmental features that resonate with specific sensorimotor responses. This review aims at providing a psychobiological framework describing how environmental features can lead to automated sensorimotor responses through defined neurophysiological mechanisms underlying attention. Through the use of automated processes in subsets of cortical structures, the goal of this framework is to describe on a neuronal level the functional link between the designed environment and sensorimotor responses. By distinguishing between environmental features and sensorimotor responses we elaborate on how automatic behavior employs the environment for sensorimotor adaptation. This is realized through a thalamo-cortical network integrating environmental features with motor aspects of behavior. We highlight the underlying transthalamic transmission from an Enactive and predictive perspective and review recent studies that effectively modulated behavior by systematically manipulating environmental features. We end by suggesting a promising combination of neuroimaging and computational analysis for future studies.

The Embodiment of Architectural Experience: A Methodological Perspective on Neuro-Architecture (2022)

Wang, S., Sanches de Oliveira, G., Djebbara, Z. and Gramann, K. (2022) ‘The Embodiment of Architectural Experience: A Methodological Perspective on Neuro-Architecture’, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2022.833528.

Read the full paper here.

People spend a large portion of their time inside built environments. Research in neuro-architecture—the neural basis of human perception of and interaction with the surrounding architecture—promises to advance our understanding of the cognitive processes underlying this common human experience and also to inspire evidence-based architectural design principles. This article examines the current state of the field and offers a path for moving closer to fulfilling this promise. The paper is structured in three sections, beginning with an introduction to neuro-architecture, outlining its main objectives and giving an overview of experimental research in the field. Afterward, two methodological limitations attending current brain-imaging architectural research are discussed: the first concerns the limited focus of the research, which is often restricted to the aesthetic dimension of architectural experience; the second concerns practical limitations imposed by the typical experimental tools and methods, which often require participants to remain stationary and prevent naturalistic interaction with architectural surroundings. Next, we propose that the theoretical basis of ecological psychology provides a framework for addressing these limitations and motivates emphasizing the role of embodied exploration in architectural experience, which encompasses but is not limited to aesthetic contemplation. In this section, some basic concepts within ecological psychology and their convergences with architecture are described. Lastly, we introduce Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI) as one emerging brain imaging approach with the potential to improve the ecological validity of neuro-architecture research. Accordingly, we suggest that combining theoretical and conceptual resources from ecological psychology with state-of-the-art neuroscience methods (Mobile Brain/Body Imaging) is a promising way to bring neuro-architecture closer to accomplishing its scientific and practical goals.

Architectural affordances: linking action, perception, and cognition (2022)

Djebbara, Z. and Gramann, K. (2022) ‘Architectural affordances: linking action, perception, and cognition’, in Brain, Beauty, and Art: Essays Bringing Neuroaesthetics into Focus. Oxford University Press.

Request the full paper here, and remember to buy the treat of a book Brain, Beauty, and Art: Essays bringing neuroaesthetics into focus.

Imagine not being in space – impossible! The environment is experienced effortlessly, simply through our being in a place. It requires no more than simple perceptions to assemble a stable world. Yet, architecture – the art of designing the built environment – can tell awe-inspiring stories beyond describing stable buildings. It shapes and molds the spaces, which in turn function as the fundamental settings on which the stories and events of our lives unfold. Architects quite literally shape our world. In doing so, they change the appearance of the future world and reinvent our relationship to the surrounding space. This appreciation calls for a renewed understanding of how architects affect the human being. Paraphrasing the poet Rumi, it would be clever to change the world but wise to change ourselves. Emphasizing the human as the center of architectural design requires a change of attitude. The effort to reinvent and renew architecture must be informed by our attitude towards the built environment.

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.

Scene and Place Preferences: Insights from Psychology and Neuroscience (2021)

Vartanian, O., Walther, D. B., Djebbara, Z., & Gosling, S. (2021) ‘Scene and Place Preferences: Insights from Psychology and Neuroscience’, in XXVI Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics 2021. London/Virtual Conference.

Full proceedings also found here.

Outline. Our aesthetic responses to objects extend to natural scenes and indoor places. Interestingly, people exhibit greater variability in their aesthetic responses to human artifacts such as interior architecture than they do to natural phenomena such as landscapes. This suggests that the behavioral relevance of natural scenes triggers fairly consistent information processing across individuals, whereas architectural interiors reflect aesthetic sensibilities that reflect varying experiences. However, to date, we know little about specific factors that drive our preferences for scenes or places. This symposium’s aim is to present cutting-edge research in the domains of psychology, neuroscience and computational modelling on the psychological and neurological underpinnings of scene and place preferences. Focusing on scenes, Walther et al. used computational methods to derive an objective measure of complexity, and used fMRI to show that it was associated with activation in early visual areas, whereas subjective complexity ratings were associated with activation in high-level visual areas. Djebbara et al. used a Mobile Brain/Body Imaging approach that integrated Virtual Reality with mobile EEG to demonstrate that early perceptual processes vary as a function of affordances upon scene perception, suggesting that action and perception are inherently related. Gosling et al. examined which ambiances people desire as a function of occupational settings, perspectives, and individual spaces, aiming to create a taxonomy of ambiances to inform theory and practice in environmental psychology. Finally,
Vartanian et al. present psychological and neurological data to show that people’s preferences for interior architecture are influenced by bidirectional bottom-up and top-down processes.


Dirk B. Walther, Elizabeth Yue Zhou, Claudia Damiano, John Wilder: Relating Brain Activity to Subjective and Pixel-based Complexity Measures

Visual complexity is an important mediator for visual aesthetics, yet there is a lack of consensus over the best way to objectively measure it. Here we propose two computational methods for measuring perceived complexity. The first is Multiscale Entropy (MSE), which measures information content of an image at multiple spatial scales. Secondly, since the compression algorithm in the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format implements Huffman coding, we use PNG file size as an information-theoretically optimal measure of non-lossy compressibility of the image information. We collected subjective complexity, symmetry and aesthetics pleasure ratings from Amazon Mechanical Turk for 6929 images from the BOLD5000 and SUN image datasets. Both the MSE and the PNG method are positively correlated with human complexity ratings, explaining about 10% (BOLD5000) and 20% (SUN) of the variance. We also found positive correlations of complexity ratings with those of pleasure (r=0.43) and symmetry (r=0.28). Does this mean that those simple, pixel-based algorithms are a good approximation for the subjective experience of complexity? To answer this question we compared the fMRI activity of participants viewing the images with pixel-based complexity measures and complexity ratings. We find that pixel-based complexity measures are associated with activation in visual areas V1 to V4, whereas subjective complexity ratings are associated with activation in high-level visual areas PPA, RSC and LO. This finding supports the view that our algorithms only capture low-level features in images, and illustrates that higher-level information should be included in models to better match the subjective experience of complexity.


Zak Djebbara, Lars Brorson Fich, Klaus Gramann: How Are Architectural Features Reflected in the Brain?

On an enactive account, perception and action are inherently related so that scene perception can be characterized by the capacities for movement. For the majority, everyday scene perception is likely to be of architectural features that afford certain actions relying on sensorimotor processes associated with exploring the surroundings. We sought to understand how architectural affordances are reflected in the brain upon perceiving an environment and during the interaction. To answer this question, we used a Mobile Brain/Body Imaging approach that integrates Virtual Reality with mobile EEG. Our participants (n = 19) were exposed to architectural transitions with varying affordances they had to interact with. We analyzed the time and frequency domains upon perceiving the scene and while approaching the door, respectively. Our results demonstrate that early perceptual processes vary as a function of affordances upon perceiving the scene providing evidence that action is inherently related to perception. While approaching the transition, the source-level time-frequency analysis revealed a strong alpha desynchronization originating from the posterior cingulate complex, the parahippocampal regions, as well as the occipital cortex, fluctuating as a function of the affordances. We conclude that sensorimotor brain dynamics reflect behavior-relevant features and that to perceive a scene is to continuously construct a prediction of the scene dependent on our action potential. These results indicate that anticipation in time is as important as the object in space during scene perception.


Samuel D. Gosling, Stacy Speck, Joel Anderson: The Structure and Distribution of Desired Ambiances Within Residential and Work Settings

What characteristics do people desire in the various spaces within their homes and workplaces? Most fundamentally, the spaces must meet basic physical needs, such as regulating temperature, light, and humidity. They must also afford security and support the successful completion of a range of personal, professional, and social activities (e.g., cooking, working, bathing, sleeping). Most home and workspaces meet such goals. But people typically want to do more than meet their basic physical needs and undertake their daily activities; they also want to regulate their cognitive and affective states. Occupants of a home may seek spaces that afford companionship, rejuvenation, relaxation, romance, fun, and a sense of coziness, family, and welcomeness. Office occupants may seek spaces that promote creativity, productivity, organization, and foster a sense of respect, safety, and community. Little is known about these less concrete, psychological features, or “ambiances” that people may want in their home and work spaces. Here we seek to map the basic terrain of desired ambiances. Using data gathered from adults working across a range of occupational settings, we ask which ambiances do people desire in their workspaces and how do the desired ambiances vary across occupational settings (e.g., commercial, health-care, education), across perspectives (e.g., nurse vs. patient; teacher vs.
student), and individual spaces (e.g., entrance, office, meeting room, circulation space). Ultimately, we hope to create a taxonomy of ambiances that will inform theory on environmental preferences and will provide a practical framework for practitioners in architecture and design.


Oshin Vartanian, Letizia Palumbo, Anjan Chatterjee: Exploring Preference for Architectural Interiors: Top-down and Bottom-up Approaches

Our research into the psychological and neurological underpinnings of preference for architectural interiors has involved two approaches. On the one hand, we have examined the impact of various physical features of architectural design (e.g., contour) on preference. This research has shown that the impact of design features on choice is moderated by both context and individual differences. For example, architects and designers exhibit greater sensitivity than laypeople to contour in the context of aesthetic judgments, whereas laypeople exhibit greater sensitivity to contour than architects and designers in the context of approach-avoidance decisions. In addition, compared to neurotypical controls, persons with autism spectrum disorder are more likely to exhibit preference for architectural interiors with angular design in the context of aesthetic judgments but not approachavoidance decisions—an effect driven by their atypical emotional and perceptual processing, or familiarity. A second line of research has involved exploring the impact of higher-order psychological dimensions on preference for architectural interiors. Specifically, we have shown that preference for architectural interiors can be explained using Coherence (ease for organizing and comprehending a scene), Fascination (a scene’s informational richness and generated interest), and Hominess (how much a space feels personal). In turn, these dimensions have dissociable neural correlates in the visual cortex. Our current work has shown that the influence of these dimensions is moderated by individual differences, involving comparisons among neurotypical controls, persons with autism spectrum disorder, and design students. We will demonstrate that preference for architectural interiors is strongly modulated by bottom-up and top-down processes.

Spar Nord Foundation’s Research Prize 2021

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been awarded Spar Nord Foundation’s Research Prize this year, 2021, for my PhD thesis. I need to thank a lot of people for their efforts and unwavering support.

My thesis, Expecting Space: an enactive and active inference approach to transitions, is a philosophical, psychological and cognitive neuroscientific approach to the experience and impact of architectural transitions. Central to the thesis is the ecological concept ‘affordance’, that I take as a relational measure between body, brain, and environment. The research results show that we are practically minded with the body in the center. By measuring brain activity as people perceive transitions, it turns out that the brain considers how I can move as part of what I can perceive. The results also pointed out that our expectations have a continuous impact on both the brain and the body. This means that we continuously expect how the rooms can be used. When we enter a space, our experience of space depends not only on our senses, but also how we can use the space. A surprising conclusion, especially from an architect’s point of view, is that our experience of the world is designed in time and expectation rather than just in space. Architecture is thus more than space alone. The thesis brings together science, humanism and biology , and thus take architectural research into a whole new field, where it is no longer space alone that plays a role, but both the human body and the brain are introduced.

Science Talks: Just how does space impact well-being and learning? (2021)

As the kind of living organisms we are, we are in many ways dependent on our ability to act in space to thrive and survive. Thus, our brain is constantly preoccupied with predicting our possibilities to act spatially and adjust both body and brain accordingly. As we mostly live in manmade environments, this ongoing adjustment means that certain aspects of the design of spaces might have a direct influence on the state of the body and the brain.

Zakaria Djebbara is an architect from Aalborg University who defended his Ph.D. in 2020 in the cross-section of architecture, neuroscience, and philosophy. He is currently a postdoc at Aalborg University and committed to understanding the relationship between brain activity and the experience of architecture by an experimental approach.

Lars Brorson Fich graduated from the Aarhus School of Architecture in 1984 and work as a practicing architect until he turned to research at Aalborg University in 2008. He defended his Ph.D. entitled “Towards a Neuroaffective Approach to Healing Architecture” in 2014 and is today an Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture, Design, and Media Technology.

Both Zakaria Djebbara and Lars Brorson Fich are members of the BBAR (Brain, Body, Architecture Research group) at Aalborg University.

A conversation – Corporeal Architecture (2021)

A conversation with Dr. Maria da Piedade Ferreira, founder of Corporeal Architecture and Lecturer at Hochschule für Technik Stuttgart – HFT and ACE – Center for Education of the Academy for Neuroscience for Architecture. This the second of a cycle, as joint initiative from the YouTube channel Corporeal Architecture.

The conversation focused on the role of affordances in the built environment. Starting from sensory capacities to experience, it is discussed how discovered architectural affordances might shape our expectations and thus experience.