(Preprint) Anticipation in architectural experience: a computational neurophenomenology for architecture? (2020)

Djebbara, Z.,
Parr, T. and Friston, K. (2020) ‘Anticipation in architectural experience: a computational neurophenomenology for architecture?’ Available at: http://arxiv.org/abs/2011.03852

The perceptual experience of architecture is enacted by the sensory and motor system. When we act, we change the perceived environment according to a set of expectations that depend on our body and the built environment. The continuous process of collecting sensory information is thus based on bodily affordances. Affordances characterize the fit between the physical structure of the body and capacities for movement in the built environment. Since little has been done regarding the role of architectural design in the emergence of perceptual experience on a neuronal level, this paper offers a first step towards the role of architectural design in perceptual experience. An approach to synthesize concepts from computational neuroscience with architectural phenomenology into a computational neurophenomenology is considered. The outcome is a framework under which studies of architecture and cognitive neuroscience can be cast. In this paper, it is first argued that the experience of space is an embodied process—realized through action-perception as directed by affordances. Second, we integrate a sensorimotor contingency theory with a predictive coding architecture of the brain that in turn links the perceptual experience of forms and action possibilities with neuronal processes. Here, we argue that the sum of action possibilities and the inferred precision thereof can reflect the understanding of the designed space, while at the same time underwrite the basis for the perceptual experience. To this end, affordances are inherently related to perceptual experience. Finally, by reviewing recent empirical evidence we propose a principle of anticipation in architectural experience.

State-space in three dimensions of action policies. For example, the three axes may indicate the first, second, and third action in a policy. Each policy is designated by a box where the size and color are relative to the expected free energy. A. A fictive example of high expected free energy among action policies without any apparent attractor. Such a state suggests a high degree of uncertainty about how to act. B. A fictive example of two attractors, i.e. competing action policies, in terms of their expected free energy. This could for instance be an ambiguous figure.

Full paper here.

(Preprint) Architectural Affordance Impacts Human Sensorimotor Brain Dynamics (2020)

Djebbara, Z., Fich, L. B. and Gramann, K. (2020) ‘Architectural Affordance Impacts Human Sensorimotor Brain Dynamics’, bioRxiv. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, p. 2020.10.18.344267. doi: 10.1101/2020.10.18.344267.

Action is a medium of collecting sensory information about the environment, which in turn is shaped by architectural affordances. Affordances characterize the fit between the physical structure of the body and capacities for movement and interaction with the environment, thus relying on sensorimotor processes associated with exploring the surroundings. Central to sensorimotor brain dynamics, the attentional mechanisms directing the gating function of sensory signals share neuronal resources with motor-related processes necessary to inferring the external causes of sensory signals. Such a predictive coding approach suggests that sensorimotor dynamics are sensitive to architectural affordances that support or suppress specific kinds of actions for an individual. However, how architectural affordances relate to the attentional mechanisms underlying the gating function for sensory signals remains unknown. Here we demonstrate that event-related desynchronization of alpha-band oscillations in parieto-occipital and medio-temporal regions covary with the architectural affordances. Source-level time-frequency analysis of data recorded in a motor-priming Mobile Brain/Body Imaging experiment revealed strong event-related desynchronization of the alpha band to originate from the posterior cingulate complex and bilateral parahippocampal areas. Our results firstly contribute to the understanding of how the brain resolves architectural affordances relevant to behaviour. Second, our results indicate that the alpha-band originating from the posterior cingulate complex covaries with the architectural affordances before participants interact with the environment. During the interaction, the bilateral parahippocampal areas dynamically reflect the affordable behaviour as perceived through the visual system. We conclude that the sensorimotor dynamics are developed for processing behaviour-relevant features in the designed environment.

The full preprint can be found here.

Architectural affordance systematically alter parieto-occipital alpha-band desynchronization (2020)

Djebbara, Z., Fich, L. B. and Gramann, K. (2020) ‘Architectural affordance systematically alter parieto-occipital alpha-band desynchronization’, in ANFA 2020: Sensing spaces, perceiving place. San Diego, US: ANFA.

Stay tuned for the full-paper with improvements!

Transitions are among the most fundamental architectural elements, as they distinguish between inside and outside (1). Over millennials, architectural transitions have been shaped by human beings in various forms, making them both ar­chitecturally and biologically attractive. Because transitions extend in time and space and depend on the human body’s capabilities to propel itself through space, we used a Mobile Brain/Body Imaging approach (MoBI; 2–4) with high-density electrocenphalography (EEG) synchronized to head mounted virtual reality to investigate the animate human transition from one space to another with varying affordances. As a continuation of previous enticing results (5), we performed a time-frequency analysis on the source-level of recorded in-actio brain activity. By varying the width of the passage, we regulated the affordances, i.e. narrow or wide openings, which allowed exploring the animate body towards transitions and to investigate how such processes are expressed in the time-frequency domain of human brain dynamics. As the alpha-band oscillations have been implicated to regulate the responsivity in sensorimotor areas, particularly as a function of predicted spatial attention (6), we hypothesized to find event-related desynchronization (ERD) in the alpha-band. Specifically, the attenuations within the alpha-band were expected to co-vary with the architectural affordances both upon perceiving the opening and well as while approaching the transition. The hypothesis retrieved from active inference (7–9) suggests that during movement, the continuous affordances are expressed as suppression of proprioceptive prediction-errors while the embodied brain becomes more certain of the environment and, thus, planned movements. Affordances in the context of the subject in this experiment can thus be interpreted as a function of top-down attention expressed in the alpha-band oscillation. Given the dependence on sensorimotor activity, e.g. action-perception, these results are particularly appealing to active inference and enactivism. Our study investigates to which extent affordances are reflected in the neuronal responses and how architecture is embedded in cortical processes.


  1. Laugier M-A. An essay on architecture. Herrmann W, Herrmann A, editors. Los Angeles: Hennessey & Ingalls; 2009.
  2. Makeig S, Gramann K, Jung T-P, Sejnowski TJ, Poizner H. Linking brain, mind and behavior. Int J Psychophysiol. 2009 Aug 1;73(2):95–100.
  3. Gramann K, Gwin JT, Ferris DP, Oie K, Jung T-P, Lin C-T, et al. Cognition in action: imaging brain/body dynamics in mobile humans. Rev Neurosci. 2011 Jan 1;22(6):593–608.
  4. Gramann K, Jung T-P, Ferris DP, Lin C-T, Makeig S. Toward a new cognitive neuroscience: modeling natural brain dynamics. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:444.
  5. Djebbara Z, Fich LB, Petrini L, Gramann K. Sensorimotor brain dynamics reflect architectural affordances. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2019 Jul 16;116(29):14769–78.
  6. Rohenkohl G, Nobre AC. Alpha oscillations related to anticipatory attention follow temporal expectations. J Neurosci. 2011 Oct 5;31(40):14076–84.
  7. Pezzulo G, Cisek P. Navigating the Affordance Landscape: Feedback Control as a Process Model of Behavior and Cognition. Trends Cogn Sci. 2016;20(6):414–24.
  8. Adams RA, Shipp S, Friston KJ. Predictions not commands: Active inference in the motor system. Vol. 218, Brain Structure and Function. 2013. p. 611–43.
  9. Friston KJ, Shiner T, FitzGerald T, Galea JM, Adams R, Brown H, et al. Dopamine, Affordance and Active Inference. Sporns O, editor. PLoS Comput Biol. 2012 Jan 5;8(1):e1002327.

Placing “process” in the spotlight: Architectural education as a testing ground for cognitive science-design translation (2020)

Jelić, A., Djebbara, Z., Fich, L., and Tvedebrink, T. (2020) ‘Placing “process” in the spotlight: Architectural education as a testing ground for cognitive science- design translation’, in ANFA 2020: Sensing spaces, perceiving place. San Diego, US: ANFA.

As the field of neuro- and cognitive science for architecture advances, the question of how research produced can be implemented in architectural design education is ever more pertinent. Two key translational challenges can be identified. On the one hand, due to the necessarily perspectival nature of all scientific knowledge [1], the conversion of research results into design principles and guidelines results in a methodologically “biased” and reduced understanding of architectural experience, often further restricted by an interpretation of available neuroscientific and cognitive theories. At the same time, in the practice of research-based design, the translational challenge is largely influenced by the communication discrepancy between rigorous scientific, expert knowledge and the creative design process [2]; an issue often underestimated in educational programs. Moreover, “most architects/designers are not well educated in terms of research methods […] and lack the rather sophisticated skills needed to read and critically evaluate work involving the measurement of human performance, feelings, perceptions and attitudes” [3].

This contribution brings forward results of our three-year teaching experiences in the master course “Architecture, Health and Well-being” in the architectural design engineering education. The course aims to address research-to-design challenges by training students: (a) in critical reading and assessment of academic/scientific literature; (b) in scholarship merging scientific findings with architectural theories; (c) through different user experience methods [4] for “translating” and implementing research-based knowledge for creative design process.

Through analysis of (a)-(c) methods tested in the course, we ask if rethinking formats for knowledge exchange and communication from science to design can improve today’s challenges. Our conclusions indicate that students require a variety of methodological tools and respective training to handle the complexity of “translating” critical-reflective scientific thinking into creative-explorative design thinking. Our goal is to discuss how to develop design methods/tools within architecture education, which exemplify how cognitive science can inform a coherent, holistic, and creative understanding of architecture. Considering education as an important research dissemination forum and increasing focus on research-based design in professional practice, we call for addressing the “translation gap” between cognitive science and design in architectural education through more systematic research on the process of translation itself.


  1. Alrøe HF, Noe E. 2014 Second-Order Science of Interdisciplinary Research: A Polyocular Framework for Wicked Problems. Constr. Found. 10, 65–76.
  2. Van der Linden V, Dong H, Heylighen A. 2016 From accessibility to experience: Opportunities for inclusive design in architectural practice. Nord. Arkit. (Nordic J. Archit. Res. , 33–58.
  3. Lawson B. 2013 Design and the Evidence. Procedia – Soc. Behav. Sci. 105, 30–37. (doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.11.004)
  4. Tvedebrink TDO, Jelić A. 2018 Getting under the(ir) skin: Applying personas and scenarios with body-environment research for improved understanding of users’ perspective in architectural design. Pers. Stud. 4, 5. (doi:10.21153/psj2018vol4no2art746)

(Phd) Expecting space: an enactive and active inference approach to transitions (2020)

Djebbara, Z. (2020)Expecting space: an enactive and active inference approach to transitions. Aalborg Universitetsforlag. Ph.d.-serien for Det Tekniske Fakultet for IT og Design, Aalborg Universitet

The following thesis is an interdisciplinary investigation of architectural transitions cast as a composite of space and experience in time. Dispersed between philosophy, architecture and cognitive neuroscience, the thesis also attempts to provide an empirically plausible neuroscientific framework that best explains the human experience of architectural transitions. Accordingly, the thesis is neither a pure study of space nor of the human, but instead, an investigation of the dynamics that emerge between the body and space during transitions. To this end, a falsifiable hypothesis is derived from the framework and tested to assess the quality of the framework.

Throughout thousands of years, architectural transitions have been shaped
by human beings for various reasons—this makes this transhistorical both architecturally and biologically attractive. Transitions extend in time and space and depend heavily on the human body’s capabilities to propel itself through space. For this reason, the emerging experience caused by transitions is analysed as a composite of space and time, which biologically translates to an investigation of action-perception. A phenomenological approach to the emergence of perception over time establishes conditions for an empirically plausible neuroscientific framework, which in turn provides a meaningful explanation of the dynamics between human experience and architectural transitions. Indeed, the following thesis is an attempt to synthesise phenomenological arguments with a prominent theory of brain activity. Active inference, as a computational approach to cognition and cortical activity, is attempted bridged with enactivism, which is a phenomenological and sensorimotor account of experience, to demonstrate how the environment emerges as an experience in the dynamics themselves. Essentially, transitions in the human experience, as a structure of change, are argued to be the genesis of experience itself—transitions become both the question and the answer, albeit, on different terms.

The phenomenological framework is heavily based on the temporal nature
in human experience and its characterisation as inherently bodily, i.e. the world emerges through an active experience through enactive sensory systems. If the dynamics of enactive biological systems are affected by architectural design, it implies that architectural design can affect the human experience through short term processes, on which the long-term processes, e.g. the psychological expectation of space, are based.

The free energy principle, i.e. active inference, is an application of Bayes’ theorem to investigate biological systems through computational models. Portraying the human body as a dynamic system that must resist environmental disorder through homeostasis, fundamental processes as action-perception can be described as the consequential outcome of minimising uncertainty about the environment.

On a cellular level, the process of emergence is the outcome of dynamic self-organising systems, which is the very foundation of action-perception. By providing a thorough analysis of the computational process, it is revealed that knowing how is inherently different from knowing that, which indeed makes the computational approach more appealing as it aligns with the philosophical and enactive account of human experience. Active inference is essentially demonstrated to fit an embodied, embedded, enactive and extended account of cognition, rather than a traditional sandwich-model account to cognition.

In sum, the thesis may be taken as (1) an account of how architectural research may go beyond traditional methods and address questions that are currently not in the vocabulary of architects, (2) a computational neurophenomenological account of experience that provides a meaningful explanation of the emergence of architectural experience and (3) an answer to how do architecture impact experience and body on a sensory-level, from how the world is perceived.

The full PhD thesis can be downloaded here and here.

Sensorimotor brain dynamics reflect architectural affordances (2019)

Djebbara, Z., Brorson Fich, L., Petrini, L., & Gramann, K. (2019). Sensorimotor brain dynamics reflect architectural affordances. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America116(29), 14769-14778.

Anticipating meaningful actions in the environment is an essential function of the brain. Such predictive mechanisms originate from the motor system and allow for inferring actions from environmental affordances, and the potential to act within a specific environment. Using architecture, we provide a unique perspective on the ongoing debate in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy on whether cognition depends on movement or is decoupled from our physical structure. To investigate cognitive processes associated with architectural affordances, we used a mobile brain/body imaging approach recording brain activity synchronized to head-mounted displays. Participants perceived and acted on virtual transitions ranging from nonpassable to easily passable. We found that early sensory brain activity, on revealing the environment and before actual movement, differed as a function of affordances. In addition, movement through transitions was preceded by a motor-related negative component that also depended on affordances. Our results suggest that potential actions afforded by an environment influence perception.

Full paper available here.

Understanding Perceptual Experience of Art Using Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (2019)

Djebbara, Z., Brorson Fich, L., & Gramann, K. (2019). Understanding Perceptual Experience of Art Using Mobile Brain/Body Imaging. I A. Nijholt (red.), Brain Art: Brain-Computer Interfaces for Artistic Expression (s. 265-282). [9] Springer.

This chapter draws on the importance of movement for human perceptual
experience and how it influences brain dynamics. By use of Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI), artists with interest in the experience of art can get insights into human cortical activity during artworks. Specifically, art that depends on action faces challenges regarding the exploration of human brain activity during their artistic acts or performances. We give an account of how architectural experience, which essentially rests on perception and movement, can be investigated using a MoBI method. We present results from studies that indicate fundamental differences in cognitive and behavioural responses when comparing active behaviour compared to passive perception. Consideration of the processes underlying movement and cognition suggests that action alters perception, which in turn alters experience. MoBI is therefore able to reveal aspects of natural cognition, which would otherwise go unnoticed highlighting the advantage of using MoBI in animate forms of art.

Full paper available here.

Does views to nature and the design of spaces matter? A pain stress experiment (2018)

Fich, L. B., Gimmler, A., Petrini, L., Jelic, A., Djebbara, A. Z., & Jönsson, P. (2018)Does views to nature and the design of spaces matter? A pain stress experiment. I Academy of neuroscience for Architecture: Shared Behavioral Outcomes (s. 68-69).

Previously, we have shown that the design of spaces can influence the physiological stress reaction to psychosocial stress in terms of the stress hormone cortisol [1]. In the current experiment, we examined the physiological reaction to a pain stressor (the Cold Pressor Test). We used three different computer models in a virtual environment (a Cave): a closed room, a room with openings onto an empty landscape potentially allowing for escape, and due to the general consensus that a view to nature is de-stressing [e.g. 2,3,4], a room with a view to nature through the openings. We predicted that we would find the highest cortisol level in the closed room and the lowest one in the room with a view to nature. We measured reactivity of the autonomous nervous system (ANS) with high frequency heart rate variability (parasympathetic activity), and T-wave amplitude (sympathetic activity) recording, and HPAaxis reactivity with saliva cortisol levels. I contrast to the previous experiment with psychosocial stress, there was no significant difference in cortisol levels for any condition. There was no significant difference in ANS activation between the closed and open room, but contrary to consensus, the stress reaction was significantly strongest in the nature condition (fig.1).

Figure 1 – Heart rate, reactivity of the autonomous nervous system measured with high frequency heart rate variability (parasympathetic activity), and T-wave amplitude (sympathetic activity – low values corresponds to high activity).

This might be explained by the fact that our experiment, as far as we know, is the only one in which participants have been exposed to the natural setting during both baseline measurements, stressor and a subsequent de-stressing period, while previous experiments solely have concentrated on the de-stressing effect. We have now tested two different stressors in the same computer model with different outcomes (fig.2), implying that the effect of a space depends on a combination of the design and on the events taking place in the space. This hints at the limitations of architecture as architects can only control the design of the environment and challenges one-to-one designs of studies of reaction to architectural stimuli. As the referred experiments is just two limited studies, this calls for further research and for discussion on the affordances of spaces [5,6].

Figure 2 – Participants Saliva cortisol levels measured in Virtual Reality (Cave) computer models of a closed space (closed line) and a space with openings (dotted line), when exposed to a pain stressor (left) and a psychosocial stressor (right). As can be seen, the stress reaction depended on the design of the space as well as on the type of stressful event that took place within the space.


  1. Fich, L.B., Jönsson, P., Kirkegaard, P.H., Wallergård, M., Garde, A.H., Hansen, Å., 2014. Can architectural design alter the physiological reaction to psychosocial stress? A virtual TSST experiment. Physiology & Behavior 135, pp. 91-97
  2. Ulrich, R.S., Simons, R.F., Losito, B.D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M.A., Zelson, M., 1991. Stress Recovery During Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, pp. 201-230
  3. Van Den Berg, A.E., Custers, M.H.G., 2011. Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress. Journal of health Psychology, 16(1), pp. 3-11
  4. Brown, D.K., Barton, J.L., Gladwell, V.F., 2013. Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress. Environmental Science & Technology, 47, pp. 5562-5569
  5. Gibson, J.J., 1986. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Psychology Press; Taylor & Francis Group.
  6. Clark, A., 1999. An embodied cognitive science? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3(9), pp. 345-351.

Investigating spatial affordances in architecture using MoBI and VR (2018)

Djebbara, A. Z., Fich, L. B., Petrini, L., & Gramann, K. (2018)Incentive architecture: Investigating spatial affordances in architecture using MoBI and VR. I Conference Proceedings of the 3rd International Mobile Brain/Body Imaging Conference (s. 106-107)


Sequences of spaces are known to architects to have a certain impact on the perception and affective evaluation of spaces (1). Transitions themselves can be defined in time by the juncture between two spaces, and spatially as a delineating threshold between them, generally revealing a possibility for passing the threshold. Here, we investigated transitions using openings as delineating threshold, to gain a deeper understanding of the perceived affordance (2) of crossing the openings and how this impacts evaluation of the space. Transitioning from space to space includes coordinating the body according to certain spatial delineations, such as openings, and their configuration. We position this study as a link to the broader investigation of cognitive predictive mechanisms to better understand architectural transitions. The aim of this study is to investigate whether the physical passing, referring to affordances and active inference (3–5), co-vary with the motor-related cortical potentials (MRCPs), and whether these correlate with the emotional valence.


Using a Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI) approach (6–8) we combined head-mounted virtual reality (VR) with mobile electroencephalogram (EEG), to investigate transition through different virtual openings. Participants were asked to transition between two spaces passing through openings of varying width and successive ceiling height. Participants were introduced openings that were too narrow to pass and openings that were difficult, but possible to pass, as well as easily passable (see figure). The task entailed an action-dependent transit (50% of trials), with the final goal to reach a red circle in the successive space. After each trial participants were asked to fill in the SAM-questionnaire.


We hypothesized to find more positive MRCP activity in pre-frontal and parietal areas prior to action in spaces that provide higher affordances, compared to spaces that hinder the agent (9). Furthermore, we investigate whether the ceiling height of the successive space has an emotional influence, and whether the MRCPs may correlate with the introspective decisions.


This study investigates the neural dynamics underlying action and cognition as predictive mechanisms revealing first insights into the affective influences of transitions on spatial perception of sequentially experienced spaces. Moving beyond stationary architectural investigations, such as pictures, transitions in VR provide an excellent point of departure for animate architectural investigations. Further, this investigation contributes to the architectural discourse of defining spatial threshold, suggesting the threshold of space goes beyond sole visual representation, and in turn also depend on sufficiently re-orchestrating the planned bodily trajectory. Transitions in architecture are non-stationary experiences, as most of architectural experience, and such animate insights of the impact of action-dependent transitions give rise to questioning fundamental architectural themes, such as open-spaces, corners, flow and homogeneity. Mobile EEG studies of architectural settings are crucial to better understand the bodily impact of a constantly growing built environment.


  1. Moretti L, Bucci F, Mulazzani M, DeConciliis M. Luigi Moretti: Works and writings. Princeton Architectural Press; 2002. 232 p.
  2. Gibson J. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin- Boston. 1979.
  3. Friston K, Mattout J, Kilner J. Action understanding and active inference. Biol Cybern. 2011 Feb 17;104(1–2):137–60.
  4. Friston KJ, Kilner J, Harrison L. A free energy principle for the brain. J Physiol. 2006 Jul 1;100(1–3):70–87.
  5. Bruineberg J, Kiverstein J, Rietveld E. The anticipating brain is not a scientist: the free-energy principle from an ecological-enactive perspective. Synthese. 2016 Oct 21;1–28. A
  6. Makeig S, Gramann K, Jung T-P, Sejnowski TJ, Poizner H. Linking brain, mind and behavior. Int J Psychophysiol. 2009 Aug;73(2):95–100.
  7. Gramann K, Gwin JT, Ferris DP, Oie K, Jung T-P, Lin C-T, et al. Cognition in action: imaging brain/body dynamics in mobile humans. Rev Neurosci. 2011 Jan 1 [cited 2018 Mar 6];22(6):593–608.
  8. Gramann K, Jung T-P, Ferris DP, Lin C-T, Makeig S. Toward a new cognitive neuroscience: modeling natural brain dynamics. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:444.
  9. Bozzacchi C, Spinelli D, Pitzalis S, Giusti MA, Di Russo F. I know what I will see: action-specific motor preparation activity in a passive observation task. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015;10(6):783–9.


Poster can be found here.