(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.

Neural Correlates of Spatial Affordances During Transition in Architectural Settings (2018)

Djebbara, A. Z., Fich, L. B., Petrini, L., & Gramann, K. (2018). Incentive Architecture: Neural Correlates of Spatial Affordances During Transition in Architectural Settings. I Academy of Neuroscience For Architecture: Shared Behavioral Outcome (s. 52-53). Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture.

Transitions from one space to another are defined by two spaces and a delineating threshold between them. The threshold itself can manifest in different architectural forms and has impact on the perception and affective evaluation of the connected spaces (Moretti, Bucci, Mulazzani, & DeConciliis, 2002). Changing spatial proportions in sequences is an architectural illusion exploited since the Egyptians (ca. 2010 BCE). Prior spaces seem to affect later spaces and the threshold itself might have an affective influence. Here, we investigated transitions in the form of openings, to gain a deeper understanding of the perceived affordance of crossing the openings and how this impacts evaluation of the space. Embedded in a broader investigation of cognitive predictive mechanisms to better understand architectural transitions, the aim of the current study was to investigate whether the physical passing, referring to affordances (Gibson, 1979) and active inference (Bruineberg, Kiverstein, & Rietveld, 2016; Friston, Mattout, & Kilner, 2011), co-vary with the motor-related cortical potentials (MRCPs; Bozzacchi, Giusti, Pitzalis, Spinelli, & Russo, 2012) as measured with the electroencephalogram (EEG). We hypothesized to find more positive MRCP activity in pre-frontal and parietal areas prior to action in spaces that provide better affordances, compared to spaces that hinder the agent (Bozzacchi, Spinelli, Pitzalis, Giusti, & Di Russo, 2015). We further investigate whether the ceiling height of the second space has an emotional influence, and how the MRCPs may influence the introspective decisions. Using a Mobile Brain/Body Imaging (MoBI) approach (Gramann et al., 2011; Gramann, Jung, Ferris, Lin, & Makeig, 2014; Makeig, Gramann, Jung, Sejnowski, & Poizner, 2009) we combined head-mounted virtual reality with mobile EEG, to investigate transition through different openings. Participants were asked to transition between two spaces passing openings with low versus high affordance, i.e., openings that were too narrow to pass versus openings that were easily passable. The task entailed an action-dependent transit (50% of trials), with the final goal to reach a red circle (figure 1). 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.

Figure 1 – Paradigm overview.


  • Bozzacchi, C., Giusti, M. A., Pitzalis, S., Spinelli, D., & Russo, F. Di. (2012). Awareness affects motor planning for goal-oriented actions. Biological Psychology, 89(2), 503–514.
  • Bozzacchi, C., Spinelli, D., Pitzalis, S., Giusti, M. A., & Di Russo, F. (2015). I know what I will see: action-specific motor preparation activity in a passive observation task. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(6), 783–789.
  • Bruineberg, J., Kiverstein, J., & Rietveld, E. (2016). The anticipating brain is not a scientist: the free-energy principle from an ecological-enactive perspective. Synthese, 1–28.
  • Friston, K., Mattout, J., & Kilner, J. (2011). Action understanding and active inference. Biological Cybernetics, 104(1–2), 137–160.
  • Gibson, J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin- Boston.
  • Gramann, K., Gwin, J. T., Ferris, D. P., Oie, K., Jung, T.-P., Lin, C.-T., … Makeig, S. (2011). Cognition in action: imaging brain/body dynamics in mobile humans. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 22(6), 593–608.
  • Gramann, K., Jung, T.-P., Ferris, D. P., Lin, C.-T., & Makeig, S. (2014). Toward a new cognitive neuroscience: modeling natural brain dynamics. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 444.
  • Makeig, S., Gramann, K., Jung, T.-P., Sejnowski, T. J., & Poizner, H. (2009). Linking brain, mind and behavior. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 73(2), 95–100.
  • Moretti, L., Bucci, F., Mulazzani, M., & DeConciliis, M. (2002). Structures and sequences of space. In Works and Writings (pp. 177–181). New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Measuring the embodiment of architecture (2017)

Fich, L. B., Hansen, Å., Wallergård, M., Djebbara, A. Z., Jönsson, P., & Gimmler, A. (2017). Measuring the embodiment of architecture. I A. Karandinou (red.), Data + Senses: Proceedings of the International Conference ‘Between Data and Senses; Architecture, neuroscience and the Digital Worlds’. (s. 20-23). University of East London.

Recently, the term embodiment frequently has turned up in connection with architectural thinking, emphasizing the importance of bodily presence in the process of perceiving and interacting with the environment. An example would be Juhani Pallasmaa’s influencial essay “The Eyes of the Skin”, whose purpose he declares is to unfold his “assumptions of the role of the body as the locus of perception, thought and consciousness…” (Pallasmaa 2005, p.10) or the concept of atmosphere founded on “bodily presence” by Gernot Böhne (Böhme 1993). This awareness of the body as a key to understanding our interaction with the environment, being it man-made or not, suggest that a biological, empirical approach might be able to make a contribution, Any living organisms must protect its inner biological balance in order to sustain the fragile biological processes of life – a balance known as the homeostatic balance within physiological terminology – and must therefore react to its environment in order to counterbalance or prevent any threat to its homeostatic balance. In the case of the man-made environment in which we spend most of our time, design decisions therefor presumably influence this biological response in ways which we today have only an imperfect if any substantial knowledge about.

A possible model for understanding this interaction is the “the emotion-feeling cycle” introduced by the American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. The first part of the cycle, the “emotion” part, is a completely non-conscious process in this terminology, not to betaken as synonymous with ‘feelings’. Rather emotions are defined by Damasio as “complex, largely automated programs of actions concocted by evolution” that is set into motion by a stimulus constituting either a threat or an advantage to the organism’s homeostatic balance. An emotion then consists of programs for adjusting the body- and the mind state in accordance with the challenge the organism is presented to. The feeling part that closes the cycle is defined as: “composite perceptions of what happens in our body and mind when we are emoting”, thus the cycle which was started as a non-conscious emotional process in one part of the brain spreading to the body and brain, is perceived by other parts of the brain and might only then qualify for becoming conscious as a feeling (Damasio 2010, p. 109-111).

Interestingly, this model seems somehow to coincide with Böhme’s concept of atmospheres in his concept of a new aesthetics, as he states:” Perception is basically the manner in which one is bodily present for something or someone’s bodily state in an environment. The primary ”object” of perception is atmosphere” (Böhme, 1993) If Böhme’s concept of atmosphere as a thought experiment is taken as synonymous with Damasio’s concept of conscious feelings being perception of the emotionally driven bodily adjustments, one may notice a surprisingly similarity.

If this idea, from different perspectives implied by writers like Pallasmaa, Böhme, Mallgrave and Damasio that the body is in a constant dynamic interplay with the environment is to be taken at face value, it should be possible to detect it through physiological measures, and in the case of confirmation, to reach a deeper understanding of its consequences.

To investigate if this could be possible, we have conducted an experiment. We chose to work with stress, as the stress systems seems to be the quintessence of an emotion in the Damasian sense of the word – one definition of stress is simply that “stress is a state of threatened homeostasis” (Chrousos et al. 1988). Stress can be divided into two types, although they largely engage the same stress systems. Systemic stress constitutes actual treats like e.g. pain, heat or cold, loss of blood etc. Psychogenic stress on the other hand constitutes the system trying to prevent a possible future threat. In both cases the bodies’ two major stress systems are activated.

The one of them is represented by the two branches of the autonomous nervous systems (ANS), the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is part of the sympatho-adrenomedullary (SAM) system. The SNS can be activated within seconds, and deactivated even quicker by the other arm of the SNS, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSN). While the ANS is quickly activated and deactivated, the other system, the hypothalamicpituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis, is activated within minutes and its effect can be
present even longer. It works by releasing hormones into the bloodstream, and its end product is the hormone cortisol which has a long range of effects throughout the body including down regulating the immune system, while long lasting exposure to elevated levels of cortisol can cause e.g. depression. These systems are activated to recruit resources for a fight-or-flight behavior to enable the organism to face the challenges. Energy consuming processes which are not immediately necessary like the immune system, digestion and reproductive behavior is suppressed, while the heart rate, respiration and blood pressure are stepped up, and stored energy resources are released (Johnson et al. 1992; Ulrich-Lai and Herman, 2009).

By far the strongest psychogenic stressors are psychosocial stressors, first of all to have something of importance to the “flock” evaluated by others, as the outcome might determine the individual’s place in the social hierarchy and thereby access to resources (Dickerson and Kemeny, 2004; Gruenewald, 2004). We chose to work with psychosocial stress, as it implies the interaction of architecture and behavior, or in the words of Böhme presence “for something or someone’s bodily state in an environment” (Böhme, 1993). We used the Trier Social Stress Test, as it since the early 1990’es has been probably the most used protocol for laboratory research in this type of stressors (Kirschbaum et al., 1993). A test person (TP) has to perform two tasks in front of an evaluative committee, usually consisting of two to three trained actors, who are instructed only to respond with a number of predetermined lines. First the TP is informed by the chairman of the committee that the first task will be to give a 5-minute oral presentation as if applying for a favorable job and that he will get another assignment, but not what it is. The TP is then given 5 minutes to prepare the presentation. After giving the presentation in front of the committee, the TP is given the second assignment: to count backwards in steps of 13 from 1687 – an assignment in which almost nobody can succeed, referring to a negative social evaluation. At Lund University, Sweden, a virtual version of the TSST (Jönsson et al. 2010; Wallergård 2011) has been developed, using a CaveTM, a device, in which a system of projectors coordinated by a computer project onto four large screens including the floor. When a viewer wears a set of 3D glasses and a head tracking device, the computer will coordinate the projected image and produce an illusion of three dimensional spaces. As the space is computer generated, it is possible systematically to manipulate the space, and as the stress reaction basically is a preparation for a fight-or-flight behavior, we used to different spaces, an enclosed space, and a space with three large openings through which
the floor continued uninterrupted to the horizon, potentially allowing for flight (fig. 1) (for a detailed description of procedure, participants etc. see Fich et al. 2014).

Figure 1 – The enclosed and the room with openings. Due to the stereoscopic projection the participant will experience a clear 3D environment, in which the floor continuous unhindered to the horizon through the openings.

We measured the activation of the SNS and PNS by measuring T-wave amplitude and high frequency heart rate variability while the release of cortisol was measured in saliva samples. The results showed a significant difference in cortisol level depending on the space, but no difference in activation of any part of the ANS, (fig. 2).

Figure 2 – A. Shows the cortisol, which was measured in saliva samples. Due to a delay between when cortisol is released into the blood stream and when is shows op in saliva, “prep” is actually baseline and so on. B. This plot represents the heat rate. C. This plot represents the SNS activity. When the curve goes down, the activity of the SNS goes up. D. This plot reflects the PNS activity. SNS and PNS activity was derived from heart rate variability

It can therefore be concluded, that at least concerning openness versus enclosure, the design of a space influences the resulting body state in terms of cortisol, in connection with a socially stressful event taking place in the space. In other words, the emotional reaction is constituted by a specific combination of the trinity stated by Böhme: a bodily reaction, caused the presence of “something or someone” in an environment with specific characteristics. It suggests that at least one aspect of the experience of architectural space might be the potential behavior that the space allows for, in this case flight. With the many regulatory functions of cortisol within the body, this experiment further suggests, that embodiment taken literally actually might encompass e.g. being able to influence immune functions by way of the architectural design of spaces, qualifying architecture with a new and very strong dimension. The experiment points to the potential of interdisciplinary research. However, the present experiment in itself has a number of important limitations. One question is how strong the effect will be outside the laboratory where a lot of other variables might interact with the effect of the architectural design. Only men were included because the menstrual cycle influences cortisol release (Kudielka and Kirschbaum, 2005; Kudielka, 2009). Hence, asking the question how gender, culture, education and age would influence the result, is pointing to the need of further research. To quote Mallgrave:

“The importance of our emotional well-being cannot be overestimated by architects, if only for the reason that designers are principally engaged
in constructing the habitats in which we live”
(Mallgrave 2010, p. 191).


  • Damasio, Antonio, 2010. Self Comes to Mind; Constructing the Conscious Brain. London: William Heinemann.
  • Chrousos, G.P., Loriaux, L.D., Gold, P.W., 1988. The concept of stress and its historical development. In: Chrousos, G.P., Loriaux, L.D., Gold, P.W. eds.; Mechanisms of physical and emotional stress. Vol. 245 3-7. Advances in experimental medicine and biology. New York: Plenum.
  • Dickerson, S.S., Kemeny, M.E., 2004. Acute Stressors and Cortisol Responses: A Theoretical Integration and Synthesis of Laboratory Research. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), pp. 355- 391
  • 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 and Behavior.;135:91–7.
  • Gruenewald, T.L., Kemeny, M.E., Aziz, N., Fahey, J.L., 2004. Acute Threat to the social self: Shame, social self-esteem, and Cortisol activity. Psychosomatic Medicine, 66, pp. 915-924
  • Johnson, E.O., Kamilaris, T.C., Chrousos, G.P., Gold, P.W., 1992. Mechanisms of stress: A Dynamic Overview of Hormonal and Behavioral Homeostasis. Neurosciernce in Biobehavioral Reviews, 16, pp. 115-130
  • Jönsson, P., Wallergård, M., Österberg, K., Hansen, Å.M., Johansson, G., Karlson, B., 2010. Cardiovascular and cortisol reactivity and habituation to a virtual reality version of the Trier Social Stress Test: A pilot study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35, 1397-1403
  • Kirschbaum, C., Pirke, K-M., Hellhammer, D.H., 1993. The ’Trier Social Stress Test’: A Tool for Investigating Psychobiological Stress Responses in a Laboratory Setting. Neuropsychobiology, 28, 76-88
  • Kudielka, B.M., 2009. Why do we respond so differently? Reviewing determinants of human salivary cortisol responses to challenge. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34, pp. 2-18
  • Kudielka, B.M., Kirschbaum, C., 2005. Sex diffrences in HPA axis responses to stress: a review. Biological Psychology, 69, pp. 113-132
  • Mallgrave, H.F., 2010. The Architect’s Brain; Neuroscience, Creativity, and Architecture. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Mallgrave, H.F., 2013. Architecture and Embodiment; The implications of the new sciences and humanities for design. London and New York: Routledge
  • Pallasmaa, Juhani, 2008. The Eyes of the Skin. Chichester: Wiley
  • Ulrich-Lai, Y. M., Herman, J. P., 2009. Neural regulation of endocrine and autonomic stress responses. Nature Reviews; Neuroscience. 10 pp. 397-409.
  • Wallergård, M., Jönsson, P., Österberg, K., Johansson, G. and Karlsson, B., 2011. A Virtual Reality Version of the Trier Social Stress Test: A Pilot Study. Presence: teleoperators and virtual environments, 20(4).

The proceedings can be found here. The abstract is on page 20.


Zakaria Djebbara
Cand.polyt., PhD
Postdoc at Aalborg University
Currently resides in Aarhus, Denmark

My research concerns how architecture impacts human cognition and experience. I do so using ecological setups and neuroimaging analyses of manipulated affordances in architectural transitions.

How does the embodied brain respond to affordances? How do affordances of a transition alter expected outcomes? How can transitions impact attention and conscious experience? How do affordances affect aesthetic judgment and contemplative states?

Part of: BBAR (Brain, Body, Architecture Research group) & BeMoBIL (Berlin Mobile Brain/Body Imaging Lab)

Who’s Zak?

I’m a Danish guy with Algerian roots, which means different languages have been thrown at me since my childhood. I speak Danish, English, French and different kinds of Arabic. So, those who know me personally know that I enjoy going to the gym, painting, playing football and publicly speculate about philosophical issues usually accompanied by coffee. Philosophers that I’m particularly inspired by are Henri Bergson, Edmund Husserl, Immanuel Kant, Aristotle and Andy Clark–in that order. Besides that, I’ve been programming stuff since I was a kid, and have applied it to anything, e.g. design-related parametric solutions, Arduino’s and Virtual Reality. I’m also an architect and engineer with a keen interest in cognitive neuroscience and philosophy–mostly when they come together. It may seem as a funny combination of interests, but you’ll understand in a second.

Architecture has always played a huge role in my life, so when I got the opportunity to ask architectural questions through my Master Thesis (2015/16), I embraced it. Quickly, I found out that my questions were insoluble by the field of architectural research, but then what do you do? You move along, and try to understand the questions from other perspectives that provide you with answers. You look for fields that have developed a methodology and foundation relevant to your quest, which in my case were philosophy and cognitive neuroscience. I basically addressed a hard question in architecture; how does architecture influence experience? It’s a hard question because experience is, for one, a difficult term to wrap your head around and has been discussed since forever in philosophy. Another reason is that only recently did ‘perception as an experience’ enter the field of cognitive science, i.e. neurophenomenology. Daring to ask how it relates to architecture makes the question (super) hard. My studies are deeply interdisciplinary, interweaving phenomenology with enactivism and active inference, and it may seem like the long way around to answer how architecture influences experience, but I’m looking for a deeper answer, one that goes beyond mere description. I’m dreaming of developing a foundation for architects to understand the neurophysiological impact their designs have during everyday tasks.

Zak’s purpose

My understanding of architecture is human-centred, which means I dislike architecture-for-the-sake-of-architecture. To me, architects are some of the most important figures in society because by serving the people in designing their environment, they construct the frames in which people interact with their world and–quite literally–design the narratives of peoples lives. Hold up. What? Yes, I’m quite convinced about this point. In fact, any autobiographical reflection of an event unfolded in space, is usually a designed space. Even the scenes of movies are characterised by their spatial design.

There are various examples of how architectural design “sets the stage”/”pave the way” for who we believe we are. Say you’re sitting at the office and there’s a bunch of articles you need to read. As you read through the articles, you might organise them so those that you’ve read are on the left and those unread on the right. Now, organising them in left and right is a way you structure your experience of the world to reduce the “mental load” of remembering each and every article by the title. In fact, we reorganise our world constantly to fit our intentions, and it is reflected in who we are. For instance, have you ever reorganised your bedroom or apartment and thought to yourself ‘Wow! Now that the reading chair is better positioned I will read more!’ or ‘This is a whole new place. Take a pic for the gram #NewRoomNewMe’. Who we are is reflected in how we organise our space. And this is precisely why I believe that architects are the true designers of our lives–they literally design the foundation in which we externalise ourselves. And this brings me to my main goal of the blog.

Zak’s goals

I consider myself a social sustainability-ist, i.e. I care about the health and well-being of human life. I deeply believe that architectural design, by manipulating affordances, can have a serious and measurable impact on mental health. Paraphrasing Louis Kahn, I believe that architecture starts from an immeasurable idea, then becomes measurable as a physical structure, and finally resides as an immeasurable quality. This is not to say that the etiology of experience is immeasurable, but rather to say that the subjective experience remains private to the 1st-person view. However, the impact on perceptual organs is indeed measurable and this allows questioning how experience in the first place got to be.

An important endeavor is to move architectural research beyond mere self-reports as the basis for design-tools, and towards a more systematic understanding of the effects caused by architectural design. In order to do so, it’s necessary to create systematic experiments and correlate brain activity with behavioural measures. For this reason, I usually find myself balancing theoretical and empirical neuroscience–of course–with an architectural touch. So, to put it in short, my goal is be able to refine architects’ design-tools to enable qualified predictions on how the spaces they design will be experienced.