What do we want?

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Imagine how much more effective the design process would be if you knew what your clients were really thinking. What colors inspire them? How do they interact with their physical environments? How does sunlight make them feel?

Answers to such questions are rarely gathered during typical pre-design planning sessions. For one thing, design teams rarely delve that deeply into the human psyche of end users. And most people have difficulty verbalizing this kind of subjective information.

Research shows that only 5% of what the average person thinks can be expressed verbally,  the other 95% is hidden deep within the subconscious.

Elements of place

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Elements of place can be described as the arrangements of events that occur in places. Events are the result of interactions between people and place. The elements of place can be part of the event,  the internal direction, enclosure, internal area or entrances.
In this diagram we describe the different elements of place:
  • Internal area (2)
  • An enclosure (5)
  • Centrality (1)
  • Direction of Activity (3 and 4)
  • Entrances (6)

Below we can see an illustrative comparison of the structure of different places. The model with components of place, the elements interposed over St. Peter’s Square, Vatican, and over a meeting in a park.

Sense of Space

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Studies undertaken on rats to understand the cognitive process of spatial perception have revealed that the brain responds when the animals move to certain locations in an environment. Patterns of brain activity were recorded in correlation to the location of the rats.  ‘Place Cells’ are the term to describe where the brain activity occurs when triggered by an external stimulus.

This perception of ‘sense of space’ is the product of a careful creation of elements combined to provide an optimum psychological fit between people and their physical surroundings. An area of our brains called the parahippocampal place area (PPA) plays an important role in the recognition of our scenes rather than faces or objects. Further studies into the correlation between space and activation within the PPA is integral in better understanding why external factors trigger psychological reactions. There is only one institution that is concerned specifically the link between external stimuli and the body and this is The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) that was created in 2003 to explore ways to link the research of neuroscience to the practice of architecture.


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Perception is simply the process of attaining awareness or understanding of sensory information. The balance of past experiences, culture and genetics form a sensorial picture that shapes our perception of situations. Multiple interpretations can be drawn from one sentence, picture or building, it is how we interpret the sensorial and past information that dictates its perception.

Sensory memory has the ability to recall impressions of sensory information retained from previous events. When exposure to poignant stimuli  are built up into a perceptual picture, these stimuli are stored as memories. In a perceptual picture, a plethora of senses are stimulated and therefore when a sensory memory is recalled synaesthesia is activated. Synaesthesia is the term used to describe the ability for your brain to perceive one sense through another. For example, to look out outside at a cold day (visual stimuli) and shiver (haptic stimuli). The sensory memory has the ability to not only recall the sense stimulated but the synaesthesia connected.

At the level of architectural experiences, or more specifically the human response to places, it is clear that the perception of space has a great responsibility in generating a change in our mood and performance. We know that architectural settings can have profound effects on people. We all experience a change in mood, stimulation or elation when entering an environment. An immense amount of visual, auditory, olfactory and gustatory stimuli passes through the sensory system and sent to the cortex in microseconds. Resulting in a perceptual picture in our opinion of our environment.

Architecture and Neuroscience

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A question still explored by modern neuroscience, is to understand what particular tangible factors have a notable impact on our perception within space. Armed with our previous knowledge on the parameters that affect our biochemical make up, how can we design spaces that have a more constant appeal to the neural patterns throughout a cross section of society?

This is where our connection with architecture provides fascinating potential; in architecture we can control these tangible factors in an environment. Preconceived ideas, previous exposure to medium and cultural background inevitably shape our feelings towards design, however neuroscience offers the potential to understand more about the rhythm of feelings created; excitement, comfort or awe in correlation to the placement in architectural space.

Architects are often seen as a profession solely concerned with the aesthetic of their designs. However, a well-designed building should primarily enhance the behavioural qualities of the inhabitant and promote wellbeing. As such they provide the occupants with appropriate lighting, heating and cooling, acoustics and a well designed ‘shell’ in which to perform the task at hand. Further investigation into neuroscience in architecture could help inform architects how to design offices that promote productivity, classrooms that help concentration and adaptable homes depending on the mood or activity being undertaken.

The field of environmental psychology and neuroscience is so vast that the task of understanding the multiple interactions of the brain in responding to memories and senses seems daunting. However, our current medical knowledge reveals that careful science can lead to successful generalizations and hypotheses about how and why our bodies respond as they do. The scientific method, that prescribes careful experiments and controlled testing, has been a successful model for understanding new discoveries in science for years. In a similar way, controlled experimental design could increase our understanding of our responses to the elements of architectural settings.

Marshall McLuhan Figure and the Ground

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Figure and the Ground is another McLuhan model that is helpful in our analysis of creating a balanced environment. It is also useful in identifying the impact that the potential media may have upon the users. The model works from the premise that you cannot evaluate the full effects of a technology unless you evaluate its context. McLuhan proposes that without a thorough examination of both the figure (the technology) and the ground (where the product sits in the market and why) you cannot evaluate its credentials. McLuhan argued that we must study media in their historical context, particularly in relation to the technologies that preceded them. We must evaluate the bigger picture and work simultaneously between the macro and the micro not only in terms of technology but we can use this model for evaluation of the success of all environmental medias.

Marshall McLuhan Tetrad of Media Effects

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We can use the Tetrad of Media Effects (McLuhan 1988) as a model for analysing the impacts of the implementation of a technology. There are parameters that the implementation has to adhere to in order to achieve a successful integration into the design or peoples behaviours. There are benefits and hindrances, advantages and disadvantages of all medium and this is what the tetrad analyses. It is especially useful to highlight the uses but potential dangers of the implementation of a technology that is too far removed from our intuitive actions or norms. The tetrad analyses what it enhances, which it obsolesces, what it pushes forward and what it pushes back. The laws of the tetrad exist simultaneously, not successively or in linear form. We are thus encouraged to think how outputs are in a constant state of flux in relation to each other, allowing an analysis of intermittent effects. A strong argument is needed to make sure this balanced approach is implemented no matter what the brief, what the space and what new technologies are inevitable to be introduced.

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