The Distance Between a Neuron and a Building

It Seems Inevitable, Given Enough Rigorous Research, that Cognitive Neuroscience Might One Day Claim a Valuable Seat at the Design Table

May 14, 2019

Affiliate Professor of Bioengineering, University of Washington School of Medicine

@brainrulesbooks

http://www.johnmedina.com/

Editor’s Note: This essay was originally authored for the December 2018 issue of A+U. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

I’ve been on a road-trip with NBBJ for several years now — a cartographic adventure mapping the terrain between cognitive neuroscience and architecture. I was initially skeptical about jumping into this car, mostly because of a lack of landmarks in my field, the developmental brain sciences. Despite extraordinary progress, we have a surprisingly long way to go before we even understand basic brain functions. We don’t know how people pick up pencils, for example, let alone how people create Pritzker Prize-worthy designs.

The reason I decided to join this exploration came from a ridiculously obvious point. Whatever else design is, it’s a function of somebody’s thought life, and therefore somebody’s brain life. It seems inevitable, given enough rigorous research, that cognitive neuroscience might one day claim a valuable seat at the design table. This hope ultimately challenged my skepticism — and, after NBBJ reached out and piqued my interest, provided the basis for some enjoyable conversations on the road with NBBJ.

 

Evolutionary Facts

The optimism initially sprang from two well-established “brain facts.” First, the brain is exquisitely sensitive to its outer environment. Just learning something — anything — will physically rewire it. And that has consequences. Even brief exposures to external stimuli can influence complex behavioral changes, some with surprising durability.

The second is our evolutionary history. More than 99% of our earthly experience has been spent in settings composed of natural elements — sojourning as hunter-gatherers in water-poor grasslands. Given the brain’s environmental sensitivity, it’s reasonable to assume the Serengeti would have had measurable impacts on its development. There is increasing empirical support for this assertion, guided by E.O. Wilson’s famous Biophilia hypothesis. Here’s how Stephen Kellert et al. couch it: “Human beings are biologically predisposed to require contact with natural forms … people are not capable of living a complete and healthy life detached from nature.”[1]

 

Psychological Facts

Many signs point to the impact this evolutionary history makes on hominid reactions to built space. Consider our uneasy relationship with buildings. Brains tend to prefer what the late Jay Appleton calls Prospect-Refuge spaces. Jay says: “People prefer environments where they can easily survey their surroundings and quickly hide or retreat to safety if necessary.”[2]

This preference comes right out of eastern Africa, a terrain combining flat open spaces like the Serengeti with mountainous structures like the Ngorongoro Crater. We needed prospect to look for predators, but we needed refuge in case we found one. This tension between the necessity for broad openness and tight enclosure has not changed simply because we acquired a bit of civilization.

Another example of this impact involves the brain’s reactions to color. We know that blue light arouses the organ. Since the only time in our evolutionary history where we saw large expanses of blue was in daylight, when being alert was critical, a cerulean-arousal linkage makes a lot of sense. I developed 18 lectures for NBBJ, a basic neuroscience-for-architects course, filled with data like these, that I delivered via livestream to the entire firm.

 

Neurobiological Facts

These lectures weren’t just about evolutionary psychology. We journeyed directly into the brain’s physical interior, exploring structure/function relationships, addressing questions like: How do brains physically respond to the body’s presence in three-dimensional spaces? How do spatial preferences and color preferences and navigational preferences manifest themselves neurologically? How does the brain even know where its owner’s body is standing?

We’re beginning to get answers to these questions. And so I lectured about grid cells — talented suites of neural tissues that provide a context-independent grid system. These tissues create a navigational framework, working in our brains like latitude/longitude work in our maps. We also discussed place cells, the brain’s own GPS mapping system, providing location information on that previously mentioned grid. We finally discussed head direction cells, neurons functioning like interior compasses, informing both the grid and the GPS — and you — in what direction your head is headed. These systems chat amongst themselves like teenagers, telling the brain how to react to three-dimensional space while moving through it, the left-ventricle of any architectural design. During the lecture series, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to May-Britt and Edvard Moser. They got it in part for figuring this system out.

As a result, I’ve had to give my skepticism a bit of a scolding. Indeed, I concluded these 18 lectures saying every architect ought to know something about these data, from Darwin to neuron, even if the only current value is understanding they exist. After all, if the science is now mature enough to win a Nobel Prize, it’s now mature enough to start a dialogue — which is shaping new approaches to behavioral health, biophilia, applied research and more. These are the beginnings of a collaboration whose creamy-center is peer-reviewed science.

That, in a nutshell, is about what my journey with NBBJ has consisted. I’m still skeptical about making prescriptions, but I’m no longer skeptical about making conversations. Given time, evidence-based reasons for design (informed by solid cognitive neuroscientific understanding) will be part of architecture’s future. Maybe most of it.

All told, this has been a fun, productive road-trip. I’m glad I got in the car.

 

Notes

1. Kellert, S., J. Heerwagen, and M. Mador. Biophilic Design. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2008.

2. Appleton, J. The Experience of Landscape. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1975.

 

Banner image courtesy nike159/Pixabay.

 

Photo by AJ Robbie on Unsplash

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Six Ways Technology Is Changing Healthcare Design

Amidst Rapid Change in Healthcare, One Priority Remains Constant: the Human Touch

March 26, 2019

Healthcare Architect / Partner, NBBJ

@JSLSaba

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from a presentation delivered at the WSJ Tech Health conference on February 7, 2019.

In healthcare design, it’s difficult to predict how quickly technology will impact facilities. It takes seven to 10 years to plan, document and construct a new complex healthcare environment — that is a long time, and these buildings have to remain highly productive for 30 to 50 years. How can we even begin to think about the technology needs 20, 30, 40 years from now?

Our healthcare clients are worried about many aspects of technology today. For instance:

  • AI and deep learning: How much space do we provide for these things? How will they affect clinical workflows and the way we plan a facility?
  • Driverless cars and ride-sharing like Uber Health: Some regulations require that we provide x number of parking spaces based upon the patient volume that goes through a hospital — in some of our urban hospitals, as many as 1,000 parking spaces underground. We’re designing those to be flexible, but what about the future? Will there be a need for them?
  • Wearable devices, and how you connect with your provider: What will be the impact on ambulatory clinics? How many, and what kind, will we need? Will our patients feel isolated? What about the human touch with the care team?
  • Hospitals right now have robots delivering many materials: Will there be more? Should they share corridors with humans?

We believe there are bigger opportunities for technology to also raise our human potential and experience within healthcare facilities. For me, there are six takeaways:

  1. The virtual connection will be the norm throughout a patient’s care. We have to get comfortable with that.
  2. The virtual room will be just as important as, and maybe even more important than, the physical room, in terms of delivering care and an elevated patient experience.
  3. We want to be mindful of the potential isolation that the individual technology can bring forth. It’s important that there is still the human touch and human interaction in healthcare.
  4. The interaction between people and machines will require a whole new design approach. Already, a gap exists between technology and design, and we need to be cognizant of that in the future.
  5. Places of healing, recovery and connection are still very, very important. We are human, and we need to have those spaces alongside technology.
  6. Finally, we need to remember the basics: light, nature, the human touch and quality environments.

What will that look like? Imagine a patient room tailored precisely to you and what you require to become well. It measures and monitors your body systems and emotions, it understands your social needs, and it physically and visually adapts the room and its technology accordingly. It can predict your emotional needs, your mood, your metabolic rate, and impact them through what you see, what you feel and what you hear. It can proactively adapt so your family members can help you get well and be an active part of your care team. A space that heals you not just clinically, but socially, mentally and spiritually.

I don’t have all the answers, but it’s an exciting time. We know that technology is going to be more important today and for the future. I always return to one question: how can technology, in the field of healthcare, which has the most joyous times and the most difficult and stressful times, allow us to be more human?

Banner image courtesy Franck V./Unsplash.

All other images courtesy NBBJ.

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Five Questions About How Sustainability Improves Human Well-being Here and Now, Not Just the Distant Future

An Interview with NBBJ’s Sustainability Leader Margaret Montgomery

March 4, 2019

Sustainable Design Leader, NBBJ

@MargaretMontgo1

Editor’s Note: This post is adapted from an interview originally published in the Q4 2018 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly.

What sustainability priorities should we focus on?

High-performance, sustainable projects are the only future that is viable for our profession and our clients. Zero carbon is viable for many projects, and we’re able to steer clients toward an achievement that’s possible for them. Material selections for reduced environmental and health impact are easier every month. Planning and site development for resilience and for a healthier urban ecosystem are equally critical.

 

You mentioned materials transparency. What are you doing about that?

We’re tweaking our specifications in areas where we can knowledgeably improve our standard options. For example, if we want to include a product, and we have enough manufacturers that are willing to disclose what’s in their product, we can require that disclosure.

We’re getting a bit more sophisticated about reducing the carbon footprint of our projects, as well. For example, what are all the concrete mixes? What’s the lowest-carbon concrete mix we can use for that particular structural purpose? How can we make sure that we are fine-tuning those mixes for the lowest carbon while maintaining performance?

The largest carbon and environmental footprint tends to be in the structure and exterior materials. The health footprint, the complicated chemistry, and the disclosures tend to congregate around the finish materials and that end of the spectrum.

 

Where do the ideas of being practical and being effective intersect best for sustainability?

If we’re doing things in the right way, we shouldn’t need to add money. We should be able to reallocate resources in a smarter way to do almost everything we want to do. So, for instance, if we create a better conceptual design — with the right window/wall ratio, better orientation and massing for passive energy flows, and we put the effort into better architecture — we should be able to spend less money on mechanical heating and cooling. To me, that’s pragmatic and effective because we’re conserving first-cost resources and getting more from our client’s money. The goal is to do that while also creating a more comfortable, more livable place for everyone who experiences it.

 

In the years that you’ve been practicing sustainable design, what changes have you observed in clients’ viewpoints?

Many of our clients recognize the value of creating space that helps them and their people be more comfortable and perform better. This was an idea that probably didn’t resonate well a few years ago because there weren’t enough studies to show the connection between what we thought intuitively were good things for people and our quantitative goals.

 

What makes you hopeful? What challenges you?

What makes me hopeful is the human spirit and the desire to make things better. You see it a lot lately in various movements outside of the building industry as well as all of the groundswell around addressing climate change. At the core, I believe we all want to make the world a better place. The challenge is how hard it is sometimes to find a common understanding or a way to communicate that gets us all headed in the same direction.

Banner image courtesy Stuart Isett/NBBJ. 

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