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


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.



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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