Neuroarchitecture and its application to the workspace design
How spaces can affect our brain and what their implications are on our behavior and emotional state
Neuroarchitecture is the fusion between architecture and neuroscience, which is the integral study of the nervous system considering its behavior, its functions, and its structure in order to understand its conducts and cognitive processes. This discipline aims to comprehend how spaces can affect our brain and, on that basis, what their implications are on our behavior and emotional state. Neuroarchitecture posits that the environment has a direct influence on the most primitive functioning patterns of the brain, which are not controlled by our conscious perception.
Its goal is to design spaces not just based on intuition, but also according to solid, knowledge-based evidence.
What are the studies that generate this solid basis of knowledge?
People’s reactions can be measured by observing heart activity (from a neurophysiological standpoint) and through encephalograms (from the perspective of brain activity). Examples include the use of wristbands to measure sweating rates, body sensors that measure heart activity, body temperature and skin conductivity, as well as the measurement of brain waves and eye movements, and questionnaires conducted by mental health professionals.
Naturally, technology makes everything easier. Virtual reality is a key tool, which allows for the simulation of different scenarios, or a single scenario with different characteristics: magnitudes and dimensions, colors, presence of vegetation, etcetera, and thus carry out measurements.
How can neuroarchitecture be applied to corporate architecture?
While addressing office design, it is important firstly to detect where the emphasis is to be put in each of the spaces, depending on their function, in order to understand what behaviors, emotions or activities are to be favored. This means that, for instance, a focus room or a phone booth will be designed to encourage concentration and peace of mind, while avoiding distractions and external stimuli. In turn, a cafeteria or a canteen will foster interaction, contact, spontaneity or meetings, while a lactation room will be prepared for intimacy, calmness and privacy. However, we will also include spaces for collaboration, where creativity and interaction will prevail; these will be of a more casual leaning.
Some of the variables to be considered in order to evolve from designing spaces to designing experiences:
Presence of nature and exterior views
Multiple studies concluded that the inclusion of nature in workspaces relaxes the mind. Its mere presence in interiors (whether it be plants or natural materials such as wood, stone or water) or even being able to see it through the window may substantially lower anxiety and stress levels, and it may also boost the creativity and productivity of employees. This was implemented in healthcare: in several countries, it was shown that patients that are within hospitals with views to nature –or even to the city– recover and are discharged more rapidly than those in rooms with internal views.
Chronobiology and circadian rhythms
Sunlight is fundamental for the correct regulation of the immune and endocrine systems. The key is in being exposed to natural light throughout the day and the different seasons of the year, as the lack of sunlight results in sleep disorders, fatigue, lack of concentration, depression and stress. Thus, artificial and natural light are one more dimension of design, since their intensity or color temperature also affect people’s behavior and mood. Cold light has a stimulating effect, while warm light relaxes. Furthermore, in all cases, high intensity light incites activity and low intensity light encourages relaxation and rest.
Another interesting conclusion is that ceiling height may also have an impact on behavior and problem-solving capabilities, favoring different types of mental processes. It has been shown that high ceilings encourage creative, artistic and imaginative activities; however, when it comes to high-focus activities, involving calculations or routine tasks, low ceilings work better.
Noise is one of the first elements that come to mind while considering workplaces. It is one of the main causes of distraction and declines in productivity, as well as of the increase in stress levels and employee dissatisfaction. Noise might alter our ability to reason, retain information and focus.
Morphology, materials and geometries
When designing workspaces, shapes and materials, too, can trigger different mental processes. The abundance of hard surfaces produces echo, which generates stress. There are studies indicating that people prefer curves and soft lines since, instinctively, they feel threatened by sharp objects. Furthermore, very sharp angles produce a state of alertness.
Proxemics and eye contact
Proxemics is a discipline dealing with the study of the spatial relationship of the individuals with themselves and other persons. Thus, it is key for the creation of a good regulation of interpersonal social distance within offices, according to the use and degree of privacy of each of their spaces. On the other hand, eye contact is the basis of human connections, both biologically and culturally. Looking at each other helps us to better interpret messages; thus, the location of the equipment and the planning of office spaces can contribute to maximize (or minimize) opportunities for socialization.
Be that as it may, it is important to stress that neuroarchitecture works with general patterns of brain functioning, and that each person is unique on account of genetic, cultural and environmental elements. This means that the same space can have different effects on people; therefore, the analysis and correct understanding of the target public is essential for the success of its application in design.
Why is it such a significant design tool?
The environment undoubtedly affects our behavior and brain. Just as it is assumed that we need to invest in a better nutrition, physical activity and leisure, we should also invest in our workspaces and rethink them.
Together with the arrival of COVID-19 came the lockdowns and the restrictions to mobility. Thus, the importance of the design of our day-to-day spaces became clearer, as well as how difficult is to spend so much time in the same place.
Humans are emotional beings, and every time they enter a room, they react to its characteristics. We spend 89 % of the time indoors, and 30 % of the elements that determine our health and wellbeing correspond to the psychological impact of their design. This means that the places where we live and work have to be up to the task and contribute to a rich sensory experience.