8 May 2020 Impacting Environments: what NeuroArchitecture has to say about it by Andréa de Paiva
by Andréa de Paiva
What is an impactful environment for you? Perhaps it is the Gothic churches, with their imposing architecture and full of historic meaning. Or perhaps it is a luxurious residence, with its rich decor. Or a football stadium, with its size and sentimental value. The fact is that different characteristics of the environments make some of them stand out in relation to the others, being recorded in our memory and generating clearly detectable impacts on our sensations. However, studies in the area of NeuroArchitecture have revealed that environments can impact various brain functions, many of them eluding our conscious perception.
Why are some spaces so striking while others are not? Our long-term memory makes it easier to record information from environments that generate a greater emotional impact than from more neutral places . Therefore, for many people, a visit to Notre-Dame de Paris or the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro or even the city of Brasilia is enough for the memory of that experience to be etched in their memory.
The same brain area responsible for the processing of long-term memories, also plays a central role in the functioning of our “cerebral GPS”. In other words, it is directly related to the process of orientation and spatial navigation . And if up to now we have talked about impacting environments that have marked us positively, we cannot fail to emphasize that negative experiences can also have an intense emotional impact and be recorded in our memory. Anyone who has been lost driving in the middle of a large urban center, such as the city of São Paulo, knows how unpleasant and remarkable the experience can be. Certain characteristics of the environment, such as 360o degree symmetry, the absence of visual identity, the lack of indicative signs and differentiated sensory stimuli can make the experience of moving around a city or even a building quite disorienting and stressful.
Even the spaces of our daily lives, such as our home or work environment, can impact us in several ways. The corporate architecture, for example, must be planned in order to offer spaces that help employees to adopt the appropriate mental states for the activities that each job requires. A creation meeting of a marketing team, a first meeting with an important client, a report review, each of these activities requires a specific state of mind and an environment that is suitable for one of them will not necessarily be suitable for the others. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the environment is one of the variables that influences our performance and, therefore, it is important to make sure that we are creating spaces which are suitable for the function to which they proposed themselves.
It is common for us to be concerned with the sensations, emotions, mental states, and behaviors which the environments generate in those who occupy them, but NeuroArchitecture teaches us that we cannot stop there. Some environments, especially those that are occupied for a long time or quite frequently, can impact us even more deeply, resulting in changes that persist even after those spaces are vacated. In other words, long-term environments can generate long-term effects on their users, which take longer to be reversed .
Studies dating back to the 1960s have pointed to how some characteristics of the environment can influence the transformation of our brain in the long run. That is, the brain can be stimulated to become even more efficient, reinforcing the existing connections between neurons, creating new connections and even creating new neurons through the process of neurogenesis, which takes place in specific areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus. On the other hand, the absence of these characteristics can have the opposite effect, resulting in the loss and weakening of synapses (connections between neurons) .
NeuroArchitecture brings great contributions so that architects and urban planners can increase their understanding of how their projects can impact the users of each space. Every environment has impact. But not every impact is positive and, therefore, it is important to surround ourselves with the maximum knowledge about how architecture affects us. It is also common that there is conflict between the impacts and that the same environment that generates positive impacts in the short term, may have the opposite effect in the long term. Therefore, it is necessary to understand who are the main groups of users of that place, their occupation time and the type of activity they will perform in each environment. It is this understanding that will serve as support for decision making and that will allow the creation of balanced spaces, seeking efficiency in the short term and health and well-being in the long term.
 Damasio, A. (1994) Descartes’ Error. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras
 PAIVA, A. (2018) Navegação Espacial: NeuroArquitetura e o GPS cerebral. Disponível em neuroau.com
 PAIVA, A., JEDON, R. (2019) Short- and long-term effects of architecture on the brain: Toward theoretical formalization. Frontiers of Architectural Research
Volume 8, Issue 4, December 2019, Pages 564-571
 Rozenzweig, M., Bennett, E., Diamond, M. (1972) Brain Changes in Response to Experience. Scientific American 1972 February; 226(2): 22-29
About Andréa de Paiva:
Consultant at Getúlio Vargas Foundation. Assistant coordinator and professor of the Neurobusiness course at FGV-IDE. Creator and teacher of the Neuroscience Course Applied to Environments and Creation at FAAP. Master of Arts (MA) in Architecture from Middlesex University in London and architect from USP. Certified in Design Thinking by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Author of the website neuroau.com and co-author of the book Triuno: neurobusiness e qualidade de vida (Triuno: neurobusiness and quality of life).
E-mail: [email protected]