Architecturally pleasing spaces can make us smarter

David Shaffer, The Daily Record Newswire

The year was 2004. I was in my freshman year studio pulling yet another all-nighter. Even though I was on the sixth floor of the architecture building, there were no windows— the freshman studio at my alma mater is affectionately referred to as “the basement in the sky.” Instead of windows, the walls are adorned with austere, floor-to-ceiling tack-board intended for displaying drawings. There was no natural light or fresh air and without the aid of clock, I had no idea what time it was; sometimes days went by without knowing it. I can distinctly recall the off-cadence tick-tick-chatter of dying, off-colored fluorescent tubes tapping out some maddening, off-cadence noise pollution overhead. I remember setting down my exacto-blade, looking around the over-crowded studio, and thinking to myself, “This place is so terrible that it’s actually making me stupider.” It turns out that I might have been right.

Many of you have likely experienced something similar. Whether it’s a sealed medical building with bright, fluorescent lighting, a manufacturing plant with the incessant pounding of heavy machinery, or an office building with low-ceilings and identical cubicles as far as the eye can see, we all have been in places that seem destined to hinder creativity and productivity. What’s frustrating is that, from an architectural point of view, it’s hard to measure this. One can survey people’s preferred environment, worker productivity, employee absenteeism, measure noise decibels and exposure to natural light, but holistically, it’s hard to say that one environment is better than another — particularly when it often comes down to how one feels in the space. Is there a way that we can use biologically-based data to empirically prove what our intuition already tells us?

The answer, as it turns out, is yes. There are now scientific studies that show that brain growth is directly linked to our physical environments. In fact, studies conducted from 2001-2010 by Dr. Elizabeth Gould at Princeton University, show that boring and/or stressful environments encumber the ability for the brain to produce new nerve connections.

I first heard about Dr. Gould’s study in a report by Jonah Lehrer. Before going any further, I should mention that Jonah Lehrer has been getting a lot of negative attention lately for plagiarism and “recycling” his ideas, but the scientific data from the study he wrote about is still quite valid. As Lehrer discusses on the National Public Radio show Radiolab, Dr. Gould’s experiment was pretty straightforward.

Three groups of Marmoset monkeys were placed in different environments. The first group was placed in typical laboratory cages where food was given to them. The second group was put in a more “enriched environment” where there was hidden food, more monkeys for interaction, and new objects that were sporadically introduced every few days. The third group had even more monkeys, hidden food to forage for, and “toys” with which to engage. The primates were allowed to live in these environments for a period of time and then a few individuals were chosen from the groups and the scientists dissected their brains.

The results were black and white. The primates who had the “enriched environments” had very healthy, robust brain activity — generating new neurons and healthy neuron connections. The brains of the monkeys that were kept in the cages had actually stopped regenerating neurons, the branches that connect neurons had begun to disappear, and the hippocampus portion of their brain (imperative for learning and memory) had begun to degenerate.

Other studies by Gould have shown that chronic stress and noise will also produce the same results. As Christian Mirescu, one of Gould’s post-doc lab assistants puts it, “When a brain is worried, it’s just thinking about survival. It isn’t interested in investing in new cells for the future.”
The physical environment actually decreased brain activity. Conversely, a vibrant environment with stimulating materials invigorates. Investing in a quality work environment, an acoustically-serene museum, or a visually-pleasing home isn’t just an exercise in personal preference —  it’s an investment in maintaining healthy brain activity.

Earlier, I mentioned the abysmal qualities of the first-year architecture studio. What I didn’t disclose was this: once students make it past the first couple of years, they graduate to better studio spaces in a different wing of the building that has lots of daylight, higher ceilings, operable windows that permit pleasant breezes, and more room to spread out. While I might have been accustomed to my environment by that point, working in the new studio spaces felt so much nicer. And if I had to guess, my brain felt happier too.