How four walls could floor your creativity

March 3, 2006

Ever felt ideas would flow if only you could escape your stuffy office? John Zeisel on the neuroscience-architecture link

Winston Churchill proclaimed: "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." The great statesman is not usually celebrated for his scientific insight. But his maxim is now finding support in the academy, where the new field of neuroscience and architecture is starting to reveal how our brains respond to the environments in which we live, work and play. This applies as much to universities as anywhere else. It seems that not only academics and classes influence learning - campus structures themselves play a significant role.

For a start, buildings can support memory and improve performance in tests.

When learning environments contain meaningful physical cues that help students take in the material they learn, they can subsequently recall this material more easily. Many modern movement buildings of the 1960s have a deliberate "honest" blandness to them. This was intended to be a backdrop for colourful academic life but in fact just provided less emotional input into learning and that meant the student remembered less. On the other hand, I once lectured in a beautiful baroque music room in an Austrian institution and I still remember almost every line that I spoke.

When there are restful "away" spaces to retreat to amid the pressure of constant classes, students can switch from left-brain cognitive function to right-brain image function. Creative thoughts then have a chance to gestate and embed themselves - as they do when we sleep.

But being too relaxed is also a barrier to paying attention - as much as too much stress.JThere is an optimum level of stress to perform any task - and if we don't pay attention to the role environment plays in increasing or decreasing this, we overlook what might be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Stress acts on the brain to release neurotransmitters that short-circuit our immune systems. When under sustained stress, students get sick more often, miss classes and are likely to underperform. Classrooms without daylight, that are overcrowded and that are difficult to find increase stress levels. The same is true of classrooms with poor acoustics that make it difficult to hear the professor; those with lighting that makes it difficult to see projected images; and overheated classrooms that make students uncomfortable. All these factors can increase stress and hence reduce students' ability to learn, to remember and to perform well in tests.

Of course, the open spaces around and between buildings play a role too. On the one hand, they give students the chance to get in touch with their hard-wired feelings about, and memories of, nature. These spaces can relax the brain and enable an individual to more easily switch from thinking about one subject to thinking about the next on his or her schedule. But if the pathways between classroom and home appear unsafe at night or even during the day, stress levels can rise. Research shows that darkness, bushes and being alone all increase fear along public pathways at night.

Lights, attractions that bring others into the space and sightlines across open areas make people feel safer and more at ease.

We don't need to "design out" all mystery and interest to tackle these matters. Rather, we need to make open spaces lively and attractive and provide views that give people who use them a feeling of being in control.

Some of these approaches have for a long time been intuitively sensed by those responsible for designing campuses. Great architects have created buildings that inspire and fill us with joy. Great park planners give us settings that enrich our everyday experience.

But by bringing the neurosciences into the design picture, we have a better idea and understanding of how and why certain elements affect users.

John Zeisel is visiting professor at Salford University, president of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care and a director of the academy of neuroscience for architecture in the US. He will be speaking at the Art and Mind Festival - Space, Architecture and the Brain at the Theatre Royal Winchester, between March 10-12. See www.artandmind.org .

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