Can Your City Change Your Mind?

November 16, 2016
The design of our spaces can heal us, hurt us, and alter the way we think.

There’s a significant chance that the room you’re in right now is controlling your mind. The room—if you’re like most North Americans, who’ve been found to spend roughly 90 percent of their time indoors, you’re probably in one—is exerting both strong and subtle influences on the way your brain functions. It may be making you anxious, or sad, or distracted, or highly efficient, or inexplicably tired, affecting not only your cognitive abilities and mental processes, but your emotional state, mental stability, and physical well-being.

All these consequences have been recorded scientifically, and it’s becoming evident that the way physical spaces are designed can have a measurable impact on the human brain. Architecture, interior design, and even city planning can affect human behaviors and mental processes, causing psychological, biophysical, and cognitive changes in people, often without them noticing. Mostly this influence happens by accident. But sometimes it happens on purpose.

A subset of neuroscientists and psychologists are now working with architects and designers to understand how and why spaces, from city sidewalks to buildings to individual rooms, have such strong cognitive and psychological impacts. How these spaces are designed can affect the way people think, feel, learn, and comprehend the world around them. And because we spend so much time in these spaces, how they are designed can have significant impacts on our lives.

The implications of this work are far-reaching. Researchers are exploring how design can help hospital patients heal faster, how office configurations can improve productivity, how homes can adapt to the hypersensitivities of children on the autism spectrum, and how simple features like windows and natural light can reduce our stress or improve our sleep.

Design affects the brain. Scientists and designers are starting to understand how and why. And as they learn more, they’re fueling the development of new design tools and approaches that are rapidly changing the built world around us. More and more, design can be used to achieve specific outcomes or to create certain effects. This scientific approach offers potentially groundbreaking and lifesaving ways of building spaces and cities. It’s also opening the door to a near future where design could be used maliciously to influence people's thinking, control their behavior, or even harm their health. ...