How Architectural Design Influences Mental Health
As the amount of time that people spend indoors is now roughly 90% of their day, considering the impact of architectural design on mental health has never been more relevant (Megahed and Ghoneim, 2021). A developing field, “neuro-architecture”, combines neuroscience and architecture to understand the neural correlates of sensory processes such as visual and spatial perception, and how personal experiences vary in different contexts; the aim is to implement these findings during building design to optimise psychological wellbeing (Wilson and Chatterjee, 2005).
Certain visual effects appear to promote good mental health when perceived in the external environment. For example, patterns have been identified as a means of inducing feelings of stability and ease due to their consistent and predictable nature; evolutionarily, pattern recognition represents an integral function for survival, and since continues to contribute to navigating everyday life (Ricci, 2018). Pattern is also associated with rhythm in architecture – a function that causes the eyes to travel from one focal point to another, creating a sense of flow and continuity (Thapa, 2018).
Rhythm represents an important factor in making sense of architectural design, and its applications can be seen in some of the most aesthetically successful buildings throughout history. Examples include the repetitive arches surrounding the walkways of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, as well as the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, which features large sequential columns throughout its interior. These buildings have a high level of symmetry and balance in their design: features also shown to contribute to pattern recognition and preference (Wilson and Chatterjee, 2005), suggesting that architecture which incorporates a higher level of balance is likely to be associated with feelings of ease.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, London
Spatial perception is another factor which influences how people feel in relation to the surrounding environment. A clear view of the setting, along with potential places to hide, predict visual preferences for natural environments, and it is thought that these visual preferences also extend to the interior of buildings (Dosen and Oswald, 2016). Similarly, buildings with more open spaces and higher ceilings tend to be preferred, as opposed to enclosed spaces which are associated with the activation of emotional reactions accompanying exit decisions (Vartanian et al. 2015), likely indicating a sense of entrapment.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Architecture which imitates or incorporates the natural environment into its design is strongly associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing (Ricci, 2018). Contact with nature has shown to produce numerous benefits, both physical and psychological, particularly within stress reduction, pain perception and overall mood (Diette et al. 2003) (Franco et al., 2017). The Eden Project in Cornwall is a prime example of how nature has been both imitated and incorporated into architecture: its design consisting of large domes resembling bubbles, full of plants, and coexisting with the surrounding natural environment.
The Eden Project, Cornwall
Large windows which enable the entrance of daylight, as well as providing a view of natural scenery, are associated with better performance and lower stress; this can be attributed to the effects of direct sunlight on mood, in addition to visual stimulation offered by the view (An et al. 2016). Buildings which occupy urban spaces generally tend to consist of monochromatic colours, overly boxy shapes and a lack of windows, resulting in sensory deprivation for urban livers (Ricci, 2018).
The level of complexity in architectural design additionally influences psychological wellbeing (Güçlütürk et al., 2016); situations in which buildings are stripped of visual complexity and stimulation, such as prison settings, are consistently associated with poor mental health. Yet excessive architectural complexity in terms of patterns, shapes and colours may overwhelm the visual system and evoke greater stress and discomfort. It is thought that a moderate level of complexity can contribute to mental wellbeing most effectively.
There are numerous ways through which architecture can influence mental health, and its power to do so is becoming increasingly recognised among urban designers, architects and psychologists alike. As the amount of urban livers increases, together with the number of mental health problems, it is essential that architects and urban designers incorporate the findings of neuroarchitecture into building design. The recognition of this connection is likely to strengthen significantly over the next few decades, producing another well-established interdisciplinary field with many more findings and applications to come.
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