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How Museums Affect the Brain

(Image via Wikimedia)
(image via Wikimedia)

It seems self-evident that architecture impacts our emotions. Medieval landowners constructed foreboding castles to strike fear in the heart of potential invaders; churches flooded their buildings with light to encourage heavenly thought. It may be partly for this reason that as much fuss is made today about the design of a museum as the art that it houses. For many, museums are best when they stimulate contemplation.

But in our day and age, a hunch isn’t much if it isn’t tested, quantified, and generally applauded by the scientific community — which is exactly what a few researchers exploring the psychology of architecture may have achieved. As recently reported in The Atlantic, a team of researchers at the Catholic University of America (CUA) and the University of Utah have conducted a pilot study that provides evidence for architecture’s power to induce meditation. CUA professor Julio Bermudez presented their initial research, entitled “fMRI Study of Architecturally-Induced Contemplative States,” at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture in late September.

The researchers wanted to find out whether people visiting museums, churches, and libraries experience similar brain activity to those practicing meditation. If they were able to show that architecture facilitates such contemplation, it would mean that the benefits of meditation can be achieved not only by “internally-induced (self-directed) methods,” which such research tends to focus on, but also by outwardly imposed ones.

To test their hypothesis, they created a pilot study in which a homogenous group of 12 white, right-handed, male architects with no previous experience meditating was asked to look at pictures of buildings while receiving fMRI scans that mapped their brain’s neurological responses to what they saw. Each man was given six images of “ordinary” buildings like schools, offices, and houses interspersed with six images of “experimental” buildings that included the Chartres Cathedral, La Alhambra, the Pantheon, the Salk Institute, and the Chapel of Ronchamp:

A building was depicted through 4 images at 20 seconds each (totaling 80 sec) separated from the next set by a 40 sec recover period (gray plate). Each Block started with a Baseline period in which a gray color plate was presented for 60 sec. There was a short questionnaire after each Block and a 20-minute Exit Interview intended to collect behavioral/psychological data. A second Control came from the published record of neuroscience research on meditation-related practices.

The resulting data used regression analysis to provisionally show that contemplative spaces induce “markedly distinct” states compared with non-contemplative spaces — at least for white, right-handed, male architects. These environments activated unique parts of the brain, particularly the “cortical regions of sensory-motor and emotional integration, non-judgementality, and embodiment.” Ultimately, they allowed subjects to enter into a meditative state “with diminishing levels of anxiety and mind-wandering.”

The study wasn’t entirely successful in showing that pensive architecture produces the exact same effect as meditation. Subjects were able to reach deeper levels of meditation when their prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain that controls emotions and impulses) was deactivated, which meant that “while the phenomenological and neural correlates of the architecturally-induced contemplation share some similarities with internally-generated meditation … they also exhibit considerable differences that find better correspondence with peak/flow psycho-somatic states and profound aesthetic experiences.” In other words, a visit to the Morgan Library may calm you down, but it doesn’t stimulate the same parts of your brain that, say, praying does.

Bermudez told The Atlantic that the goal of the pilot study is to “reveal something interesting that warrants additional funding for an extension of the experiment using the general population.” And while that study is yet to be conducted, the pilot still offers a satisfactory “I-told-you-so” to those who have long championed the spiritual and psychological benefits of museums. Bottom line: the aesthetics of space matter.

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