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(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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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...

13 replies on “How Museums Affect the Brain”

  1. White right handed male architects have a specific relationship with well designed buildings including awareness of purpose and awareness of the sublime skill in these famous buildings. If the schools, prisons and houses had a similar level of design value it would mean more, it’d be interesting to know if the houses included any famous architectural wonders. But that’s a big contextual thing.

    Now if the study were done with black right handed female housekeepers it might come out different. If it came out the same then it would be striking.

    It’s also a very small sample. But as a concept it does make sense. I’m just curious about whether it would hold true across class, culture and gender lines or if that is a white male architect’s understanding of sheer skill and beauty in familiar work.

    1. Exactly. This is not an exciting finding, it is closer to a really boring finding. Who cares how architecture affects white guys with architectural backgrounds. And then, the study wasn’t even able to be conclusive in its findings. Lots of reposts on this article are floating around Facebook—mainly by people and organizations who want to look like they are all artsy n’ stuff, but didn’t take the time to actually read the article.

    2. just a comment to clarify to Robert and and ‘Rawbun’.

      The reason for such a small sample (12 white, right handed, native English speaking, male, and architect people) is NOT because we don’t know that we need to do such studies with the whole (diverse) population. I am not myself white caucasian. The reason is that scientific sampling and the operation of the brain must be taken into account when you design and conduct an experiment in order to produce a statistically significant result, specially with the little funding we had. Right hand people’s brain is wired different and so is non-native English speakers and females. With 12 people, we had to have enough ‘structural and physiological’ consistency to make trustable measurement.

      For those of you that don’t know or understand the scientific method and process, there is plenty of rules and procedures to follow in order for any experiment to receive legitimacy.

      Lastly, you cannot be ever conclusive in science and much less with testing 12 subjects. However, you can suggest probabilities and patterns that could then be pursued and tested further. Eventually, you can arrive to strong conclusions.

      I think that the reason that this study is receiving attention is because it is the first of its kind and one that, for good or bad, attempts to look at the matter of externally-induced contemplation — something that we have assumed as real for millennia but like everything else these days must be tested to see if holds true under empirical measurement.

      Thank you for reading and commenting on the work. I appreciate it.

  2. Seems the choice of architects to view architecture is very far removed from what one might expect from the general population. It’s like asking a trained musician to look at the score of a tranquil piece of music. They can read it in a way the untrained cannot and thus have a completely different experience.

    1. Yes, Sam, architects will see architecture/space/place differently … specially if compelled to use their knowing, analytical, critical mind … however, without denying their different perspective, our study requested them to put such bias aside and be in the places we showed them as unconditioned as they could … while this is hard to do in general (and they certainly couldn’t do it with the ordinary buildings they saw — which proves the point, see next), they were able to accomplish it (or get closer) with the contemplative architecture …

      which brings up the whole nature of contemplative states which, by definition, arrives to a different level of mental, emotional, and sensorial operation … in which, arguably at least, there are more commonalities among human beings regardless their particular differences.

      Naturally, the next step is to test this very hypothesis in a set of experiment with non-architects. Thank you Sam for your comment and interest.

      1. “our study requested them to put such bias aside”

        How does one set aside one’s biases? Do you need to do an fMRI study to see if that is even possible? What justifies the statement that there are more commonalities among human beings regardless their particular differences vis-a-vis any specific environmental stimulus. Tiger Woods, for example looks at grass a lot differently than you or I.

        Perhaps this brief write-up is overstating/oversimplifying your actual results, but so far it only seems to indicate that an expert can reach a meditative state while contemplating well known extraordinary examplars in the expert’s field.

        1. Hi Sam

          You are right. Our study only grants us to claim (and even very provisorily at that) that architecture-trained people may be able to arrive to a contemplative state via extraordinary exemplars. I agree.

          Hopefully, you will at least concede that the possibility that such remarkable buildings may be also capable to induce non-architects into contemplative state. The fact that these incredible works (and not just those, but many ordinary buildings as well) have been reported to occasion great aesthetic experiences in many ordinary people (see my nearly 3000 responses survey on ‘extraordinary architectural experiences’ URL: http://faithandform.com/feature/amazing-grace/) further support the pursuit of research on this topic.

          Lastly, the setting aside of one’s biases is one of the hardest things a human being can ever hope to attain. In fact, priests, monks and meditators spend decades trying to accomplish such thing. No fMRI will ever prove one’s arrival nor will, frankly, whatever anyone reports. For example, Husserl’s ‘phenomenological reduction’ continues to this day to be the center of great debate and negation as most zen masters’ allegation of arriving to true formless experience. The point is not to ‘prove’ such state of grace (and i think it’s a state of grace, whether one believes on a divinity or not) but rather the very attempt at trying to get there, studying it, and having an open conversation on it. I often wish that we all be more interested in these kinds of topics instead of the ones usually worrying us daily. Don’t you think?

          Once again, thank you for your interest and care. I appreciate it.

          1. Of course I concede the possibility 🙂

            Perhaps out of scope, but I would be interested to see if there is any correlation between fMRI, eye-tracking, and interview data.

            In the interviews did you ask the subjects to name the buildings or otherwise describe them as a means to gauge familiarity?

          2. you cannot get eye-tracking and fMRI done at the same experiment … getting someone inside the fMRI machine is quite an undertaking (it’s got 1 million times the magnetic field of Earth). So anything that is metallic is potentially a bullet. It’d have to be done at different times which would create some discord between fMRI readings and eye-track readings … the best on such matter would be to use EEG and eye-tracking … but that’d have to be a different experiment (problem with EEG is its lack of accuracy, at least right now)

            regarding familiarity, we didn’t ask that directly but we did find out, in the exit interview, that a few subjects had been in a couple of places … however, most haven’t been to any of them and in the larger scheme of thing those few instances didn’t statistically problematize the results overall.

          3. Did not mean at the same time. My basic assertion is that experts and non-experts view objects differently, both from a purely technical stance — Woods visually measuring the height of grass, a musician hearing a score instead of seeing dots on a page, and so on — but also being able to take those cues and reach a contemplative state (zone/flow/etc) without “scanning” all the details. This could be tested with eye tracking. My expectation is that viewing “in field” objects will result in more deliberate viewing and viewing objects external to the subjects’ expertise will be as random as the general population. The expert will quickly prioritize the familiar.

            Asking to name or describe the building was deliberately not asking if the architect had visited. Being able to name a building clearly shows familiarity, but also so does giving a description. What the non-expert sees as “post office” the expert may see as “Early 20th Century Classical Revival, brick, Spanish tile roof, municipal building, post office.” Having a more refined schema may play a part so I was trying to suggest a question to tease that out when viewing the unfamiliar.

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