• Sharon Crockett

Our Senses, Our Spaces: Applications of Neuroaesthetics to the Design of Rooms

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

When you walk into a room, your body immediately senses many things, such as how dark or light it is, if it's curvy or boxy, the colors and the tactile textures of the walls, floors and furnishings and if there are artworks on the walls. And then your rational brain decides, "I like this room" or "I feel comfortable here" or "I feel enlivened". But, what if we could measure your heart rate, your blood pressure, your temperature and based on those biological responses, we could find out if the results are in sync with what your "rational" brain told you? What if the room that you thought you made you feel relaxed turns out not to be the room in which, biologically-speaking, you actually felt relaxed or calm?

This is what the interactive exhibit, "A Space for Being", at last year's Salone del Mobile in Milan, Italy, set out to do to. The brainchild of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine's Brain Science Institute's new International Arts + Mind (IAM) Lab in collaboration with Google and architect, Suchi Reddy of Reddymade architecture, the exhibit was a sensation, allowing visitors to physically engage with different spaces of varying design and then find out how their bodies responded biologically. Participants wore Google-provided wristband sensors of biometrics and physiology and could spend five minutes without talking in each of three differently designed rooms, separated by "palette-cleansing" neutral spaces.

The first space was an "Essential Room" (lower righthand image) -- with soft curves and warm colors. The second space was a "Vital Room" that had bright, whimsical hues and dynamic lighting (lefthand image). The last room -- the "Transformative Room" -- had diffuse lighting, more elegant materials and higher walls (upper righthand image). All furnishings were from Muuto, the Danish modern furniture company. After passing through all three rooms, visitors relinquished their wristbands and received visual biofeedback about in which room they were the most "comfortable", listing all of that room's components. None of the data were collected; however, half of the participants reported that they were surprised that the room they said they liked best was not the room in which their body was most comfortable.

What does this all mean for the design of spaces in future as the field of neuroaesthetics continues to develop? It certainly doesn't mean that design should be codified. It means instead, that design can be highly personalized. Personalized, not just intuitively, the way interior design has always been through the years. But, personalized systematically, drawing on an individual's own biometrics. Just the way cutting-edge immunotherapy cancer treatments are being customized based on individual patients' own DNA, the design of specific rooms could be customized based on individuals' own particular biological responses to sets of varying design interventions. This is already the goal of a new healthcare project to design multi-sensory care rooms both to enhance individual children's ability to heal faster and to support their families' well-being.

Suppose that your goal is that your re-designed dining area be "vitalizing". You and the other members of your family who'll be using the space could systematically review carefully organized and presented imagery while each person's individual biofeedback is recorded. A starting point for the re-design could then be to use those combinations of design elements that elicited bodily feelings of "vitality" -- as measured by faster heart rate, higher blood pressure, etc. -- averaged across each person. The result would be a room design initially based on personalized biology and physiology that could then be further customized according to other design concepts and your family's own style preferences and functional needs.

If this sounds overly futuristic, it isn't. This is about making our designed spaces so that we can experience them "through all our senses" and understanding that we have personal agency over how those spaces can make us feel. We don't have to resign ourselves to be in spaces that don't make us feel well. We can harness neuroaesthetics as one of the newest tools to help us live in our spaces more holistically.

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