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Illustration of human brain overlaid on architectural blueprint.

How Does Architecture Affect our Brain?


Architectural spaces affect our perception, fostering meditative states and altering our brain behavior.

When we talk about meditation, we normally think of an inner exercise, a practice born from within the human being, consequently affecting our body and our perception of the outside world. Recent studies have shown that the process can be the other way around or, in any case, in a bidirectional way so that an external element —the building which shelters us, perhaps— can also induce contemplative states and modify our brain activity.

A recent study published in The Atlantic and carried out by researchers from the Catholic University of America and Utah University sought to explore the ability of architecture to induce meditation. These scientists wanted to know if being in a museum, church or library, for instance, affected our brain activity in a similar way as meditation.

To carry out the study, they gathered a homogenous group of 12 architects who had never practiced meditation before. They were shown photographs of different buildings, while their brain activity was scanned and mapped. From the 12 architectural spaces they were shown, six were photographs of ordinary buildings such as schools, offices and houses; the other six were images of “contemplative” architectural works, such as the Alhambra, Chartres Cathedral, the Roman Pantheon, Salk Institute and Notre Dame du Haute.

The results showed that contemplative spaces activated specific parts of the brain —cortical regions of emotional and motor-sensitive integration—, and they also triggered areas related to the absence of judgment and concrete representation. In addition, the results showed that being exposed to these spaces reduced anxiety and the tendency to become distracted.

While the results did not prove that “contemplative” architecture has exactly the same effects on the brain as meditation, it does entail positive effects, similar to those experienced by the study’s subjects during the practice of meditation. One of the main differences found was that this type of architecture is more closely related to psychosomatic states and profound aesthetic experiences.

Since immemorial times, man has used architecture to inspire sensations and moods ––we need only remember medieval castles or churches and religious temples of all sorts. It is a fact, then, that the aesthetic-spatial experience inspires our mind and helps us perceive in specific ways. This is why the study proves to be profoundly interesting: its results imply that the benefits of meditation are not just reached through inner work; they can also be reached through elements of the physical world that surrounds us. The eternal dialogue between what is inside and what is outside (which, incidentally, might be one and the same).

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