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This is Your Brain on Beautiful Architecture

A recent fMRI study suggests that better architecture can give you deeper moments of personal reflection.

Interior of The Pantheon, via

Looking at beautiful architecture might be as potent as prayer or meditation, say scientists in a recent study. The research is the beginning of examining how external stimuli evokes deep moments of emotional reflection, as reflected in our brains.

The Atlantic’s City Lab talked to Catholic University of America professor, Dr. Julio Bermudez, about his team’s recent study on architecture and the brain using fMRI. Bermudez and his team wanted to know if buildings specifically designed for contemplation elicited brain activity similar to that found in "internally induced" states of contemplation. Could personal reflection be sparked by architecture in the same way that it is by internal means? The team turned to neuroscience for answers.

The Taj Mahal, via

12 white, right-handed architects with perfect vision were selected as test subjects, with the idea that they'd have a stronger response to buildings than average citizens. “Relax, be present, and try to imagine yourself being and experiencing the places you’ll be shown... Imagine yourself transported to the buildings in the images,” were their instructions. Using fMRI, Bermudez's team compared the regions of the brain that are activated when presented with images of contemplative architecture—like Sagrada Familia in Spain, the Greek Pantheon, Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France, and Frank Lloyd Wright's FallingWater in Pennsylvania—versus those of ordinary buildings.

Fallingwater, image via flicker user Brian Donovan

The results showed that staring at contemplative buildings did, in fact, elicit neural correlates of meditative states, but in a different way than internally-driven methods did. “A conscious experience of architecture is the result of physical, spatial, temporal, sensorial, and physical presence, rather than a pure inward intellectual act,” explains Bermudez in his presentation. At the same time, the differences in viewing ordinary and contemplative buildings were significant, hinting that the quality of the “architectural stimulus” itself does matter.

A still of brain scans from Bermudez's presentation.

This pilot study is only of a small subset of the population, reminds Bermudez, but its results mark the beginning of research that could become especially insightful to architects, spatial designers, and city planners who are looking to induce specific responses from people. Perhaps contemplative architecture could even be revealed to have health benefits in future research, they hypothesize. And who wouldn't want another Taj Mahal either way? 

Listen to Bermudez's fascinating lecture of the study in two parts, Part 1 and Part 2.

h/t City Lab

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