At a particular moment during every tour of Georgetown’s campus, it becomes necessary for the student guide to acknowledge the singular blight in an otherwise idyllic environment.  

“Lauinger Library was designed to be a modern abstraction of Healy Hall”: a sentence that inevitably trails off with an apologetic shrug, inviting the crowd to arrive at their own conclusions about how well it turned out. Much of the student population would likely agree that the library’s menacing figure on the quad is nothing short of soul-crushing. New research conducted by a team of architects and neuroscientists suggests that architecture may indeed affect mental states, although they choose to focus on the positive.

I spoke with Dr. Julio Bermudez, the lead of a new study that uses fMRI to capture the effects of architecture on the brain. His team operates with the goal of using the scientific method to transform something opaque—the qualitative “phenomenologies of our built environment”—into neuroscientific observations that architects and city planners can deliberately design for. Bermudez and his team’s research question focuses on buildings and sites designed to elicit contemplation: They theorize that the presence of “contemplative architecture” in one’s environment may over time produce the same health benefits as traditional “internally-induced” meditation, except with much less effort by the individual.

Contemplative architecture contains a series of design elements that have historically been employed in religious settings: Bermudez noted that it is “logical to expect societies not only to notice [the link between built beauty and experience] over time, but to exploit it as much as possible in their places for holy purposes.” These elements may be used in any place intended for contemplation or discovery, whether of a spiritual, personal, or even scientific nature. Architectural Digest wrote of the “modernist beacon” The Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California:

The nonprofit research center … interweaves private and public spaces with a strikingly formal, inward-looking plan that echoes the format of a medieval cloister. Composed of strong-willed yet sensuous materials—travertine and reinforced concrete—it possesses a hushed dignity that encourages contemplation.

Two six-story laboratory buildings form the north and south boundaries of the complex. Each shelters an inner row of angular semidetached office structures that face each other across a travertine courtyard. Bisecting it all is a channel of water that seems to pour into the Pacific below. The buildings, fashioned of concrete accented with teak, focus one’s gaze on the horizon so “you are one with the ocean,” observes admirer Jim Olson, a partner in the Seattle firm Olson Kundig Architects.

By showing 12 architects photos of contemplative and non-contemplative buildings from facade to interior, the researchers were able to observe the brain activity that occurred as subjects "imagined they were transported to the places being shown."

All of the architects were white, right-handed men with no prior meditative training, creating the necessary (if comical) uniformity for neuroscientific research—the team wanted to ensure that the brain scans would not be influenced by factors unrelated to the photos, like gender, race, or handedness. For instance, the brain scans of left- and right-handed people often look different even when subjects are performing the same task.

In addition to posing an interesting control on the experiment, the decision to use architects was a strategic one meant to increase the researchers’ chances of achieving conclusive results. Though everyone encounters architecture, studies on the built environment struggle for funding because, as Bermudez remarked with a sigh, “it’s difficult to suggest that people are dying from it.” Architects were a natural choice for the pilot study because, the team reasoned, their critical training and experience would make them sensitive to features of the buildings that a lay person might overlook.

He conceded that the team "totally loaded the deck" by examining a horde of architects as they perused photos of the "most beautiful buildings mankind has ever produced.” Among others, the sites in the “contemplative” experimental group include La Alhambra, the Pantheon, the Chartres Cathedral, the Salk Institute, and the Chapel of Ronchamp. In response to a critic at the presentation he gave at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) shortly after the study's conclusion, Bermudez explained 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. “It may be a limitation of the system,” Bermudez added, “but it’s what everyone has to do.”

The challenge began when the researchers set out to measure an experience few have paused to identify—they deployed online surveys in Spanish and English to gather testimony on extraordinary architectural experiences (EAEs), or encounters with places that fundamentally alter one’s normal state of being. Critically, most of the buildings or sites mentioned in the 2,982 testimonies were designed with contemplation in mind, whether spiritual, aesthetic, religious, or symbolic, leading the researchers to conclude that “buildings may induce insightful, profound, and transformative contemplative states, [and] buildings designed to provoke contemplation seem to be succeeding” to a great degree. In addition to churches, mosques, and other types of religious buildings, some art galleries, monuments, homes, and museums are examples of contemplative architecture—the Guggenheim in Bilbao, the Louvre in Paris, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s “My Home” in Fallingwater were in the top 10 sites referenced in the surveys.

Anticipating skeptics who would claim that these experiences are subjective, the researchers expanded the question to draw on the established neuroscientific subfield of meditation, with some important differences. Related studies to date have focused on internally produced states that are easily replicated in the lab, and on aesthetic evaluation, or the activity that occurs in the orbital frontal cortex as we make snap judgments about whether we find things ugly or beautiful.

Bermudez and his team expected that architecturally-induced contemplative states would be strong, non-evaluative aesthetic experiences— eliciting more activity in areas associated with emotion and pleasure, but less activity in the orbital frontal cortex.

The presence of an external stimulus (the photos of the buildings) also removes the tedious self-regulation that occurs in the prefrontal cortex during traditional meditation. The interviews of the 12 subjects revealed that “peacefulness and relaxation, lessening of mind wandering, increasing of attention, and deepening of experience” were all common effects of viewing the photos—also common was a slight element of aesthetic judgment, seemingly inescapable in the crowd of critics.

The provisional conclusions of the study are that the brain behaves differently when exposed to contemplative and non-contemplative buildings, contemplative states elicited through “architectural aesthetics” are similar to the contemplation of traditional meditation in some ways, and different in other ways, and, finally, that “architectural design matters.”

That last conclusion sounds anticlimactic after all this talk of lobes and cortices, but it reinforces a growing trend in architecture and design as researchers are beginning to study how the built environment affects the people who live in it. ANFA proclaims that “some observers have characterized what is happening in neuroscience as the most exciting frontier of human discovery since the Renaissance.”

Other findings discussed at ANFA’s conference get even more into the gritty details: the optimal ceiling heights for different cognitive functions; the best city design for eliciting our natural exploratory tendencies and making way-finding easier; the ideal hospital layout to improve memory-related tasks in patients recovering from certain brain injuries; the influence of different types and quantities of light within a built space on mood and performance.  

I didn’t ask Bermudez what the fMRIs might reveal if his subjects were shown pictures of Lauinger Library, though. I suspect it wouldn’t be pretty.