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.”