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A Study of Neuro-Architecture through the Analysis of an Alzeihmer's Assisted Living Residence
A STUDY OF NEURO-ARCHITECTURE THROUGH THE ANALYSIS OF AN ALZHEIMER'S ASSISTED LIVING RESIDENCE
Neuro-architecture is the study of how we respond to the built environment around us. In any space you encounter there are emotional responses attached to them. No matter how mundane the activity or how dull the space may be, you are still responding to that stimuli. The connection between neuroscience and architecture opens the door for more innovative and influential spaces to solve human problems. Space is not just a place to be, but rather an environment that informs your decisions and thoughts.
In this essay, I argue that the connection made between neuroscience and architecture can further revolutionize how we interact with space at a personal level and help inform how we design intentionally in the future. I examine this through the analysis of an Alzheimer’s Assisted Living Treatment facility, focusing on how the space itself creates a life-changing environment for those dwelling in it.
The brain is a complex system with extreme detail and multiple moving parts. It is the headquarters for all our physical activity, mental processes, and communication skills. The brain processes the world around us and our built environment falls into that category. The spaces and places which we inhabit every day are evaluated in the brain and consequently shape our thoughts and actions. The brain has three main functions that are affected by architecture: memory, spatial processing, and learning.
Memory is the basis of our daily living; without the ability to remember we would still be stuck at the infant stage. As we experience things, our brain perceives where we are, who we are with, what is being said, and so on. All of these aspects of our experience travel to different parts of our brains and are processed in separate cortexes. Different areas of the brain, including all of our senses, come together to create a completed picture and, therefore, a memory of that time and place. We store all these memories in our hippocampus to later recall similar experiences and apply them to what we are presently doing. Our memories, in turn, inform our actions on a day-to-day basis.
The memories we recall are not just words or pictures but rather entire experiences informed by the space and place we were in; the color of the walls, the lighting, the shapes, and the general atmosphere of an architectural space are pieces of information that distinguish our memories. John Zeizel, author of Inquiry by Design, says, “In order to be experienced as a memory, the retrieved information must be recollected in the context of a particular time and place and with some reference to oneself as a participant in the episode.” Our memories are constructed through the physical space we were in at that moment and can inform how we see the world in the future. This is crucial for how we understand and know the world around us. Remembering is the basis of knowing and through knowledge we change how we live our lives.
Secondly, architecture affects how we process space in our brain. Our minds have the ability to reconstruct a space we were in years ago, or even moments ago. Right now, for instance, you can recall what the entrance to your home looks like and can picture yourself moving through that space. This goes hand-in-hand with our ability to remember and is vital to our everyday living. At a primal level, “effectively and efficiently creating and holding such cognitive maps enables us to remember how to find food sources, mates, our home, and how to avoid predators and dangerous locations.” Our mental pictures help us navigate the world that we come to explore in the future. For example, after you learn how to open a door at home, you can then know how to open a door at school. Simply put, it is connecting similar experiences to other present experiences to help navigate our actions.
Spatial awareness is processed close to our emotional memories and this is why we feel differently about spaces as we enter them. We may feel cozy and warm in a classroom with warm or natural light, but uncomfortable or stiff in an artificially lit room. J. Allan Hobson breaks down the neurology of this unique action,
[Cognitive maps]... are stored in memory by a specialized brain region called the hippocampus. This map room is a specialized part of our memory bank whose contents are stored in intimate proximity to emotion central, located beside the hippocampus. The net result is that our sense of place is tied to our recollections of early experience and our sense of unease in the world.
We have emotional responses to our built environment, and this is due to the neurological mapping of our brain. This is why people with parietal (the lining around the brain) damage as well as hippocampal amnesia struggle to recall once-familiar settings and are unable to remember routes. An article from Frontiers in Human Neuroscience says,
More specifically, we propose as an individual navigates through dynamic spatial and social environments in the world, the hippocampus is creating rich relational representations of the present while simultaneously and automatically recovering previous experiences that are similar in content and/or context and may generate novel scenarios of possible future events and outcomes.
In our hippocampus, spatial awareness is stored, and this function of the brain is flexible—meaning that it is constantly taking in new information that adds to this “bank” of memories in our heads, that in turn inform how we act. Overall, through our ability to create a cognitive map of where we are, we are able to better experience the present by recalling the past as well as informing our future experiences.
Finally, the function of learning is vital to the brain’s development and is influenced by the spaces we inhabit. As we learn, the environment in which we learn is a great factor in how we process and retain that information. Reading outside around a table might help you understand that material better than sitting in desks in a classroom. The context in which we learn greatly impacts our emotions and therefore our memory.
Contextual Learning is the term used to describe the influence that physical context, emotions, and state of mind have on our ability to recall subject matter that we learn. External physical environment-a contextual element whenever we learn- actively influences such recall just as place-memories in the brain’s environment system play a role in the internal structure of general memory.
We retain information better by finding connection in our own lives. This is why teachers often use examples or tactical tools. “When places in which we learn a subject have more meaning to us, we are better able to recall the subject matter.” Our connection to physical space impacts what we are able to imagine and create, and the recollection of this knowledge informs who we are and how we live. The role that environment plays in our lives greatly affects how we process our world and therefore make decisions in the future.
Overall, our brain reacts to stimuli in a three-step process. We interpret, act, and compare, and as a result we get a cohesive picture. Our minds through complex comparisons are able to creatively and emotionally respond to the environment they are in.
[T]he brain spontaneously generates crude, transient representations with graphs that vary from one instant to the other. These particular mental objects, or pre-representations, exist before the interaction with the outside world. They arise from the recombination of pre-existing sets of neurons or neuronal assemblies, and their diversity is thus great.
Our minds are wired to find new things and compare to the old to inform the decisions we have in the future. Neuro-architecture now becomes a tool in understanding the social, psychological, and physiological aspects of our lives.
Neurologically, we simply respond to the stimuli presented to us in shapes, colors, smells, and feelings, but is there more? Robert A. Burton says no. He gives an example of a tennis player responding to a ball coming to her, and reasons that she hits the ball not from her own free will but from a flight-or-fight response to an oncoming object. “Initiation of the action precedes full conscious perception of seeing the ball.” She did not have agency in hitting the ball, but instead she responded to the stimuli. Is architecture any different? Being mere responders to stimuli prompts the question: do we have free will in our decision-making, or does our environment around us make them instead? It seems reductionistic to think that our emotions and actions are mere consequences of our built environment.
John Zeisel responds to this question by distinguishing the function of the brain from the mind. He generally says that the brain gives us the tools and basis to let the mind think freely and creatively. The mind gives purpose to the mere function of the brain and gives personality to the individual. He says,
[Freud] asserted that “brain” represents the physical jellied mass in our skulls and “mind” represents its function. Now another hundred years have passed, and neuroscientists generally agree that specific parts of the brain are more closely associated than other parts with particular processes like long term memory, cognitive mapping, visual thought, and speech, and that no single part of the brain alone controls any particular function. Rather several parts of the brain communicate for systems that deal with these different mind functions.
Our brain acts as the processor, and we are given the necessary information to form in our mind who we are and how we act. The brain is the “what” that gives the basic information, and our mind is the “how” and “why,” that puts meaning behind the neurological functions.
The environment and behavior of a person can be seen architecturally through four basic concepts: Place, Personalization, Territory, and Wayfinding. These four aspects of neurologically-influenced architecture help to guide the architect to build a meaningful space that as humans we respond to in an intentional way.
Place when defined at its simplest is “space that holds meaning.” Space can be anywhere, but a place is a defined area where there is purpose. We divide our places into semantic and non-semantic, places we know versus places we do not know. Neurologically the connection between knowing and not knowing can be found. Defining a place as space with meaning invites researchers to determine precisely the types of places that hold the most meaning for users, places with deeper meaning for particular cultures, and what particular elements of those places inspire deep meaning in users.
Secondly, Personalization refers to how we engage with the place we are in. Through personalization we are able to reflect on our culture, past experiences, aspirations etc. Personal connection to a space creates meaningful time and memories, and this is found neurologically as well. Physical details in our places cue us to reflect on memories we have, reinforcing our sense of self through that. For those who are unable to store memories—people who have Alzeimhers, for instance -- this sense of self is lost. Often people with Alzeimhers will fill their rooms with moments of their history to create environmental reminders to that person in hopes that memories are triggered.
Thirdly, Territory refers to the distinguishing of one place from the next. We feel physically comfortable when we are in a place that is our home or one of familiarity. It is seen in how we express ourselves and make decisions. The last concept, Wayfinding, goes hand-and-hand with Territory. For example, when you are in your own home you feel comfortable standing from the table to grab a glass of water, but in another person's home that is unfamiliar to yours, you may have hesitations. On a small scale, we can understand how our familiarity with space can influence decision-making.
Having set the basis of what Neuro-Architecture is and how it is applicable to the human brain, we can now look at an example of Neuro-Architecture in Alzheimer communities.
Alzeimers is a degenerative disease that destroys memory as well as other functions within the brain. Most commonly hippocampal damage occurs, making it harder for people with Alzeimers to connect their present experiences with experiences of the past. They often cannot remember where they are or who they are which triggers frustration or even irritability. But they have not lost all brain function, so they can remember some things if triggered by a particular sense or area of the brain which has not been destroyed by Alzeimers. For example,
One caregiver tells the story of a woman who for two years had not explicitly recognized her son Ned when he was in her presence. Ned became accustomed to walking past his mother without even saying “hello.” Once, however, a startling event occurred. Ned walked past his mother as usual, but this time she turned to the woman next to her and said: “That’s my son Ned. He’s wearing the same after shave lotion my husband wore everyday for as long as we were married.” Ned’s grooming habits primed important sense memories in her brain that day.
Even though she had not recognized her son before, her part of the brain that processes smell was not damaged, so she was able to make an observation through smell. Alzeimers affects the brain in specific areas, most often being the hippocampus, which controls memory, but there are still working areas of the brain that are crucial to preserve.
Architecture now plays a role in capitalizing on what the patients can already process while aiding their deficits to make them happier and calmer in their environment. Zeisel says, “Well-designed physical environments for these people substitute for missing capabilities while directly supporting remaining skills.” The Assisted Living Treatment Residence in Woburn, Massachusetts provides a space that is comforting to people with Alzeimers to help preserve what capabilities they have left while creating a space that supports their weaknesses.
The facility is first designed with seclusion and security in mind. “The doors have no windows to the outside, and the facility’s garden is surrounded by a tall decorative fence. These measures reduce potential agitation by preventing views to outdoor activities that might attract residents’ interest and encourage them to leave.” This enclosed environment gives them their own world and space, where they are able to grasp their surroundings. Since they are spatially impaired, having a small enclosed environment will allow the patients to move independently and freely without the need of constant supervision. This gives the patients a sense of agency and gives them a chance to make decisions for themselves. Through the architecture and design of the space they are able to grant a sense of individuality and a sense of self to these people who, by nature of their illness, are losing.
Secondly, the common area is designed to remind them of their own home, so they have a distinct living room with a fireplace, carpet, armchairs, and sofas, low ceilings, curtains etc. There is also the kitchen which has tile floors, wood cabinets, a dining table, and more of the basic features of any kitchen. This is to not only remind them of their own homes, but also to give distinct feelings to those rooms so even if they can not remember exactly the contents of the room, they can still recall the feeling. “While residents may not remember the precise attributes of each room, their functioning amygdalae enable them to remember the ‘feel’ of each.“ By creating a version of home that is somewhat familiar with the patients, it creates an environment that feels safe and comfortable, allowing the patients to feel more confident in their understanding of where they are.
Thirdly, their bedrooms are designed similarly to the common area in that they are to remind them of their past bedroom. All of their own furniture is brought into the rooms, and they are encouraged to fill their rooms with pictures and memories to make them feel more familiar with their surroundings, in hopes of triggering memories. The actual scale of the room is designed to be parallel to a residential home, meaning that the ceilings are much lower, giving the rooms a more comfortable feel. The physical space being similar to their past environment in an actual house is crucial in giving the patients a sense of familiarity since people with Alzeihmers often have difficulty with awareness of space.
Lastly, there is a garden which brings the natural into such a planned environment. It is designed with a designated and clear path that moves circularly to elicit intentioned movement and to avoid wandering. The garden provides a natural escape that is peaceful and healing, and is also interactive allowing the patients to get involved physically, which affirms their agency and sense of self.
Overall, this Alzheimer's Assisted Living Residence, through its intentional design, gives patients back their freedom and individuality. By creating a controlled and safe environment, they have the ability to give structure and a sense of familiarity to these patients. Zeisel says,
The design and layout of this residence for people living with Alzeihmer’s disease—its architecture, landscape, and interiors—are planned to augment residents’ memories and ability to function on their own. By taxing the parts of residents' brains that are still working and relieving the parts that are damaged, the whole person is supported.
Through this unique style of design they were able to give back a part of these people's lives and grant them a more peaceful situation.
This type of facility, though, is few and far between and no doubt expensive. There are only 26 patients allowed in the residency by design, to help it feel more like a family, but that number is very low. Is it fair that these 26 get to have a higher quality of life than another? The clear answer is no. There are many limitations whether that be the size limits of the facility or the price of the facility that close doors for people. I feel this as a call to action to start recognizing the power of architecture in its conjunction with neuroscience. In this particular Alzeimers home, they were able to grant these people a sense of self, agency, and independence with a disease that strips all those qualities away from you, and that was done through intentional design. By acknowledging this breakthrough, we must now push to normalize it and make it the standard for all facilities, in order to grant freedom to Alzeimers patients who do not have direct access to these facilities.
In conclusion, our built environment creates an intentional space that influences the neurological and social behaviors from human beings. Space and Place inform our memory which leads to the making of decisions in future scenarios. Our brain is extremely complex and responsive, and architecture is a tool that can be used to elicit social behavior, and that unique tool can shape our thoughts and actions. As demonstrated in the Alzeimer’s Residence, neuro-architecture can have great impacts that can change how people live. This revolution should inspire the creation of new spaces with neuroscience in mind in order to better understand how to impact people’s lives as they inhabit those spaces.
This was SO well done! I’m so honored I was able to read this. I hope you feel proud of the work you did here. Congratulations on being a step closer to graduation!
Burton, Robert A. “A Life of Meaning (Reason Not Required).” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 5, 2016. nytimes.com/2016/09/05/opinion/a-life-of-meaning-reason-not-required.html.
Rubin, Rachael D., Patrick D. Watson, Melissa C. Duff, and Neal J. Cohen. “The Role of the Hippocampus in Flexible Cognition and Social Behavior.” Frontiers. Frontiers, September 3, 2014. frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00742/full.
Zeisel, John. Inquiry by Design: Environment, Behavior, Neuroscience in Architecture, Interiors, Landscape, and Planning. New York, NY: Norton, 2009.