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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Cerebral Cities – psychological spaces and neuro-architecture

By Jessica Pykett

Evidence-based architecture and urban design has been growing in significance and in this post we consider how an emergent interdisciplinary field of neuro-architecture might re-make cities of the future in light of psychologised understandings of human behaviour.


We recently held a free seminar event at the University of Bristol, UK on the topic of ‘Changing Spaces, Urban Planning and Neuroarchitecture’ at which Dr. Margaret Tarampi (Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, University of California) and Dr Eve Edelstein (Institute of Place and Wellbeing, University of Arizona) presented on their work in developing research programmes which span neuroscience, anthropology, environmental psychology, computer science and architecture. Neuro-architecture aims to develop applied approaches to planning, urban design and building which make allowance for the effects of the built environment on brain activity and our diverse natural capacity for space perception. Tarampi and Edelstein have pursued this research in association with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) based at the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, La Jolla, California. They were joined in Bristol by three UK-based academics, Dr Monica Degen, Brunel University, Professor Graeme Evans, Middlesex University and Dr Dan Lockton from the Royal College of Art, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design.


Behavioural architecture and user-centred design

Discussion focussed on the value of designing spaces informed by insights from the neurosciences, the difficulties and potentials for interdisciplinary approaches and the various ways in which urban design and architecture can be deployed as a technique of psychological governance. Degen’s paper (co-authored with Dr. Clare Melhuish (UCL) and Professor Gillian Rose (Open University)) helpfully bridged what might otherwise have been a rather unorthodox combination of papers from urban/cultural theory and cognitive science by examining in detail the cultural and political significance of everyday architectural practices, namely visualisation techniques and the use of CGI imagery therein. Evans and Lockton both focussed on the importance of engaging users in design and planning and raised issues regarding the limitations of quasi-scientific modelling in evidence-based urban design, and the cybernetic ideal of Smart Cities in which user-behaviour can be predicted and modified, respectively.


Brain-shaped spaces

Research on spatial behaviour and space perception have a long history, not least within the disciplines of ecological psychology, environmental psychology and in urban theory, the latter of which often takes a rather different view on the socially produced nature of space and the role of spatiality in shaping human activity. Neuroscientific and behavioural insights have been used successfully in a number of building projects within the health and education sectors and from the design of ‘healthy cities’ to sustainable neighbourhoods. Here we argue that it is worth considering at least three democratic issues raised by the emergence of neuro-architecture as a field of research and a domain of practice: the extent to which the insights from this field are scalable from brain process to urban life; the way in which neuro-architecture might be used as an technique by its nature reserved for cognitive- and neuro-science experts to govern through the brain, and the invocation of particular forms of citizen-subjectivity hailed by the nudging of our psychological attention in this way.


Scale: From the neuromolecular to big data

In their recent title, Neuro (2013), Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rached describe a shift towards a “neuromolecular gaze” in which brain processes have, over the course of the 20th Century, been prioritised in their explanatory power concerning all manner of human behaviours and social interactions. In many ways, the emergence of neuro-architecture would seem to fit well with this molecular focus, as it concerns itself with biophysical markers and neural correlates of space perception, using measurements garnered through Electroencephalography (EEG) and skin galvanic response. Yet what we have here is a combination of scales at work to realise the potential of neuro-architecture in designing behaviourally-savvy urban environments (see also Kraftl, 2014). We have the molar scale relating to observable behaviours, the movements of individual bodies and minds through space, the response to and co-design with urban dwellers through the observational and survey methods of environmental psychologists and experts in space syntax. And we have a mega- scale, network of the cybernetic city system which refers to the capacity of city governors to collect locationally-specific data on the behaviours, bodies and minds of city dwellers in order to manage the movement, flow and activity of people, materials and information around urban space.


Expertise: From urban planners to neuroarchitects

The potential to aggregate highly personalised bio-physical measurements to big data sets is likely to make geo-computation experts, logistics consultants, database companies and data analysts highly sought-after, highly paid and highly-influential.  There is therefore much at stake in understanding the value of and potential limitations to neuro-architectural explanations for human behaviour.   Might the individualised or aggregated focus of neuro-architecture and environmental psychology studies potentially miss something relating to the social dynamics of human decision-making and activity? Might the focus on the bio-physical correlates of behaviour draw attention away from the specific social, cultural, economic, political, historical and geographical contexts in which we make decisions, deliberate actions and develop dispositions? What institutional frameworks exist for guaranteeing democratic accountability for neuro-architects, behavioural science-led designers and behaviour change consultancies and corporations? What alternative explanations are silenced in the enthusiasm for urban planning, design and building engineering based on an idealised set of behaviours in a reductive situational environment?


Attention: From eye-tracking to urban experience

Neuro-architects and environmental psychologists have deepened our understandings of how people behave ‘in the wild’, in real situations outside of experimental laboratories. Technological advances such as the use of 4D virtual reality simulators, mobile EEG recorders and eye-tracking devises have accelerated the potential for neuro-architecture to design better spaces. But the ability of these disciplines alone to fulfil their own, often laudable, ideals remains questionable.   There may indeed be unintended consequences from approaches which necessarily seek to separate out, single out and seek repeatable, non-refutable generalizable proof for specific behaviours. Not least because the design of ‘better’ spaces requires agreement over what constitutes a good space and invites deeper questions regarding the driving forces behind perception, cognitive processes and behaviour. Many aspects of urban experience simply evade measurement or collation as evidence. There remains a need to understand the way in which the cerebral city, or rather, specific cities always already direct our attention towards particular phenomena and away from others, and to understand the political, economic, cultural and social driving forces behind the orchestration (successful or otherwise) of our attentional capacities in ways which are sensitive to particular spaces at particular historical moments.


We will therefore attend with great interest to emerging scientific, systematic and data-driven policy developments in the governing urban life over the course of future seminars in this series.



Kraftl, P. (forthcoming, 2014) “Liveability and urban architectures: mol(ecul)ar biopower and the ‘becoming lively’ of sustainable communities” Environment and Planning D.

Rose, N. and Abi-Rached, J. (2013) Neuro. The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind. Princeton University Press, Oxford.


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