Temples of the mind: The mysterious neuroscience of holy buildings

Story highlights

  • This ability to evoke emotion and contemplation is common for many of the world’s architectural wonders.
  • Our experiences of buildings are determined by our innate senses and personal histories
  • Light, space and novel objects are key in inspiring our minds when entering a new space

(CNN)Picture in your mind the high ceilings of the Sistine chapel, the white marble of the Taj Mahal, or the sculpted temples of Angkor Wat.

Despite embodying different eras of history, distinct approaches to design and vastly different cultures, these icons have one thing in common — they have the ability to leave us in awe.

“The way a space is architectured is linked with sensual elevation,” says Vittorio Gallese, Professor of Physiology at the University of Parma, Italy, who explores the links between a person’s brain and their surrounding environment.

This ability to evoke emotion and contemplation is common for many of the world’s architectural wonders — and is especially prevalent in those serving a religious purpose. “To feel closer to God, you have to create an environment where everything suggests this feeling of elevation,” says Gallese.

But why — or how — does this happen?

    Looking up to the skies

    Creating a feeling of elevation begins with one key action — looking up.

    Gothic cathedrals, ancient monuments and historic temples all have us looking up to the heavens — be it through high ceilings, a raised steeple, or mounted statue — to aid the inspiration felt when entering the building. The physical act of looking upwards aids the brain in processing the meaning behind the action — such as ideas of heaven up above and hell down below.

    “The space lifts your eyes,” says Michael Arbib, Vice-President of the Academy of Neuroscience and Architecture. This visual cue embraces many regions of the brain to then absorb the world around it. “[It’s like] looking up to the mountains…it’s a basic human response,” says Arbib.

    Lifting your field of vision brings with it a sense of space, comfort and contemplation.

    “[In] a cave, or narrow space, you feel the oppression of the boundaries that surround your body,” says Gallese. Vast spaces, however, provide a sense of freedom and movement in which people are free to explore — and contemplate.

    Experiencing the past

    Humans naturally enjoy particular occurrences such as a serene landscape or a smiling face — these responses are part of our innate biology. But the extent to which people enjoy — or experience — something is strongly defined by their past and the world they have experienced to date.

    “We always connect with something we know already,” says Gallese. “The feeling and emotion comes only once we relate ourselves to that environment.”

    Personal histories combined with character — be it a cold or emotional persona — determine our perception of the world around us. “Memories, simulation, projection, emotions…all happen when you contemplate a building,” says Gallese.

    Arbib states there are two important human responses to remember when designing a space — The “gist”, taken in on first glance, followed by the appreciation of detail. The gist is what people feel initially as they decide if something is awesome or exciting after which their extended experience — and awe — is determined by their past.

    “The “gist” puts you in the right frame of mind for the space…then you overlay past experiences,” says Arbib.

    The result? A very individual experience. But human evolution underlies it all.

    Evolving for architecture

    “We need to have a lot of space, our brains are wired that way,” says Satchin Panda, neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences in the United States. “We didn’t evolve to be cave-dwellers,” he says.

    Panda investigates the importance of light — and effectively space — on human behaviour and believes the awe and nostalgia people experience in a built environment comes down to their inherent need to feel safe, comfortable, and happy.

    “A high ceiling makes us happy…we don’t know why,” says Panda who theorizes this is related to greater light also occupying a space. Light is known to decrease levels of melatonin in the body to reduce sleepiness and increase levels of cortisol — making us more alert.

    “Architecture is an art, but there’s an underlying science to it that influences decisions,” he says.

    Open your senses

    The principles of using light in architectural design can be seen in Panda’s workplace — the Salk Institute. Its founder Jonas Salk — known for developing the first successful polio vaccine — was inspired by Italian architecture. In collaboration with architect Louis Khan, Salk designed a modern building now marvelled by many worldwide for its use of natural light and large spaces. The design resulted in an ocean-side workplace aligned to the horizon promoting creativity and contemplation among its staff.

    The growing idea among neuroscientists is that a visual experiences is about more than vision. It is instead multi-sensory through the tactile sensations from materials, visual distractions from different objects and particular smells aiding the experiences.

    “The quality of the space is changed by [each of] these modes,” says Gallese who believes the different brain responses making up an experience are all deeply integrated inside the brain.

    The need for new

    The human desire for novelty is the final action in cementing someone’s experience of an architectural space.

    “We have a curiosity and instinct for novel objects,” says Panda. This curiosity is the glue maintaining awe and intrigue of a building once our immediate reaction has passed.

    Arbib speaks of his own experiences of the Guggenheim museum in New York where a spiral staircase and unusual design keep the mind occupied as you wander through — sometimes regardless of the exhibition. “As you walk around, the perspectives keep changing,” says Arbib.

    This desire for new — and usually better — is what took us from the standard hut to the buildings we see today.

    “There’s always something that pushes us to go beyond the utilitarian use of a space,” says Gallese.” We are never happy with the immediate outcomes.”

    The result of this never-ending ambition is the awe-inspiring buildings the world is left with — and accumulating — today. Which one will you experience next?