|You Need to Know What You Don't Know|
by John P. Eberhard,
Men ought to know that from nothing else
but the brain comes joys, delights, laughter, and sports, and sorrows,
griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial
manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear and know
what are foul and what are fair, and what are bad and what are good,
and what are sweet and what are unsavory… In
these ways I am of the opinion that the brain exercises the greatest
power of the man.
If you enter the Cathedral in Amiens at twilight while an organ is playing and find that your “heart skips a beat,” it’s because your brain—not your heart—has filled you with awe. Cells in your brain are gorging themselves with a sudden flush of blood, raising your temperature, quickening your pulse, and flooding you with memories. Light flooding through stained glass windows is stimulating the V4 area of your visual cortex. Bach’s music is vibrating within the cochlea of your inner ear and sending signals to the auditory cortex. The musty smells of centuries past register unconsciously on the olfactory neurons at the bridge of your nose. You are experiencing architecture.
And you—not your friend standing next to you or your spouse just joining you—are having a unique experience that only you can have. Your brain might look just like theirs to a casual observer, but it is not. Your brain was formed by the DNA of generations of ancestors once your mother and father conceived you. From the time of your birth to this instant in Amiens, all of the networks of your brain have been formed and reformed as you experienced the world. What a marvelous creature you are!
Over the next few months, I would like to take you on a journey into new territory. When I first came around the intellectual bend in my own reading to discover that there was this vast new knowledge called “neuroscience,” I felt like Lewis and Clark must have felt when they first saw the Rocky Mountains. Just as they had no idea that there was such a mammoth formation in the Northwest Passage, I had no idea that my exploration of human experiences with architecture would discover this enormous and still rapidly growing body of research.
In 1995, then-American Architectural Foundation President Norman Koonce, FAIA, and Syl Damianos, FAIA, urged on by Dr. Jonas Salk, had made me the director of discovery for the foundation. None of us knew where this expedition might lead us, but now there is an Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, building on my astounding discovery of neuroscience. The academy, founded by AIA San Diego in 2003, seeks to build intellectual bridges between neuroscience research and architectural practice. These 12 articles will be another attempt by me to help with this bridge-building effort.
The difference between the brain and the mind
As Rita Carter tells us in her book Mapping the Mind (University of California Press, 2000), the brain is “as big as a coconut, the shape of a walnut, the color of uncooked liver, and the consistency of chilled butter.” It has two halves called hemispheres, covered with a wrinkled gray tissue called the cerebral cortex. If this tissue of wrinkled gray matter were unfolded it would be about 30 inches square and about the thickness of a table napkin. Lodged within its six thin layers are one hundred billion cells; ten billion of these cells are neurons.
Neurons are the primary working components of the brain—something like transistors in the computer you are using to read this. However, unlike transistors, the neurons are living components that are constantly changing, forming networks, and receiving signals from other neurons. They sometimes make mistakes, sometimes are damaged by disease or accidents, and sometimes are dying. Neurons are assembled in the brain in families (or areas), each with a special responsibility. Some areas make it possible to see, others to hear or smell, etc. (We will discuss neuron areas in future articles.)
Components of the brain
If you opened up the brain and looked between the hemispheres you would find these other special components:
What’s this got to do with architecture?
Let’s go back to your experience of walking into Amiens Cathedral. I suggested your heart skipped a beat. That’s because when your brain registered the emotional combination of seeing an awe-inspiring architectural setting and hearing the sounds of an organ, it literally sent chills up and down your spine via the brainstem. The autonomic responses of your body were to breathe a little faster and quicken your pulse. These visual and aural signals were processed through your thalamus via the hippocampus to appropriate areas of your brain.
The first circuit of the thalamus detected the neurons in your visual cortex vibrating at 40 cycles per second. This caused the second circuit to see if you recognize architectural features causing these vibrations—as contrasted to recognizing, say, your mother. The third circuit looks in your memory to see if you can associate these architectural features with a concept, i.e., “this is a cathedral.” Another part of your brain will then deal with issues of remembering if you have been here before, or if you remember similar experiences in other cathedrals.
The primary lesson is that there is not a little movie projector inside your head showing you pictures of a cathedral. There is rather an enormously complicated network of components in your brain bringing about this experience. In the next few months, we will explore in more depth:
So, what is neuroscience research?
The work going on in neuroscience laboratories can be categorized in a variety of ways, but there is general agreement on four major divisions:
I believe that Dr. Nancy C. Andreasen, in her book The Creating Brain: the Neuroscience of Genius (2005, Dana Press), asks the question that architects need to ask about neuroscience: “How do human beings actually create the novel, beautiful, and useful ideas, images, and other products that are the hallmark of creativity? Deceptively simple as thus stated, this is in fact a very complex question. Philosophers, psychologists, and psychiatrists have been preoccupied with exploring answers to this question for many years. Ultimately, neuroscience will provide new answers, showing how the creative products arise from a process that occurs in the individual brain.”
Some people argue that it is not necessary for architects to know all of the details of the work going on in each of these divisions. And there is no possibility of knowing all of the details short of giving up your practice and spending the next 20 years being a student of neuroscience. However, just as architects need to know enough about acoustics to use the consulting services of an acoustical engineer, or enough physics to understand the work of structural engineers, or enough chemistry to understand the toxic nature of some materials, so we need to know enough about neuroscience to benefit from the new knowledge base being created by researchers in this field.
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Drawings by the author.
Visit the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture Web site.