Can Architectural Features Help Your Brain?

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Image Credit: © Icefields | Dreamstime
Image Credit: © Icefields | Dreamstime

When traveling through space you use certain cues to help you navigate. Your senses help determine things like orientation, distance and direction. During navigation, many moments arise for decision-making and your brain is a key player during this process. Within a building, architectural features send signals during the navigation process. The brain uses sensorial cues to help you travel within an environment – providing you with enough information to find your way.


In the interesting article entitled Getting Lost for Better Architecture, occupants are said to navigate, interact and then form “cognitive maps” in order to understand location within space. This article describes how researchers tested human subjects by having them travel through a virtual building while recording their brain function. Ties were made between what the subject saw and their brain response to those signals.(1)


Such research is fascinating because findings reveal how humans experience space. For instance, this research uncovered that humans use the “angle of incoming sunlight” as a primary cue for navigation. Of course, within architecture this cue is often eliminated.(1)


You might wonder how occupants interact within their environment to find such navigational cues. For this, it is important to understand what goes into the mental mapping of an architectural space – forming a mental image of that space as it is experienced. Of course, a mental map is also a consequence of occupant decision-making during that experience. For this, we can also use virtual reality – to uncover how the decision-making process works within architecture in real-time.


Although the applications may seem endless, such research will definitely give architects greater understanding into how the human perceives architectural features. Findings are sure to be quite enlightening.



(1) Nelson, Bryn. Getting Lost for Better Architecture. MSNBC Dec. 15. 2008.

About the author

Maria Lorena Lehman

Maria Lorena Lehman is a visionary artist, designer, and author focusing on links between environmental design, science, emerging technologies, and human potential. Lehman is founder of MLL Atelier, an art-based architectural design research practice. Maria Lorena Lehman is author of the award-winning book entitled, Adaptive Sensory Environments. She is recipient of the Harvard University Digital Design Prize for the "most creative use of digital media in relation to the design professions". Lehman also creates sculptures and paintings described as "visual poetry of motion that is a new inspiration" by Daniel Smith, the company that creates watercolors for artists worldwide. Maria Lorena Lehman holds the degrees of Master in Design with Distinction from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and a Bachelor of Architecture, Cum Laude, from Virginia Tech. She is internationally published and in numerous periodicals, including The Architect's Journal, Esquisses Magazine, Architect Magazine and Forbes.