What is the Role of Human Memory in Architecture?

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Image Credit: © Frenta | Dreamstime
Image Credit: © Frenta | Dreamstime

The beautiful thing about architecture is that it can “tap into” an occupant’s past meaningful experiences through their senses and their emotion. Architecture also has the power set the stage for occupants to create new meaningful experiences — and memory plays a key role in helping to make all of this possible.



Although the role of human memory in architecture is a big one, we can begin to scratch at its surface by understanding how built form engages humans — influencing both their perception and their decision making abilities.


Let’s begin by taking a closer look at this quote:

“Studies show that memory plays a critical role in perception and decision making; however, it may be less reliable and more suggestible than once believed.” (1)

So, what does this mean for architects?



From individual memory to collective memory, architecture can impact what and how we remember. An architect’s design might make the most of “suggestible” memories by creating built form that helps to “preserve” a memory— like a memorial, for instance. On the other hand, architecture can bring new meaning into our present as well.


So, how might this all work? Here’s another quote:

“We now know enough about how memories are stored and retrieved to demolish another long-standing myth: that memories are passive or literal recordings of reality…we do not store judgement-free snapshots of our past experiences but rather hold on to the meaning, sense, and emotions these experiences provided us.” 
– written by Harvard Professor Daniel L. Schacter (1)

Architecture uses human memory to help occupants both “do” and “learn”. (1) Yet, what occupants probably remember most are the meaning, sense and emotion that an environment helped provide. Perhaps it is out of these qualities that a truly great work of architecture can simply help someone make a decision or even impact a culture.



(1) Lawrence, Karen. Neuroscience, Memory and Social Manipulation. Suite101.com. September 21, 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.