Building Relationships


This cartoon by Hilary Price really gets it:

We’re built for relationships, so much so that we love looking for and at people all the time and extend this trait to looking at inanimate things that resemble us. We are a social species, after all, hardwired from infancy to seek out others, built to be in relationships of one sort or another all the time. As members of a gregarious group, our survival depends on it. Like the elephants above, gazing admiringly at teapots with trunk-like spouts, we love taking each other in to such an extent we like making things – from cartoons to objects, art and architecture – that look like us, too. (A previous post on the faces we subconsciously see in Palladio’s Villa Rotunda is here.)

But where does the predispositon come from? Apparently, from some time ago. Check out the Makapansgat Pebble, below:                                                                                                    screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-10-36-27-pmUncovered in South Africa almost a century ago, and now in a museum there, the pebble is considered – at 3 million years old – the world’s oldest example of ‘symbolic thinking’, the ability to think in images and symbols which children acquire in pre-school. This is the trait needed to create art and language, critical for the development of human society.

But it also suggests something more: how deeply our hominid ancestors needed to see each other – and something else significant, too:

How our evolution sets limits for our architecture today.

If we want to create buildings that last and places people want to be, and feel at their best around, the structures need to suggest people too, or put another way, be easy to anthropomorphize. Otherwise our brain won’t easily build a relationship with them. It can’t. Mother Nature, inherently conservative, has not wired us to let that happen.


Here’s a slide from a recent talk I gave on how new findings in neuroscience can inform green design. The drawings are by Canadian artist, Ryan Dodgson, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. I met him a few years ago at a Toronto art fair and after looking at his hand-drawn ‘edi-faces’ asked him whether he’d ever studied neuroscience.  “No,” he said.

Clearly, he didn’t need to. He’d already intuited it.


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Eye Tracking the ‘Villa’: A First Step toward Understanding How We Experience Architecture

Villa Rotunda by architect Palladio is, arguably, one of the most significant buildings in architectural history. Designed in the late 16th-century as a country house in Vicenza, Italy for a retiring  cleric, its captivating elevations would go on to provide the prototype for countless other buildings worldwide including The White House in the U.S.

But how do people actually look at the building? Here’s a gaze path video showing one person taking it in. When you click the arrow, the moving dots and lines reflect what drew the subject’s gaze when she looked at the picture using eye-tracking technology.

The yellow circles show fixations where the eyes stick to the image, and the lines show the saccades,  the movement the eyes make—often under subconscious control—as they dart from one part of a scene to another. Here’s a gaze path made by another person in our study:

You can see how each participant looks at the world differently—and you can also see how the Villa provides our brain with plenty of eye candy to focus on.

But what do people really focus on?

In the spotlight image below, created by aggregating the gaze paths of 33 viewers, we see that—despite individual differences—people tend to focus on the same things; in this case, the center of the portico and all the statuary atop it. In spotlights, the image glows whitest where people look most, fading to darker grey and black where they look least. We see here how people are hardwired—with no conscious control, irrespective of age or culture—to check out other people, even when perceiving stone versions of themselves, even when these are spread out all around a building.


And interestingly, the focus on the statuary seems to intensify when viewers looked at a Photoshopped version of The Rotunda, with windows removed. Notice how the area around the statues seems to glow a bit brighter. For a social species like us, blank walls are of no interest. Our brain, knowing us well, saves its energy for focusing on what we love most: ourselves.


One preliminary conclusion about architecture? Buildings that last feed needs that we may not realize we have; in this case, our perennial one to be seen and reflected.

all photos videos © AnnSussman

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‘Seeing’ How We Actually Look at Buildings at ABX 2016

Screen Shot 2016-11-15 at 10.19.43 AM.PNGInterested in ‘seeing’ your brain subconsiously take in the buildings around you? Then come to our talk Thursday, November 17th, at 1 PM at the Boston Convention Center, part of the ABX 2016 Conference.

We’ll be presenting eye-tracking research from our recent pilot-studies looking at buildings in Boston and NYC. This includes showing ‘gaze paths,’ or the trail you eyes make as they take in an image and are largely under subconscious control. For instance, the photos below show how two people look at a NYC library: as it stands today, at right, and with windows photoshopped out, at left.  Notice anything unusual?

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-8-51-08-pmYes, we’ll demonstrate how your brain is not oriented to take in blank facades; indeed, how it barely lets you look at them and we’ll talk about why. (It’s not critical for survival the way areas of high contrast are.) We’ll observe the same phenomenon looking at a photo of the Dunker Church at the Antietam Battlefield at left below, and with windows removed, at right.  This is a ‘shadow’ image, designed to distill where an aggregrate group of testers look most when given 15 seconds to take in a picture. Notice how they barely ‘fixate’ on the building at all once windows are out?screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-21-21-amWe’ll also talk about a recurring theme at, how important it is for people to see faces and how we do this – subconsciously and consciously – all the time.  Check out the ‘shadow’ study below…showing how subconciously our brain will  observe a face-like image in the carriage house within 15 seconds – whether we want to or not!

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-8-51-56-pmAnd just as importantly we’ll check out how our brain takes in ‘actual’ faces. Here’s a Picasso portrait of wife, ‘Marie-Therese’.

Note the upside down triangle; people really focus on eye, nose, mouth region. And it doesn’t change much when we look at another animal either! The ‘heatmap’ on the cat below glows reddest where people look most, fading to yellow then green, in areas of less interest, and showing no overlay color at all on areas people ignore.  It’s astonishing how similarly we take in a multi-million dollar portrait by Picasso and the kitty photo on a $1-notebook selling at Staples. But then again, maybe not. With biometric tools, like eye trackers, we can start to see how our brain architecture sets limits for our art and built architecture; Mother Nature, like any other design virtuoso, simply wouldn’t have it any other way.screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-25-30-am


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We See Like an Animal…and that Matters

Eye-tracking tools can help us see how we look out on the world as an animal – and it can help us understand why some buildings catch our attention while others don’t and never will. Check out the photos below: at left, an old carriage house on school grounds in Cambridge, MA, and at right, relatively new construction, the Queens Library at Glen Oaks, New York City. Below these top photos are eye-tracked versions of the same:














You can probably guess which building really draws us in: the one on the left, and eye tracking can help us understand why. Commonly used in web and ad design, these biometric tools follow how our eyes move under subconscious control. The software used here, an emulation package from 3M, called Visual Attention Software, ( creates heat maps to show ‘pre-attentive processing’ where our eyes go in the first 3 – 5 seconds they see something, before our conscious mind can get into the act. The heat maps glow reddest where our eyes go first and frequently, fading to yellow, green, then blue where they go subsequently and least. When black, the area is simply not of interest, from the brain’s perspective.

Looking at the carriage house, then, we ‘see’ that our eyes home in on the round windows and barn door and building center; in contrast, taking in the new library, we learn that our eyes effectively ignore it – save for two benches in front and some areas of high visual contrast around the edge. Nothing in the library facade fits what our brain – which evolved in the savanna several million years ago and remains designed for – is built to expect or, in its view, needs to see for survival.

And there’s more: the carriage house ‘heat map’ suggests a face, which is tremendously significant. Our brain evolved to anthropomorphize things, a trait which turns out to carry a survival advantage.  From our brain’s perspective, the carriage house appears to be looking at us, and in so doing, orients us, and puts us at ease. Remember, for human beings, the most social species on the planet, no other visual pattern regulates us more from infancy on than the primal one: the face.

No surprise then, that many of the most consequential buildings in the history of architecture, do the same. Below is the Villa Rotunda, in Vicenza, Italy, by Palladio, a 16th century construction that today is a World Heritage Site maintained by UNESCO. Seeing its face, we now know why centuries from now it will remain significant.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-3-53-11-pmall photos copyright Ann Sussman
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BSA Placemaking Network: Sept 26 Talk

The Biometrics of Placemaking: Why We Need Buildings to ‘See’ Us

When:September 26, 2016 | 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM
Where: Boston Society of Architects (BSA) Space, 290 Congress St, Suite 200, Boston
This event is free w refreshments and open to all


Three speakers, Ann Sussman AIA, co-author of Cognitive Architecture together with Janice Ward, of Genetics of and Vernon Woodworth FAIA, of Urban Determination, will explore how subconscious behaviors govern our experience in the built environment and how ‘seeing’ these hidden predispositions with biometric tools can help us understand what makes places successful. They will review eye-tracked images from their June cover story in Planning Magazine. They will also discuss our human-centric perception and how seeing and being seen by others is so important that we are happiest and most at ease around objects that seem to ‘see’ us too.

For those who qualify, 2 LU/HSW are available

Image Credit: Ann Sussman AIA, IHCD

To learn more about the Placemaking Network, visit

Click Register to attend.


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Eye Tracking for ANFA 2016 conference

The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) hosts its fall conference, Connections: BridgeSynapses September 22-24 at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. We’ll be sending along the poster below, the pilot-study of eye tracking Boston buildings, mentioned in a previous post. Eye tracking can’t tell you how or what to build, but it does give you a new appreciation for how people are hardwired to focus on each other. The hope is, of course, that renewed appreciation for how socially focused we are will encourage more human-centric design!

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The Genetics of Garden Design

Architecture is not just about houses and buildings—it’s also about gardens and landscapes. In the Genetics of Design, we write about how design affects biology and how biology affects design. Well-designed spaces make people feel comfortable and safe. They mesh with our subconscious requirements, acknowledging our biology to create the best places—and this holds true whether we’re talking about building or landscape design including gardens, parks and playgrounds.

A recent issue of Parks and Recreation outlined the health benefits of greenery in Parks Are the Best Medicine which emphasized how good garden design fulfills significant biological needs—the successful garden satisfies our inclination toward socialization, our need for exercise and our desire to relax in a safe, outdoor setting.

Since it is summer and the outdoors beckons, we decided to check out some local parks, visiting a few famous and not-so-famous ones to tease apart how they work.

Well-designed parks offer a place to meet with friends, sit and socialize. Important, since we humans are a social species and need others for companionship and overall health. The Boston Public Garden with its Swan Boats is a prime example of successful family-oriented design. A Swan Boat ride here, a local tradition for over 135 years, is a peaceful, conversational experience. And at $3.50 per adult, and $2.00 per child (under 2 free) remains affordable too.

Boston Public Garden Swan Boat

Boston Public Garden Swan Boat, photo: Wikimedia

Although every town and city cannot offer swan boat rides, communities can work to provide green gathering spots, away from traffic, with benches or picnic tables and safe walkways in a protected setting for people to enjoy and connect. Below is a nature walk at Acton Arboretum, 25 miles west of Boston, where friends and families are talking, walking, hiking and socializing.

Nature Walk meeting at Acton Arboretum

Nature Walk meeting at Acton Arboretum, MA, photo: Janice M. Ward

Well-designed parks provide a place to exercise, and encourage walking, which is key to our sense of health and well-being because humans evolved to do it and need to stay at it for both mental and physical health. The best designers of urban environments often retrofit spaces for walking, running, hiking and biking. An example of a green space that offers opportunities for this sort of ambulation is New York City’s Highline Park. A former elevated railway, it goes in a more or less straight line for more than a mile; meshing perfectly with our preferred way of walking—straight ahead.

New York City’s Highline Park

Walkers enjoy New York City’s Highline Park, photo: Janice M. Ward

One easy way for urban designers to increase exercise opportunities is to add sidewalks. Many communities ask designers to take it one step further and convert unused railways to walking, hiking, running and biking rail trails. The Bruce Freeman Bike Trail in Chelmsford provides this sort of example.

Bruce Freeman Bike Trail

Bruce Freeman Bike Trail in Chelmsford, MA, Photo: Janice M. Ward

The most important aspect of a well-designed garden is rest and relaxation which delivers a big psychological benefit: de-stressing. According to University of Washington’s Green Cities: Good Health website, “… parks and green spaces are settings for cognitive respite…” A study in Scotland measured stress levels of people in green spaces and discovered that trees bring a sense of peace and calm by lowering key stress hormones. Arnold Arboretum has more than 15,000 trees to do just that.

Arnold Arboretum

Lilac Sunday at Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, MA, photo: Wikimedia

Even on a small scale, designers can add green space along a streetscape to offer respite, as shown in this mini-garden in Concord, Massachusetts.

West Concord Garden

Relaxing Garden Nook in West Concord Village, photo: Janice M. Ward

Ideally, a well-designed, urban green space will take into account our need for social interaction, exercise and relaxation in a safe, natural environment. We’ve seen well-designed gardens in this blog; in a future post, we’ll show that sometimes when designers are unaware of biology, their gardens have unhealthy—and not so satisfying—results.

In the meantime, you’re welcome to share your photos of beneficial gardens with us. We’ll post them here at Genetics of Design.

—Janice and Ann

Park and Recreation website
University of Washington website
International Journal of Environmental Research and Public on “Health, Green Space and Stress”

Posted in Biology, Design, Exercise, Health, People-centric Design, Walkability | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment