This talk was part of a WELLbeing Seminar Series, organized by Prof. Robin Z Puttock, RA of the School of Architecture + Planning at Catholic University of America (CUA) in Washington DC.
In it Ann Sussman discussed how new findings about human perception – the fact we really do look at the world as an animal – change our understanding of how the built environment impacts people and even reframes the history of modern architecture.
The talk considers cartoons, such as this recent one from The New Yorker, to help explain a key fact about our brain, that it’s hardwired to be a “social engagement system” which means that it is built to connect to faces subliminally – whether real or inanimate, wherever they may be – without our conscious awareness or control.
The significance of understanding human perception as relational, no matter what we take in, will be explored further in this blog, including what it means for architecture and healthy place-making where people feel at their best and most at home.
With eye tracking we can ‘see’ how humans take in the world. This biometric tool gives an inside view of our remarkable subliminal activity, including what’s really going on when we do something seemingly simple, like walking down a city street…revealing there’s much more going on in our bodies and brains than most realize.
The following video shows data collected from volunteers wearing eye-tracking glasses as they walk down a street in Boston and view their surroundings.
Note the yellow dots and lines in the video (above); they reveal what eye tracking records—creating large yellow dots where the eye stops to focus, or fixate, with lines in between, or saccades, indicating motion between fixation points. Each image in the video shows eye tracking over a 10-second interval. Note how cars get so much attention; we focus on them. Our brain won’t let us do otherwise.
People also grab our attention. It is astonishing how much time we spend fixating on other folks—often without any conscious awareness or control. Seeing cars and people leads to something more—emotional arousal, a change in our subliminal internal state that can be monitored with another biometric tool called Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), which measures changes in electrical activity resulting from changes in sweat gland activity. The graph beneath the following picture charts GSR peaks, or the intensity of the arousal experience as we take in a place. Seeing a car, a person, or people, usually generates a peak.
When someone walks toward you and says your name (as what happened to the volunteer in the image above), the response is greater, causing larger peaks. At the end of the study (above) when one of the researchers touched the volunteer’s skin to remove the sensing monitor, the tallest blue peaks formed (at right).Biometric tools tell us a lot about ourselves, in real time, helping reveal the complexity of our animal nature. Interested in learning more or conducting similar research? Reach out to theHapi.org, the nonprofit that conducted this study; its mission is improving the understanding of the human experience of the built environment and improving its design through education and research. Here’s the email: Contact@theHapi.org
The talk, called “Architecture + the 21st Century Paradigm Shift: Designing for the Emotional Brain,” is free on Zoom, and open to all who register. It includes images, like the ones above of historic Georgetown, Washington DC, which use biometric tools (in this case, 3M VAS software) to predict how people initially–at first glance–take in a scene. The numbers on the visual sequence diagram (top image) predict where people look first and the heat map (bottom image) where they tend to focus most (glows reddest).
A key take away? To better understand architecture and build better places for people, it helps to understand ourselves. Or, as Steve Jobs infamously put it, “The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
Eye tracking can tell us a lot about our surroundings – such as what instantly gets our attention and what doesn’t – and tells us even more about ourselves! Like letting us ‘see’ how much of our behavior, including where our eyes focus, happens subliminally, or without our conscious awareness or control.
More info about this study at: theHapi.org. Interested in learning more about eye tracking? Reach out to them at: Contact@theHapi.org. The non-profit’s mission is to improve the design of the built environment through education and research with cutting-edge biometric tools like this.
Editors Justin Hollander and Ann Sussman will be on hand, offering remarks on the book’s origins from the Tufts 2019 Ux+Design conference, and then introducing many of the book chapter contributors. Each author will then speak briefly about their chapter followed by a Q&A and book discussion. All are invited to attend the informative Webex session. To receive the free link, just send an email requesting it, to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm embraces a biological and evolutionary perspective to explain how buildings impact us. The book explores how cognitive science and biometric tools provide an evidence-based foundation for architecture and planning. Aiming to promote the creation of a healthier and happier public realm, it describes how unconscious responses to stimuli, outside our conscious awareness, direct our experience of the built environment and govern human behavior in our surroundings.
Researchers in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, France and Iran contributed to its 15 chapters. Topics addressed range from using eye-tracking to better understand the architectural experience to the importance of seeing beauty and finding empathy in design, to how new understandings in neuroscience, specifically concerning brain trauma, rewrite the narrative of how modern architecture came to be.
The volume invites students, architects and the public at large to see how cognitive science and biometric findings give us new 21st-century metrics for evaluating and improving designs in the built environment before they are built.
How does this picture make you feel: Scared? Happy? Or in awe of nature’s ability to co-exist with humans?
We often disrupt Nature, and she, in her wordless way, adapts. Here, a tree wraps around a concrete marker along an old rail line, almost upending it, showing how out of place it really is in her forest.
And here, she directs the bark to devour an old metal sign along the same route, effectively swallowing it, making it finally disappear! Nature doesn’t need boundary markers, when after all, everything is connected. Everything counts.
Even at the end of a lifecycle, as the fallen tree below shows, Nature provides fertile ground for a carpet of green moss to root and flourish, sustaining robust growth of flora + fauna on the forest floor.
We have so much to learn from Nature! All we have to do is look. (She leaves no trash; she reuses and recycles everything.) Given the current state of the world, it really does seem it’s time to appreciate, embrace and adapt to Nature’s systems too.
The top two photos here are from the Reformatory Branch Trail, in Concord, MA USA; the bottom one, also in Concord, is along the Old Rifle Range. Stop by some time; both are free, open to the public and have much to teach.
The Boston Architectural College (BAC) announced it will screen this new documentary which bridges the arts + sciences on Monday, December 7, 2020 at 7 PM EST. All are invited to attend the virtual event: SIGN UP HERE for free.
Built Beautiful is a feature length documentary movie, to be nationally released in spring 2021, which explores how neuroscience gives architects a new lens through which to consider the built environment, how it impacts our brains and bodies, and how it influences our health and wellness more than we realize. At this exclusive screening the film director, Mariel Rodriguez-McGill, and producer Don Ruggles, will be on hand to introduce the film along with BAC faculty member and blogger, Ann Sussman, who appears in it.
The movie features leading experts from around the world in the emerging field of neuro-aesthetics and design, including academics, researchers, architects, and interior designers, elaborating on ideas presented at the Ux+Design/2019 conference (co-sponsored by Genetics of Design) held at Tufts University and in Ruggles’ 2018 book Beauty, Neuroscience & Architecture .
Nature walks relieve stress, curb anxiety, and help us feel calm. That’s what we found on a recent walk through the woods in Concord, Massachusetts, and now there’s more science to back it up.
Outside in nature, we easily take in patterns called fractals. What makes fractal patterns unique is that they repeat at varying scales. Fractals are in pine cones, like the ones above, the bark of a tree and the veins of a leaf—any form where the same shape recurs in different sizes. In fall foliage, fractals abound—from spiral repeats in the pine cones to ever-changing branching patterns in trees. And that turns out to be truly important, a recent article in Psychology Today explains: Studies show that “exposure to fractal patterns in nature reduce people’s levels of stress up to 60%.”
And there’s more, according to Science Daily: “Just 20 minutes of contact with nature will lower stress hormone levels. [This] study has established for the first time the most effective dose of an urban nature experience. Healthcare practitioners can use this discovery to prescribe ‘nature-pills’ in the knowledge that they have a real measurable effect.”
And, why do fractals soothe? An article in the Atlantic explains:
“Your visual system is in some way hardwired to understand fractals. The stress-reduction is triggered by a physiological resonance that occurs when the fractal structure of the eye matches that of the fractal image being viewed. If a scene is too complicated, like a city intersection, we can’t easily take it all in, and that in turn leads to some discomfort, even if subconsciously. It makes sense that our visual cortex would feel most at home among the most common natural features we evolved alongside. So perhaps part of our comfort in nature derives from fluent visual processing.”
In other words, fractals fit what we are built to see.
We evolved with them and they are also in us: our eyes, brain and veins all follow fractal arrangements. So take a break, and as time allows, take this prescription: a 20-minute Nature Walk with Fall Fractals.
It will help you, ‘Keep Calm + Carry On,’ as that old British slogan goes. And what could be more important for everyone at the end of 2020. 🙂
Participate in this important study promoting the research we do at geneticsofdesign.com working with the non-profit theHapi.org; it’s a great chance to try out eye-tracking glasses and really see what your body’s doing subliminally as you walk down a street! Contact Vernon above for more info and to sign up. We still have a few spots left – and this week the weather’s supposed to be good!
Humans are remarkable creatures, and a great way to appreciate the hidden aspects of our nature is with eye tracking, a biometric tool that measures how our eyes move to take in our surroundings—often without our conscious awareness or control. Eye tracking records what people look at and what they ignore. It’s really an amazing tool to help us understand human behavior and ultimately, better ‘see’ ourselves.
The images above, from our research, show the exit area outside the Davis Square subway station in Somerville, Massachusetts, as it exists today (at bottom) and how it might look with added art (images at top). Eye tracking—aggregating visual data to create ‘heat maps’—glows brightest and reddest where people look most. Here the heat maps show that people barely look at the wall exiting the subway, in a brief, 15-second testing interval, but with the added art they would behave much differently. They would likely approach or even linger in front of the art-filled wall and, significantly, perhaps even focus on the area long enough to create a memory of the moment.
Eye tracking is fantastic at deconstructing how our experience of architecture happens without our awareness, depending on what’s in front of us. In the images above, for instance, we found people implicitly look at this library differently if it has windows. Withwindows, the eyes take in the façade fairly evenly; without windows (we Photoshopped them away) people ignore most of the building except its door. In these images, the yellow dots, represent fixations, spots where the eyes focus, and the lines between, saccades, tracking the movements between focal points. When asked where they’d rather wait, people always respond in front of the building with windows, and they won’t know why. (But we have an idea; the added fixations the windows provide subliminally make people feel more secure in front of the fenestrated façade.)
How unconscious behaviors direct our experience of the built environment is a theme of the new book, Urban Experience and Design; Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm just out this month. Its introductory chapter, featuring the images and research reported here, is followed by 14 original chapters by twenty researchers and academics from the US, Europe and the Middle East. The seminal idea: we can build better places for people worldwide by better understanding the remarkable ways we work. And today’s tech tools, including eye tracking, helping us ‘see’ our animal nature as never before, give us an unprecedented opportunity to use biometrics to improve the public realm.