Trump: Why We Can’t Look Away

What do Garfield and The Ghost Busters have in common with Donald Trump? Exaggerated facial expressions and storytelling. Turns out our brains are hard wired to stare at animated faces and seek out a good story. Like many cartoonish characters, Trump offers both.

Mr. Jinks, the Cat

Mr. Jinks, the Cat

Many Americans grew up watching cartoons with their simple but captivating storylines. The anthropomorphic Bugs Bunny always bested bumbling Elmer Fudd. Mr Jinks, the headstrong orange cat, never failed to shout “I hate meeces to pieces!” while Pixie and Dixie escaped effortlessly into their mouse hole. Meanwhile, Wile E. Coyote’s elaborate plans at catching the Road Runner blew up in a puff of smoke every time. And the unlucky Team Rocket dutifully returned on a regular basis in their never-ending quest to outwit Pokemon trainer extraordinaire, Ash Ketchum. The over-the-top expressions and simple plots didn’t change, but we tuned in week after week, sometimes year after year, for the same overblown characters and the same slapstick stories.

Mr. Trump, the Candidate

Mr. Trump, the Candidate

Enter Donald Trump, the reality TV show host who delivers dynamic facial expressions with weekly diatribes while running for president of the United States. “My whole life is about winning,” says Trump. “When someone challenges you, fight back. Be brutal. Be tough.”

Is it really so shocking then that The Donald has received over $2 Billion in free advertising from television, newspapers, magazines and social media? Our brains crave that one-two entertainment punch: an exaggerated character with a simple story.

When someone makes a funny face at us, our brains subconsciously recognize it instantly. Researchers at the Ohio State University recently used fMRI to pinpoint the area of the brain responsible for facial expressions and “how the brain is able to decode this information so efficiently. It’s on the right side of the brain behind the ear, in a region called the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS),” quoted Science Daily. The researchers also found that “neural patterns with the pSTS are specialized for recognizing specific parts of the face,” for example, one pattern detects a furrowed brow while another identifies a curled lip.

Recognizing friends from foes has always been a Darwinian imperative, and Scientific American elaborates on the facial connections in “Why our Brains Respond So Intensely to Exaggerated Characters. How quirks of perception drive the evolution of species.” But faces tell only one part of the story.

Our species also loves narrative. Marketers have known this for years. “Our greedy little brains are hungry for a good story, so if you want to make the sale, forget the data and make a personal connection,” says the business magazine, Fast Company.

With our brains wired for animated faces and always looking for a good story, it’s no wonder we’re riveted by this campaign season. And like it or not, can’t look away.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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

How looking at Maggie can help us see Ourselves

In 1980, the psychologist Peter Thompson from the University of York published a one-page paper in the journal Perception, entitled “Margaret Thatcher: A new illusion.” In it he noted how psychologists know people struggle to read expressions on upside down faces; so what would happen if a right-side up mouth and eyes were put on an inverted face? Thompson did some cutting and pasting of an official portrait of the infamous Maggie Thatcher to find out – and you can see what happens below:  Check out photos in the top row.

With her face upside down, Maggie’s expressions look different but not exceptionally so; but, right-side up, in the row below, the viewer’s in for a shock: “We’ve been cruelly deceived by the smiling Mrs. Thatcher,” Thompson wrote wryly, referring to the image on the lower right which is both captivating and, well, terrifying.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 10.22.16 AM.PNG

© Cognitive Architecture

So what’s happening? Your brain expects to see and is hard-wired to read faces right-side up.  As a very social species, we are built first-and-foremost to be face-i-tects. Our very survival depended and still depends on it.  “The Thatcher Illusion” as this quick experiment became called, not only demonstrates our upright-face bias but our hard-wiring for instantly reading their expressive emotional contents. It turns out there are cells in our brain (called face patches) specialized for reading facial expression that go on high alert when eyes and/or mouth distort.  All this with no conscious input on our part.  It all happens too quickly for our conscious selves to get into the act.

Check out the image below and you can see the impact these face-patches have on how we pay attention. Here we took the Thatcherized face images and watched 24 test subjects look at them for 15 seconds on a computer screen equipped with an eye-tracker.  Eye-tracking analysis creates ‘heat maps’ which glow reddest where people look most, fading to yellow and then green where they look least.

Screen Shot 2016-06-09 at 10.22.49 AM.PNG

With no prompting on our part, we saw test subjects repeatedly go back to look at the most distorted face, the one the face patches determined was most distorted – the lower right – 190 times in the 15-second testing interval; more than on any other image. (It’s why it’s the reddest!)

So what’s this have to do with architecture?  We know a building from a person, obviously – however we look at a building with a brain specialized for taking in people, and we can never change this.  We don’t put in a different brain when we go outside for an urban stroll or go on a trip to check out the Taj Mahal.  We do it all with the only brain we have, that of a hyper-specialized face-i-tect.

What this means for buildings, and why it’s wise to create ones that fit our subconsicous predispostions, will be explored more, of course, in further posts.

by Ann

Thanks to the Institue for Human-Centered Design ( and Wheelhouse at the Bradford Mill for providing laboratory space and study volunteers.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Planning for the Subconscious

June 2016 Cover, Planning Magazine

June 2016 Cover, Planning Magazine

We’re thrilled to announce Planning Magazine, the flagship publication of the American Planning Association (APA), made our article their cover story this month. The story’s below, here’s how they introduced it:

“This month’s Planning Magazine probes below the surface with an intriguing cover story on planning for the subconscious. Authors Ann Sussman and Janice Ward explain how data obtained from eye tracking and other biometric technologies can help planners shape built environments that are interesting, pleasing, and informative for their human inhabitants.”

Planning for the Subconscious
Using eye tracking and other biometric tools to better understand ourselves.
By Ann Sussman, AIA, and Janice M. Ward

‘The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.’  —Steve Jobs

The world is entering a new era of cognitive science that allows us to understand human behavior better than ever before. In fact, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development recently labelled the 21st century the “Age of Biology,” noting the growing impacts of the ongoing life-science revolution, which the group predicts will change economies, create new technologies, and broadly reshape our lives.

For planning, this new age means we can record how people see and feel about their surroundings, not as machines, but as animals keen on connection and ruled by anxieties. Imagine being able to collect real-world, real-time data about emotional habits in the built environment and to definitively answer perennial questions such as why people enjoy walking through miles of a dense urban settings like Manhattan but consistently shun barren landscapes like Boston’s infamously empty City Hall Plaza.

Today it’s possible. With affordable new tools, we can track subconscious predispositions and use metrics to explain the human response to an existing development or predict responses to a new development. Planning will become trackable and quantifiable in ways unimaginable in the 20th century.

Read the full story.

Ann and I would like to thank the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD) in Boston for hosting our study and volunteers there and at the Wheelhouse at the Bradford Mill in Concord for participating in it.  We also thank the editors of Planning Magazine and the other researchers mentioned in the article  for their interest and contributions.

Janice M. Ward and Ann Sussman

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Eye Tracking Architecture: a Pilot Study at the IHCD

In our pilot study at the Institute for Human Centered Design (IHCD), we used eye-tracking technology to understand how people respond to the built environment. Thirty-three test volunteers, aged 18 to 80, viewed more than 60 images of elevations and interiors using an eye-tracking system. Results showed that people are drawn to other people (even statues or images of people), areas of sharp contrast (such as street lights), and text. An overview of the study is summarized in the poster below and enlargements of the poster, provided for readability, follow.


Section 1 introduces the pilot study and shows results from eye tracking Boston City Hall.

Eye Tracking Poster, Section 1

Eye Tracking Pilot Poster, Section 1

Section 2 shows results from eye tracking Boston’s Copley Square.

Eye Tracking Study Poster, Section 2

Eye Tracking Pilot Poster, Section 2

Section 3 shows results from eye tracking an interior space.page3

Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Design, People-centric Design | Tagged | 4 Comments

Putting Faces First

After eye tracking a photo of the young man below, we saw how compelling a face could be. Within 3/10 of a second, the 33 people in our pilot study focused on his eyes and mouth. They proceeded to go back and look at these features 666 times in the 15-second testing interval. The ‘heat map’ below reveals the trail their eyes made, glowing reddest where they looked most.


This facial bias, which is hard-wired in us, is not lost on product designers. Car makers are familiar with it, knowing that a majority of their customers ‘bond’ to a car’s front end, sealing deals because of emotional attachments made to an automobile’s ‘face.’ Computer folks know it too. The graphic below cites stats from Amazon, the world’s leading bookseller today.


Keen on market domination, Amazon has developed its branding around the face. You can see the impact playing out in a row of gift cards at a CVS (below left). It’s hard for Bed Bath and Beyond and other retailers to compete with Amazon’s smiley logo. It simply grabs our attention in crowded racks because it’s meant to, with Amazon smartly leveraging 3.5 billion years of our evolutionary history. They’re betting that our affinity for faces, which insured our survival over eons, can’t help but ensure theirs.

amazon.pngAlso intent on maintaining its dominance, Amazon uses a version of the smile in its packaging too, specifically its packaging tape (above right), exploiting the science that explains when we see a smile, we subconsciously feel happy. Part of us will feel good as we reach for that cardboard box even before we open it—even if it’s destined for someone else!

And Amazon’s not alone in exploiting our biological heritage, as a glance at other firms’ logos reveals. Here we see that businesses as diverse as crayon manufacturers, food purveyors and radio stations use the same facial feature to snag us.


So the next time you’re creating marketing material, flyers or websites, consider the pattern we’re not only wired to see first, but also feel happiest about.

When Justin Hollander and I were thinking about cover designs for our book, Cognitive Architecture (Routledge, 2015), we felt a face had to be on it, even though it was a book meant for architects and planners. “No buildings,” we said, “It has to have a face.”

The cover we ended up with is below (left). We eye tracked it last year, and learned that viewers did indeed look at its faces first, going back to check them out repeatedly. The time to first focus (TTFF) on the faces was less than a second, and our twenty-four test subjects refocused on them 361 times in a 15-second testing interval. At the end of the day, we conclude, it seems best not to try to fool Mother Nature, but rather work with the plans she’s already laid in place.


Writer: Ann Sussman
Editor: Janice M. Ward


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Inner Views: Your Brain on People

We see a space differently with people in the picture; our brain simply directs our attention towards them without any conscious effort on our part. On some level, we may know this, but now with eye-tracking technology we can really look at it!  And our human-centric bias is striking to behold.

See the interior rendering below (kindly provided by architect Gerhard van der Linde).

Interior Rendering: Gerhard van der LindeScreen Shot 2016-04-02 at 12.55.53 PM

The image at left shows a double-height space with a young woman seated on a stair; to the right is a heat map of the same view, glowing red where volunteers (from our recent eye-tracking study) looked first and foremost. Given a 15-second interval, they took in the woman’s face in less than three seconds on average and spent more time going back to check her out than looking anywhere else—despite all the other details, vegetation, and elements present.

Even when people are merely suggested, appearing as shadowy shapes as shown below, our brain directs our eyes to focus on people or things resembling them.

Living Room with Shadows of PeopleLiving Room With Shadows of People






In these interior renderings, provided by designer Charline LeBrun, three smokey figures sit on a living room sofa and chairs. On the right, the heat maps, from a recent eye-tracking study of 24 volunteers, glow brightest and largest around their shapes, even though there are many potential areas of interest in the scene, including outdoor views, an intricate rug, an ornate chandelier.

Without people, we take in the same scene much differently and more randomly, (see  images below). The eyes move about more, drawn to areas of sharp contrast, such as where light and shadow are juxtaposed in the image center, or where there is a bright chandelier reflected in a mirror just to the right of the image center. Note how there are 10 or so areas that glow reddish in this image versus a mere four in the one above.

Interior Living Room Without PeopleLiving Room Without People Heatmap

More detailed analysis reveals just how astonishingly different our viewing patterns become with people around (see image below). With no one present, we head right for the central area, where there’s a great deal of visual contrast; (TTFF or Time To First Focus on that area is 0.4 seconds, see box at right of image). Note how over half of viewers of this scene (14/24 in this case) also found time to checkout the outdoor view within 10 seconds.

Living Room without People, Detailed Heatmap

Living Room without People, Detailed Heatmap: IHCD-Sussman

With people in the scene, however, only four of 24 test subjects found time to focus outside, and these only did so after 13.4 seconds, close to the end of the 15-second testing interval.

Living Room With Shadows of People

Living Room with Shadows of People, Detailed Heatmap: IHCD-Sussman

No wonder savvy marketers and designers plaster people all over their ads and sites. Fact is, when it comes to viewing certain classes of objects, we’re simply animals – and our brain wouldn’t – or couldn’t – have it any other way. (So much for free will!


Thanks to Boston’s Institute for Human Centered Design ( for generously providing the lab space and expert staff to help run these studies.

Posted in Architecture, Design, Uncategorized | Leave a comment