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, (vas.3m.com) 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
? : email annsmail4@gmail.com

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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 Design.com 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 architects.org/committees/placemaking-network

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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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.

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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”

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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.

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© 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.

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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 (humancentereddesign.org) and Wheelhouse at the Bradford Mill for providing laboratory space and study volunteers.


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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

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