Strong Towns Podcast: “Why We Should Build Cities for our Unconscious Brains”

“How neurotic have we become as a society by living in places that are largely incoherent to our primordial wiring? How difficult is it for us to exist, as humans, in places that kind of undermine everything our body is wired to want in terms of human habitat?”

                                                                                                        — Charles Marohn

Screen Shot 2019-07-22 at 11.07.42 PMThrilled to take part with Chuck Marohn, president of, in this podcast revealing the ‘secret sauce’ for successful design – and how it all starts ‘unconsciously’ right within us!

Click on image (of Stroget Street, central Copenhagen) to read and hear more.


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Why Eye-track Boston City Hall? To ‘See’ Evolution at Work!

Eye-tracking Boston City Hall is fascinating and instructive not only because it shows us how ‘avoidant‘ the building is – how the brain directs the eyes not to look at the building in the first 3-to-5 seconds, before ‘conscious’ thinking can come online –  but also because it shows us how the ‘reality’ we ‘see’ is a construct, a representation made by the interaction of our eyes and ancient brain.

The research suggests that since our brain is this evolutionary relic from the pleistocene age, – it hasn’t changed in 35,000 years or more – certain architectural forms are always easier to look at and take in, including the bi-lateral symmetry, rounded forms and clear tripartite hierarchy of Boston’s old State House (below right) versus the harsh repetitive parallel lines and hard-to-find-front-door of City Hall (below left).

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Essentially, the study indicates how forms that occur in nature are always easier on the brain, an artifact of nature, to look at and fixate on, than forms that do not naturally occur like rigidly repetitive, mechanically-generated, parallel lines. And this all makes sense, once you think about it! Boston City Hall stresses the brain, it’s not natural, so the brain, intent on promoting our survival, instantly directs us to stay away!

To learn more, read results from our first eye-tracking study of Boston City Hall here: Eye-Tracking Boston City Hall to Better Understand Human Perception and the Architectural Experience, published this month in the peer-reviewed New Design Ideas journal.

Also available below (press text):

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An earlier version of this study appeared in Genetics of Design, last year, here.

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Why eye-track the Mona Lisa? To see your brain at work!

Humans are pattern recognition experts. And looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (c. 1503) below, listed as the world’s most viewed painting,  is a good way to see the pattern we’re most cut out to see. It’s the face, of course!

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Some 8 million people each year elbow their way to Room 711 on the Louvre Museum’s first floor in Paris to make eye-contact with her. And according to the biometric analysis above, 85% of them will focus on her face immediately – without even thinking about it. The images above, from 3M’s Visual Attention Software (VAS), show a heat map, glowing brightest where people are predicted to look most, a Visual Sequence diagram showing how her left eye is likely to get attention first and, at right, a Regions of Interest (ROI) diagram circling the areas that get noticed in initial 3-to-5 seconds, with the areas not delineated likely ignored in the same time period.

Screen Shot 2019-06-24 at 11.45.10 PMAnother remarkable thing about viewing Mona is watching all the people from all over the world watch her – it’s a scene, as the NYT recently reported. that suggests how new technologies, iPhones and the internet, have changed how we view art. Now taking your picture with Mona becomes as, if not more, important than actually studying the painting up close. Publishing books about the selfie experience is growing too, with selfie-books featuring Mona for sale at the Louvre book store.

It all makes a good deal of sense when you think about it, looking at Mona helps us see ourselves. And so, looking at Mona with our own face in the image becomes doubly engaging! We’re a social species built for communicating; our survival depends on the well-honed ability to instantly look for and respond to faces and their diverse expressions.

And what shows up in art, shows up in architecture. See the face-like facades below from the greater Boston area. The materials may change, the purpose of the structures are different too, but what catches our attention stays consistent because it’s what we most need to see. We evolved with one brain, we don’t have another one, and it’s specifically wired for social engagement. You simply can’t build community, another requirement for a social species’ survival, without it.

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Because of our Brain Architecture – We love Buildings that Look like Us!      ©

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Interested in Biometrics+Buildings? Come to a Brainstorming Session June 30, 2019!

Here’s the info:2019June30-BrainstormUser Experience-3

This event is free; we’ll be meeting in the Hooper-Lee-Nichols house, the second oldest in Cambridge, MA, just outside of Harvard Square at noon. Should be fun!

RSVP: +/or, if you can attend.

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Imagine No Cars !

“Imagine there’s no autos
It’s easy if you try
Only healthy walking
And cycling ‘neath the sky”
—A riff on John Lennon’s, Imagine

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Visitors to Kyoto, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Porto and Paris don’t have to imagine – they already have miles of car-free streetscapes for walking, cycling and healthy living.

In Copenhagen, above, streets beckon, making you feel instantly welcome no matter your age, origin or native tongue. These streets speak ‘human’, saying you belong – even if you just arrived. Working to reduce car presence since the 60s, Denmark’s capitol also boasts 200 miles of bike lanes. And if Denmark leads the pack, other European cities get the message; in Paris and Stockholm central districts are car-less. Pedestrians are fine right in the middle of the road here – imagine! They aren’t relegated to crosswalks; they’re celebrated and since they don’t have to worry about relentless onslaught of autos, can think about other things! It’s so much easier to be a tourist in cities like these (see below) where walking’s made easy and delightful.

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Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, voted this spring to remove 11,000 parking spaces from the Dutch capitol by 2025. These will be replaced by sidewalks, trees and more places for people to gather and enjoy life.

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And the tendency to go car-free, is moving beyond Europe; a recent Business Insider article, “13 Cities that are Starting to Ban Cars” lists urban areas in Asia and South America embracing the trend.

Imagine this kind of living in the U.S. ? We’d have less stress, loneliness, greater longevity, reduced obesity and better health and well-being overall.

Imagine your town, your street, your way—without cars, just like in Porto, Portugal and Kyoto, Japan, (see below).

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As John Lennon said:
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”

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‘Ux+Design’ Conference Take-aways: Biometrics Can Tell Us a lot about Buildings …and Ourselves

Screen Shot 2019-05-07 at 11.08.31 PMA good turnout at the 1st International Urban Experience and Design (Ux+Design/2019) conference at Tufts last month, which drew architects, planners, researchers and students from around the world interested in improving the built environment and better understanding our responses to it.

Here are some of the slides from the April 26th event, the ones below from the first panel: Using Biometrics to Measure Urban Design + Architecture.

Presented with Peter Lowitt, FAICP, Director of the Devens Enterprise Commission. these slides* show how biometric aggregating software such as 3M’s web-based Visual Attention Software (VAS) can predict how people will take in a scene and forecast human behavior. Are we likely to walk down a street in a new development or choose to remain in the car?

The software, based on 30 years of eye-tracking studies, helps researchers explore how people ‘unconsciously’ take in their surroundings, predicting areas that immediately catch the eye. The ‘Regions of Interest’ that draw people in are shown below as percentages, with areas circled in red likely to attract the most attention, areas in yellow less so, and areas not-circled likely ignored completely.

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These percentages track ‘unconscious’ brain behavior, or the first 3-to-5 seconds we look at something; this critical pre-attentive phase, before the conscious brain gets into the act, provides the foundation for behavior, we tend not to move towards something we haven’t fixated (or focused) on pre-attentively first.

In the slide above we see how the arrangement of aligned porches, on the left, draws the eye down the streets, while the blank garages on a back alley, at right, do not. (And that happily, fits with the developer’s intent to encourage walk-ability on the main street and privacy around the garages.)

Biometrics are also great at create compelling images which, aggregating a lot of data, make the science accessible; in the case of the heat maps below, the images glow reddest where people look most, fading to blue in areas that receive less attention, and going black where likely no attention will be paid at all. It’s hard not to get it when things are presented this way!

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What else can biometrics do? Predict the sequence and direction where we’ll not only look but likely walk! Fact is, walking bipedally is hugely complex for the human brain – so we do it best without having to consciously think about it! Below, with the visual sequence deconstructed, we see why the street at left will always invite walk-ability while the alley at right can’t; it’s simply too much for the brain to figure out, pre-attentively.

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This all goes to show how ‘unconscious’ processing directs behavior in the built environment more than we may realize, which also was one of the themes (and Learning Objectives) of the Ux+Design/2019 conference. Others are listed below and we’ll return to them in future posts:

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Stay tuned!

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* the slides reference: “Seeing the Unseen in Devens: A Biometric Pilot Study to Better Understand the ‘Unconscious’ Human Experience” by Justin Hollander, PhD, Ann Sussman, R.A, Hanna Carr, Tufts ’20

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Eye-tracking Architecture at Ux+Design/2019 Conference

Thanks to the attendees and presenters at Ux+Design/2019, the 1st International Conference on Urban Experience and Design on April 26 at Tufts University. This conference brought together creative thinkers from around the world who are shaping ‘evidence-based’ design practices, ones that embrace the hard data of our ‘unconscious’ responses to external stimuli.ETBostonStateHouse

At the conference, we showed pictures of eye-tracked buildings in Boston and Somerville to show what really draws people to buildings and how our brains are set-up to take in their surroundings.


On display were photos like this of former Mayor John F. Collins (1960-1968), immortalized on the south side of Boston City Hall. The heat map (at right) glows brightest where people look most, showing how they head straight for the mayor’s face within 7/10’s of a second (TTFF or Time To First Fixation is 0.7s), and keep focusing on it in the seconds that follow – they simply can’t help it!

And, in Somerville, the photos below, of the view exiting the Davis Square T, show how people tend to focus on the building edge and tree at far right—not at all on the blank wall in front of them. Their behavior totally changes, however, if the building’s decorated with wonderful art, like the Matisse print below. Then, they can barely take their eyes off the structure.


Key takeaways from our conference were how ‘unconscious’ processing, outside of our awareness, directs behavior in the built environment—and that includes how our eyes move when first presented with new stimuli. We demonstrated how biometric tools, such as eye tracking, can predict behavior—determining how we ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’ architecture without ever thinking about it. The blank wall greeting transit riders exiting Davis Square station, for instance, is ‘avoidant’ and always will be (unless it’s painted with great art!). And as for Boston City Hall? The mayor’s face, at least, if not the architecture, is totally approachable.

For more information on the Ux+Design conference, click here.

Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Design, Eye Tracking, People-centric Design, STEM, Walkability | Tagged , | Leave a comment