Drexel Webinar: Designing for the Emotional Brain, February 2

Interested in understanding how architecture impacts us subliminally? Sign Up for the Arfaa Lecture at Drexel University with Ann Sussman on Tuesday, February 2, 2021 at 5:30 PM EST.

Georgetown, Washington, DC

Image ©Robin Puttock

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.”

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Eye-tracking Architecture to Understand Ourselves

Here’s a video from the non-profit The Human Architecture + Planning Institute, Inc. (theHapi.org) showing results from a Sensing-Streetscape study that looks at how people actually experience buildings and different streets in Boston.

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.

Posted in Architecture, City Planning, Design, Eye Tracking, Neuroscience, Walkability | Leave a comment

Open Invitation to Urban Experience and Design Book Launch: Friday, January 15, 2021, 3PM EST

The Human Architecture and Planning InstituteTufts UEP, and Routledge invite you to a global, virtual event to celebrate the publication of the new book Urban Experience and Design: Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm on January 15, 2021, 3PM-4PM Eastern Time.

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: artscapeshow@gmail.com.

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.

Routledge will provide a discount code for the book for event attendees. More information here: https://www.routledge.com/Urban-Experience-and-Design-Contemporary-Perspectives-on-Improving-the/Hollander-Sussman/p/book/9780367435554

Posted in Architecture, Biology, City Planning, Design | Tagged | 3 Comments

Embracing Nature on a Rail Trail

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.

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‘Built Beautiful,’ the Movie on Architecture + Neuroscience Streaming Live at Boston Architectural College on Dec. 7, 2020

Built Beautiful – Trailer from Mariel Rodriguez-McGill on Vimeo.

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 .

Co-sponsored by the Human Architecture and Planning Institute (theHAPI.org) and the BAC’s Design for Human Health program, the event is free.

More info on this BAC program + movie registration at link below:


Hope to ‘see’ you there!

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To Keep Calm: Take in Nature + Fall Fractals

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.”

Thistle on Conservation Land

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 in our times. 🙂


Posted in Fractals, Nature, Patterns, Primal Vista, Walkability | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Participate in a Biometric Study in Boston – November 5, 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!

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Eye Tracking Architecture to ‘See’ Human Nature

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.

Eye tracking a blank wall in Somerville, Massachusetts with iMotions biometric software shows how viewer behavior shifts dramatically if graced with art. original photo: Dan Bartman

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 reveals how people look at a library facade differently with windows; study with iMotions biometric software, with Justin Hollander at Tufts, for the City of New York

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. With windows, 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.

You can read the first chapter of the new book here; more about revealing research reported in succeeding chapters to follow in future posts.

More on History of Eye Tracking:

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How Neuroscience Reframes Architectural History (on YouTube)

Story + video by Ann Sussman, RA

This video was posted last week at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) 2020 conference:

It reviews a poster, first presented at the 30th Annual International Trauma Conference in Boston, MA in 2019, which combines new understanding of how trauma changes the brain, altering perception, with new understandings of how normal or neurotypical perception works, making a viewer unconsciously prioritize taking in faces and areas of complexity and contrast. It seeks to answer an abiding question: why does modern architecture, post-WWI, look and feel so differently than traditional? Why is it so often blank and detail-free?

Certainly, an urge to bury the past, after WWI (1914-1918) with the horrors of industrialized warfare and loss of 20 million people, encouraged a new design approach, as did new technologies enabling the expansive use of glass, steel, and concrete, and accompanying economic incentives. 

But the missing link in the story we tell of how modern architecture came to be, is how trauma changes the brain, distorts a survivor’s perception of ‘reality’, and can manifest itself in every design move a survivor makes decades later without their awareness or conscious control. We can now explain a key reason why ‘modern’ architecture looked so different from that of the past – it represents a direct expression of the horror of the trench warfare that preceded it.

An effective way of ‘seeing’ this is by looking at the house built by a ‘founding modernist’, none other than Walter Gropius, (1883-1969), himself, the founder of the Bauhaus. On a rural road, twenty miles west of Boston in Lincoln, MA, the iconic ‘modern’ building looks little like the traditional New England houses in the area with their pitched roofs and shutters. Built twenty years after the Great War, in 1938, Gropius’ home has a flat root, slit windows and hidden front door. Undeniably, it was unique for its time, but reviewing its design today, psychologists describe it as actually firmly rooted in the past – Gropius’ own horrific one as a German soldier on the ghastly Western Front. We learn here how the neuroscience of trauma and how it changes the brain also reframes the history of modern architecture and helps us better understand what humans need to see to be at their best.

More information about how neuroscience informs our understanding of architecture and reframes its history, is elaborated in two new books, Urban Experience + Design, Contemporary Perspectives on Improving the Public Realm (Routledge, 2021) and in the 2nd edition of Cognitive Architecture (Routledge, 2021) which came out in July. We’ll have more to say about this latter book and its eye-tracking research, which references our work at geneticsofdesign.com, in coming posts.


Thanks to ArchNewsNow.com for featuring this video, October 7, 2020:


+ ArchDaily.com for printing related articles in September, 2020:


+ in Portuguese, thanks to ArchDaily.com for providing this translation:


Posted in Architecture, Neuroscience | 1 Comment

Faces: The Key to Making Happy Places

Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.17.49 PMDo you see faces in these gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard, a popular summer retreat on this island ten miles off the coast of Massachusetts? Does it seem like they are looking at you? Built as part of a Methodist campground in the 1860s, the houses replaced the pitched tents early congregants first set up. Today over 300 of them remain on the Campground site which was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2005.Screen Shot 2020-09-01 at 7.18.11 PMAnd who wouldn’t find them captivating? “The homes may be some of the most photographed in the entire country,” a 2016 article in Country Living reports. “Is there a more charming neighborhood in all of New England?” asks a recent post in New England Today. And of course, the cottages grab your eye, we’re a social species, hardwired to take in anything and everything that is face-like.

Pareidolia, the term for the very human phenomenon of seeing faces in everyday objects, is at work here. This visual illusion is an artifact of our evolution and secures our survival, explains a recent article in MedicalXpress. “We process these “fake” faces using the same visual mechanisms of the brain that we do for real ones,” it notes. “Our brain has evolved to facilitate social interaction, and this shapes the way that we see the world around us.”

So, no surprise, that the gingerbread houses have been a favorite of Vineyard visitors for years; our brain sees them as waiting to see us! As the pareidolia researcher Dr. Colin Palmer says: “We know that the object doesn’t really have a mind, but we can’t help but see it as having mental characteristics like a ‘direction of gaze’ because of mechanisms in our visual system that become active when they detect an object with basic face-like features.”

Sensing face-like cottage facades makes us feel at home in a space, keeps us coming back and makes the visits memorable.  In the Vineyard, there’s another good place to appreciate the power of pareidolia, moving beyond architecture; it’s at Toad Rock, a historic site on Native American, Wampanoag, tribal land, in Acquinnah, twenty miles to the west.

Toad Rock

Here’s a place people have visited for thousands of years, and once there, you get why; it provides that one design element people most need to see to secure themselves in a space: a face.

The upshot? To make memorable places where people want to be, build in faces. Mother Nature, after all, has preset what we most need to see and we all pay a price, always, when we ignore her intent!


More posts on our face-bias here:

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