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The A↔N Blog

The A↔N Blog

A↔N is a Publication of the Advisory Council of ANFA

Editor: Michael A. Arbib

ANFA Board of Directors Liaison: Matt Smith, Fred Marks

The symbols A↔N signal that this new blog will be devoted to interactions between architecture and neuroscience (and cognitive science more generally) in both directions. The blog will be posted at irregular intervals on the ANFA Website (www.anfarch.org) and will have dissemination of views of members of the ANFA Advisory Council as its main purpose. However, the blog will include not only postings from the Advisory Council (myself included) but also invited postings by other contributors and selected commentaries. Each posting will express the personal opinions of its author and this may or may not coincide with official positions of ANFA. I welcome correspondence on N«A at arbib@usc.edu. If you wish to offer a commentary for posting, please state this in your message, but note that the blog is curated and that my decision as to what commentaries to publish will be final.

Michael Arbib

A↔N #1. ANFA and the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab)

[MAA: Is there a way to change font size?]

2016 initiated a partnership between the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) and the newly formed International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab), an initiative of the Brain Science Institute (BSI) at the Johns Hopkins University. This posting reports on three initiatives that launch the partnership.

1) The first official expression was the decision by the ANFA Board of Directors (Gil Cooke was then President) to invite IAM to host a session at ANFA 2016, the latest edition of ANFA’s biennial conference held in alternate Septembers at (so far) the Salk Institute in La Jolla. The result, on Saturday, September 24th, was a session on NeuroAesthetics organized by Susan Magsamen of IAM Lab.

2) ANFA meetings still attracts far more architects than neuroscientists, and so the second joint event was an attempt to bring more neuroscientists into the A↔N fold: a co-hosted Social on the evening of November 14th at the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience held in San Diego.

3) In late March, 2017, at the instigation of Susan Magsamen, Sarah Pitcock of IAM Lab interviewed me as the basis for a posting on the IAM Lab website, https://medium.com/international-arts-mind-lab. Given the material covered, the result (somewhat edited) seemed like a good way to launch the A«N blog:

Sarah Pitcock interviews Michael A. Arbib (April 3, 2017)

SP: What is your approach to neuroscience for architecture?

MA: I have long been concerned with developing computational models of the brain mechanisms that link perception and action, whether in frogs, rats, monkeys or humans. In my course on “Brain Theory and Artificial Intelligence” at USC, I normally assigned projects on modeling a specific brain system, but in 2003 I had the strange idea of asking my students to take what they knew about the brains of animals interacting with the environment outside them and design a brain for an intelligent room interacting with the environment inside it. They came up with some interesting ideas, but these lay dormant till around 2010 when I became involved with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA, www.anfarch.org) and resumed work on “neuromorphic architecture,” aka “brains for buildings,” with the emphasis on incorporating knowledge about real brains into the process. By contrast, the main emphasis of ANFA has been on the neuroscience of the experience of architecture and how the neuroscience of different types of people (e.g., children versus Alzheimer’s patients) can affect the architect’s understanding of how the people might experience the building – and that this in turn could improve the design process. This clearly fits in with my expertise in linking perception and action in different species – but now in humans with different needs and abilities. And to this I would add a growing interest in what goes on inside the heads of architects when they design.

In summary, I see three different components to a neuroscience for architecture: 1) the neuroscience of experiencing the architecture; 2) the neuroscience of the design process; and 3) neuromorphic architecture. I would add that I am also excited about “architecture for neuroscience” – finding new challenges for brain research motivated by issues in the design of and interaction with buildings.

SP: Can neuroscientists provide “plug and play” results that tell the architect what s/he needs to know?

MA: Unfortunately not! Some time ago, I made a taxonomy of the talks at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and came up with around 430 subsubspecialities, so the challenge will be for architects with specific needs to find neuroscientists with relevant skills – and then they can educate each other to find the right match.

In developing a framework for neuroscience for architecture, we will rarely go directly from a detailed study on, say, the neurophysiology of a rat or activation patterns of a human lying prone in an fMRI scanner to an architectural decision. In many cases, cognitive science or even psychology will provide the bridge – study how people behave in certain settings, make hypotheses on the underlying processes, link those hypotheses to brain data, then reflect that back into a deeper understanding of human cognition and behavior. An important bridging concept is that of an “affordance” – the perception (perhaps subliminal) of opportunities for action, such as what underlies our ability to walk through a crowded store and find a destination without bumping into obstacles. This particular type of affordance is crucial to “wayfinding,” and provides one of the most developed links between architecture and neuroscience – where the role of a brain region called the hippocampus has been intensively studied in relation both to navigation and to the memory of past episodes (as demonstrated vividly in the movie “Memento”).

SP: Why do buildings need brains? How is this a shift in thinking? How far have we come with “living” or “thinking” buildings?

MA: I see neuromorphic architecture as a contributor to the development of smart architecture that parallels the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Originally, AI grew out of what Norbert Wiener dubbed “Cybernetics” in 1949 – “the study of control, [computation] and communication in animal and machine.” In the 1960s AI separated from biological cybernetics and focused on symbolic processes matched to the then current capabilities of serial, digital computers. (My slogan has been: “Just because the brain looks like a bowl of porridge doesn’t mean it’s a cereal computer.”) However, from the 1990s onwards, brain modeling and AI have come back together in various ways so that, for example, “deep learning” – a computer-friendly approach inspired by the modeling of learning in the neural networks of brains – is now the magic sauce for Google, Facebook, and more. We are already seeing computers entering the home to adjust light and HVAC patterns, but these are very simple applications. It is still an open question whether neuroscience will directly affect the more useful aspects of such systems, or whether it will be indirect, as in the case of deep learning – but I see work in computer vision and robot control as fruitful areas for AI-neuroscience cooperation that will yield benefits for an architecture that embraces not only the building as such but the furniture within it and even an ability of the “body” of a building to reshape itself to shifting demands.

Historically, we have seen transformations that we now take for granted, and many of these focus not on the isolated building but on its place within a larger system. We have seen the development of water, gas and electric utilities which allow each home to offer, at the turn of a tap or the flip of a switch, services that hitherto required considerable human effort. These then partner with machines that can further reduce the load, such as washing machines and dishwashers. Now we have information utilities and the rise of the Internet of Things. A particularly interesting development will be in robotic furniture, where the impact of “neuroethology” – the study of brain mechanisms underlying animal behavior – will be even more direct.

SP: Are you beginning to see architecture schools integrate neuroscience cognitive science into their degree programs?

MA: “Integrate” is too strong a word, but more and more schools are beginning to offer at least an occasional course on the subject. At the NewSchool of Architecture and Design at San Diego, I co-taught a class with the architect Tatiana Berger, designed to get architects interested in neuroscience; while at UCSD (which has no architecture school but does have a design program) I taught a class designed to get cognitive scientists interested in architecture. There is still a relatively small cadre of people whose knowledge of both architecture and neuroscience is above threshold, but the number of people informed enough to engage in meaningful work at the interface is steadily increasing, as evidenced by the nature of the papers submitted to ANFA 2016 as compared to ANFA 2014 and 2012.

SP: Do you think some amount of neuroscience training should be required of architects? How do you think universities should approach the topic?

MA: An analogy for me is with structural engineering. An architect should know enough to understand what gets a structure “in the right ball park” but for complicated buildings will need an expert to develop reliable computations which may factor into refinements of the prior design. In the same way, I think exposure to the three dimensions of neuroscience for architecture would certainly be beneficial (perhaps more so than the philosophy courses now taught in many architecture schools) but we might expect a new breed of consultants to arise. They would probe deeper into cognitive science and neuroscience relevant to better factoring projected aspects of human experience into the design of a building and, where appropriate, its “brain.”

SP: Do you think there is momentum behind neuroarchitecture?

MA: Yes. In addition to the ANFA conferences (the next will be in 2018), there are several conferences coming up related to architecture, neuroscience and aesthetics. One at UT Austin last December dwelt on psychology and architecture, and there will be a “Conscious Cities” meeting in London, a Driehaus Foundation meeting in Chicago, and a conference on neuroscience and beauty in Denver in 2018 – and I am sure there are others that have not caught my attention.

Further good news is that we are beginning to see studies that look at people’s aesthetic and other responses and link them to correlates in the brain. The bad news is that in most studies to date, research subjects are looking at and reacting only to photos or graphics. In order to make a real breakthrough, we need to develop portable technologies that enable studies of people experiencing actual buildings. We’re on the cusp of having decent instrumentation. I think this is a place where IAM Lab and ANFA can work together – to stimulate and fund important research. Meanwhile Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist by background, is using smart phones and GPS to collect data about people’s feelings and emotions as they experience various locations in an urban setting.

SP: What are you currently excited about in your work?

MA: I have been working with Tricia Ngoon, a cognitive science student from UCSD, on the design of an apartment for a blind person. I will admit that when we started I was ignorant of the significant work architects had already done for blind people. How can neuroscience make a new contribution? What happens when you’re blind and you experience a building? How does your hippocampus work? What’s the process of wayfinding? We are developing two perspectives: assessing what current studies in neuroscience and cognitive science tell us about the sensory cues and spatial layouts that would help a blind person navigate and find objects; and a neuromorphic approach to the design of an interactive kitchen. Another intriguing issue, but outside the scope of the current effort, is to better understand the aesthetics of the blind.

I am also developing an essay on the design process in architecture. A few years ago, I reviewed a paper that presented a cognitive neuroscience theory of design. For illustration, the author used Jørn Utzon’s design of the Sydney Opera House. The problem was that the account of Utzon’s design process was fictional and misleading. I decided to dig into the actual history of this design, and discovered that one of the young architects who had worked with Utzon, Rick Leplastrier, was a classmate of mine from high school in Sydney whom I had not seen for 50 years. That led to a reunion and many interesting insights to factor into my current attempt to outline a theory of design that passes the test of illuminating at least some aspects of Utzon’s creativity.

SP: What do you see as possibilities for fruitful interaction between ANFA and IAM Lab?

MA: I have already mentioned a possible collaboration in developing new ways to gather data from people experiencing actual buildings rather than visual images. For another possibility, recall that Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, …” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII). Architecture provides a stage with no set script. Through our experiences and interactions with a building, we can have the opportunity to act out our own scripts. Just as a set designer designs settings for a particular play, each building will serve as the stage for a particular “family” of scripts – whether home or school or shopping center or museum … — and the architect must provide the affordances that support the way that the building will be used. But if a building is just “useful” it somehow falls short of architecture – just as a building that is all glossy appearance without much utility may devolve into “mere” sculpture. In short, a successful neuroscience for architecture must link not only action and perception but also emotion and aesthetics, finding the right balance between them all. Here we may hope for a vibrant interplay between the work of ANFA and the work in neuroaesthetics at IAM Lab. We made a start in this direction by inviting IAM Lab to host a session on neuroaesthetics at the 2016 edition of ANFA’s biennial international conference, held at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. This should be just the beginning.

About Michael Arbib

My career has been shaped by the topics of my first book, “Brains, Machines and Mathematics” (McGraw-Hill, 1965), and this was charted in a talk recorded in September 2016 on my retirement from the University of Southern California:


I have been associated with ANFA since 2009, and some of the views to be developed in this blog were previewed in an Archinect podcast: