I just read Colin Ellard’s Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life because I saw a reference to his studies, which measure how buildings and landscapes affect our bodies and minds, our thoughts and emotions. He famously tracked persons’ stress levels as they encountered blank and forbidding urban scenes versus human-scaled and interesting ones. Blank and forbidding facades increase cortisol and stress. Varied and humane ones trigger dopamine.
Where are the people? Why don’t they flock here?
Oooh, that’s better, yes, right there…
The book is an excellent survey of recent advances in neuroscience that further demolish the old mind/body and brain/heart dichotomy. We all know that architecture and design can affect our feelings, but it turns out that affect – our feelings – are also part of the infrastructure of our thoughts. Ellard describes his own reactions to places like Stonehenge and St. Peter’s in Rome and traces the history of built structures from the pre-agrarian ceremonial structures of Göbekli Tepe which are for him “prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of built structure to influence feelings.” (p.15)
Celtic stone circle in the Wachau, Austria.
The book is rich in references to a wide variety of studies in neuroscience, including Giacomo Rizzolatti’s discovery of mirror neurons in the early 1990s, where even the adoption of a pose (or the witnessing of that pose) can affect one’s affect. This reminded me of my work over 20 years ago developing a wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor, where consultant Richard Rabinowitz’s American History Workshop developed interpretive systems that altered your posture to make history come alive. Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright used pathways, compression and release of space to direct our attention.
We walk the walk with Wright
Ellard very early quotes John Locke (the new one, not the old one) in regard to WALLS – which Locke notes were not just created for protection but also “to protect us from the cognitive load of having to keep track of the activitites of strangers.” The enterprise of psychogeography is thus the commodification of ATTENTION.
Who needs a TV?
Attention is itself an amazing illustration of the interconnections of mind and body. Ellard notes that we “form preferences for certain types of faces within 39 milliseconds of their appearance” and we extract the gist of a landscape scene within 20 milliseconds, which means that these processes are happening faster than our “rational” mind can process them. But we process them nevertheless.
Eppur si muove
Living in San Antonio the famed River Walk is an excellent example of the kinds of things that appeal to our basic neural emotions and thoughts. Curving lines, a variety of materials and images, an ever-evolving perspective. This is even codified in the River Improvement Overlay that requires design variety at the River Walk level, a perfect codification of Ellard’s thesis that “by simply changing the appearance and the physical structure of the bottom three meters of a building facade, it is possible to exert a dramatic impact on the manner in which a city is used.” (p.110)
Even if it is a parking garage…
This is rooted in our basic neural processes, according to Ellard “we are biologically disposed to want to be in locations where there is some complexity, some interest, the passing of messages of one kind or another.” (p.113) It is not simply variety, but the URGE TO KNOW.
I love the San Antonio River Walk. Also, I think it.
This knowledge of the psychogeography of everyday life is in fact a powerful tool for heritage conservation; for preserving the detailed, human scaled buildings of the past that accomplished information variety and integrated attentiveness. This is much more than aesthetics. It is mental health.
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO WHERE WE DELVE INTO TECHNOLOGY (and Authenticity) (and how all cognition utilizes ellipsis)