• Étienne-Louis Boullée’s “Cenotaph for Isaac Newton” embodies the sense of the architectural sublime.

Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.

— Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Pure Reason”

Our entire human experience — from the sacred to the profane, from the heart-wrenching to the awe-inspiring — is mediated by the interaction between the brain, body, and environment, or our “embodied experience.” Recent advancements in the field of neuroscience over the last two decades begin to allow us to glimpse the complex mechanisms at work that underlie our deepest emotions and experience of life. It is with this understanding that the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was established and has taken as its charge to understand the reciprocal relationship between the mind and the environment. Though still in its infancy, ANFA hosts a biannual conference where researchers share their cross-disciplinary work in the fields of neuroscience and architecture in an attempt to understand the science behind some of the most ineffable qualities of the human condition, including the experience of awe, spirituality, and contemplative states and their relationship to the built environment.

Awe is often described as a sense of awakening, an escape from the incessant hum of our minds. Time slows; we experience a deep feeling of interconnectedness; and perhaps, for a moment, it is as if we have touched the very essence of existence. Researchers define awe as cognitive neuroscience Ph.D. student Hanna Negami does, as “an emotion encompassing both vastness, such as in physical size, power, or social standing, plus accommodation such that experiencing awe necessitates reappraisal of existing mental models.” That is, awe is an experience so powerful that it is literally “mind-blowing,” forcing an individual to adjust their existing mental paradigms in order to process it. The result is a complex emotional experience that lies somewhere on the spectrum between elation and fear. It is something so unexpected and so unprecedented that lived experience to that point is not sufficient to inform appropriate reaction or response: Awe describes an experience that transcends our understanding of the world.

Research presented at the ANFA conferences elucidates from numerous perspectives the biological and mental underpinnings of the experience of awe. Negami, graduate student at the University of Waterloo and presenter at ANFA 2016, began her research thesis asking whether it was possible to use an objective method to define emotionally relevant characteristics of architecture and whether this could then predict human behavior. Her work builds upon a 2013 study that argues that churches and other religious monumental architecture evoke a sense of awe, fostering religious openness and facilitating various social functions of religion. Part of Negami’s study focuses on the effect that interior church architecture has on cognition, looking at whether church interiors facilitate religious or spiritual feeling through awe-inducing architecture and whether such spaces affect the perception of time.

Selecting 60 photographs rated on 24 architectural properties such as religious symbolism, presence of water, and repeating elements, Negami organized these characteristics into four groups. The first component consisted of properties of immensity, such as ceiling height, size of the space, and contour. The second component — adornment — comprised the presence of art, images, and ornament. The third principle component included such qualities as natural lighting and repeating elements; and the fourth, the use of natural materials and seating. Images were selected that represented both high and low examples of each component. Study participants then viewed the photographs, imagining themselves in each of these spaces and ranking the extent to which they felt 10 emotions, such as anger, happiness, awe, fear, and boredom. Negami found that two components — immensity and adornment — did in fact significantly elicit a feeling of awe.

Participants were asked to view churches and nonreligious spaces that were predicted to evoke either a high or a low sense of awe. Time perception was measured, and the results showed that, subjectively, experiencing awe made time slow down.

In “CNN Style” (August 2015), Vittorio Gallese, professor of physiology at the University of Parma, explained this phenomenon as follows: “The way a space is architectured is linked with sensual elevation. To feel closer to God, you have to create an environment where everything suggests this feeling of elevation.” The kinship between awe and vastness/elevation is rooted in the evolution of our ancestors: Their predilection for open space — experiences such as looking into the immensity of the night sky or the expanse of a canyon — is echoed in the architecture of our monuments and places of worship. Perhaps no other philosophical and aesthetic movement embodies this phenomenon as completely as does Romanticism. With its emphasis on the emotional reaction to the sublime as the source of aesthetic experience, the period was a direct response to the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment, where reason had displaced the subjective, the emotional, and the religious.

The sublime, as described by Edmund Burke, involves power, vastness, and darkness and is capable of inspiring feelings of terror as well as awe. Nature was what people generally looked to in their quest for the sublime — as the ubiquity of landscape painting of the era shows — but the sublime also found its way into architectural representation. Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton, though a tribute to Enlightenment ideals, is in many ways the epitome of the Romantic concept of the sublime, with its massive 500-ft-diameter spherical form and its dramatic contrasts in light and dark, delicately balancing immensity, beauty, and fear.

While architects have, for millennia, instinctively integrated in worship spaces design elements that evoke the sublime, this has been almost impossible to demonstrate empirically. However, with advances in brain imaging, researchers are beginning to do just that. Associate professor of the Catholic University of America and presenter at the most recent three ANFA conferences, Julio Bermudez is part of a research team that is studying the ability of architecture to induce contemplative states. His goal is to demonstrate that, if architecture is proven effective at facilitating contemplation through external methods, then it can enhance and extend the benefits of such internally driven contemplative practices as prayer and meditation.

Bermudez’s pilot study involved 12 participants who were shown images of both ordinary buildings and contemplative buildings and asked to imagine that they were physically present in those spaces while their brains were scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. All of the participants were architects, intentionally selected with the idea that they would be particularly attuned to the qualities of space and would produce stronger, and therefore more measurable, responses than the average person.

What Bermudez and his team found was that contemplative buildings stimulate different regions of the brain compared to ordinary buildings. The left and right parietal lobes — areas of the brain responsible for sensation, perception, and integrating sensory input — were activated, suggesting a heightened aesthetic experience. At the same time, contemplative buildings were found to significantly reduce anxiety and mind-wandering, a result consistent with moving from an ordinary state of mind to a state of meditation. In fact, during meditation, self-narrative activities like mind-wandering, evaluation, analysis, and judgment — activities that depend on the frontal lobe — slowed, or ceased entirely. Additionally, a deeper contemplative experience was associated with more profound architectural space, and this relationship was correlated with the deactivation of major regions of the brain, most noticeably the prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for executive functions and sense of self. These findings provide a neurological basis for the feelings of oneness and interconnectedness that often arise in association with the experience of awe. What was surprising, however, was that the prefrontal cortex was deactivated to an extent that surpassed even internally induced meditation, meaning that the power of the stimulus — the architecture — induced the same cognitive effects related to maintaining focus and attention without demanding any effort on the part of the subject.

Architect, researcher, and 2016 ANFA presenter Andrea Jelic also studies the experience of awe and its ability to affect time perception in architecture, but through the lens of narrative architecture, or the dynamic experience of space in time. Jelic contends that “the sense of mystery and anticipation is slowly built as the person moves through the architectural setting, and culminates in intense feelings of sacredness and otherworldliness. The key aspect that contributes to these profound feelings lies in our subjective experience of time.”

Jelic illustrates this concept through two architectural works: Tadao Ando’s Water Temple and Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery. The journey through Ando’s Water Temple begins as the visitor moves between diverging concrete walls. Two abrupt turns and in between a path that curves along a shield wall, and the walker confronts a glistening, circular body of water suspended in a concrete basin and reflecting distant trees. Bisecting this “O,” a cement staircase draws the pilgrim down into the worship space, water on either side and lily pads visible under its surface. Inside, as outside, a curving, narrow corridor screens what lies ahead, building the sense of anticipation before revealing a temple chamber flooded with a diffuse, red glow. A similar compression and expansion of space can be found in the transition between narthex and nave in the architecture of early basilicas and churches, where the sense of awe generated by the expansiveness of the nave is heightened by the contrast in scale of the narthex.

In the case of Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery, the experience of space and time is directly based on the interaction between our physical existence as humans and various specially designed spaces. For example, the cemetery contains a set of atypical stairs that requires the individual to ascend in an unusual way. Habitual movement patterns are disrupted, forcing the brain out of its rote predictions. As a result, time expands, as the person becomes aware of him- or herself as an experiential subject. Research has shown that the same brain networks underlie body awareness, time perception, and attentional control. Specifically, the anterior insula is associated with the sentient self and also seems to play a fundamental role in our perception of time. The Brion Cemetery was designed to be a place of contemplation, and Scarpa intuitively and effectively integrated design elements that created novel experiences to force the brain into a different way of working. These altered states of consciousness, characterized by heightened bodily awareness, lead to the perception of a slowing of time and an increased presence, which can culminate in the feeling that time has stopped and that the self has become one with the world.

Although our ability to measure the complex activities of the brain as it reacts to environmental and spatial experiences is still limited by current brain-imaging technologies (for instance, the brain can only be measured within the confines of a machine), there is still much to be gained from the fields of cognitive and environmental psychology as we consider how our environment influences our emotions and perceptions and, in particular, our lived experience. We are sentient constructs, each bestowed with a wondrous living network of cognitive circuitry that contains 100 trillion synapses — at least 1,000 times the number of stars in our galaxy. We shape, and are shaped by, the world around us. It is in our best interest as designers, but more importantly as human beings, to acknowledge the power of intuition in our work and in our lives; to turn off the chatter in our minds; to pause, breathe, and marvel at the beauty that surrounds us.

Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, works at Overland Partners in San Antonio.

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