Designing successful interior spaces: Insights from Cognitive Neuroscience
Updated: Aug 18
‘Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty, to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.’
One of the big challenges for the interior designer is to better understand how vision, perception and emotions tie in with our designs. We often rely on past experience, intuitive observations and anecdotal evidence to do this. However, many decades of research in cognitive psychology and learning have used scientific measures to examine the same things. The field of cognitive neuroscience measures brain activations to better understand how we visualise, perceive and feel in a range of situations. Here the focus is on the brain’s physiological response to stimuli. For example, brainwave monitoring (EEG) and brain imaging (fMRI) measure brain activations.
Interestingly, these neuroscientific measures are now being applied to the design sector. The relatively new discipline known as neuroarchitecture also has its roots in neuroscientific principles. However, as interior designers we may ask if such complex measures (and their findings) translate clearly to our day-to-day working life. Can those outcomes help us to improve client communications? Do they provide us with a deeper understanding into the design process? To address those questions let’s look at three areas that have particular relevance for interior design.
Number 1: Enclosed spaces trigger a negative brain response
Think back to the last time you entered an enclosed room. There is no view, the ceiling is low, and the space is quite small. How did it make you feel?
Enclosed rooms not only restrict our mobility, but also our range of vision - and this can lead to negative emotions. Negative brain responses are associated with the amygdala, an area that processes our fight or flight response. The amygdala is also the key region of the brain that processes fear.
Experiments using fMRI scans have compared how the brain reacts to open and enclosed spaces. Findings show that open rooms activate visuospatial brain activity, the region that allows us to process distance and space. It should also be noted that open (rather than closed) spaces are consistently judged as more beautiful.
Enclosed rooms, however, show brain activation in regions directly related to the amygdala. That’s right, the area that processes our fight or flight response. One argument is that these reactions are linked to early survival theories that threatened safety - something our average client is probably not consciously aware of!
Number 2: Curved spaces activate the brain’s reward system
In 1909 the Psychologist Kate Gordon Moore pointed out in her book ‘Aesthetics’ that curves were generally felt to be more beautiful than straight lines. Fast forward more than a century later to brain imaging research that compares curved and linear spaces. Results from fMRI studies show increased brain activity for curved spaces in the area known as the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC). It is here that our dopamine receptors reside. As many of us know, dopamine triggers the sensations of pleasure and reward, so why not mix it up with your design ideas. Curves come in many forms: a porthole feature window, a curved bed or staircase, a round feature rug or sculpture piece - the options are endless.
Number 3: Designers see differently to the lay-person
That’s right - and there’s plenty of research to prove it. Let’s take an example.
When appraising a room or new build the trained designer will use a cognitive approach that is holistic in nature: integrating both coherence and meaning to the space. This ‘conceptual’ approach is what the neuroscientist Earl K Miller calls top-down processing.
In comparison, the lay person will usually focus on the most salient, physical aspects of a room - namely bottom-up processing. For example, the type of furniture or colour of the walls become the ‘stimulus’ driven focus.
Studies using virtual reality tools and EEG (measuring brain waves) are now attempting to pinpoint these differences.
Understanding how our clients visualise, perceive and feel about an interior space is crucial to the design process, and is often subconscious in nature. Cognitive neuroscience can provide us with evidence-based insights into the aesthetic perceptions of our clients. Avoid enclosed rooms that restrict vision, flag possible reactions on a separate plan, educate your client! Provide examples of lighting schemes, colour palettes, window placement and so on to enhance our line of vision.
Don’t let straight lines and rectangular shapes dominate, if curves really do trigger our dopamine receptors bring in something as simple as a round mirror or feature rug, and layer the effect in different rooms.
Finally, a crucial part of our role as designers is to educate the client. Most will not see the whole picture, but rather the physical, most salient aspects. This ‘bottom-up’ approach allows us to provide the missing pieces. We see it like a jigsaw that starts from the first piece through to the finished product. Happy building!
Appleton, J. (1996). The Experience of Landscape. John Wiley and Sons, New York
Bower, I; Tucker, R. & Enticott, P. (2019). Impact of built environment design on emotion measured via neurophysiological correlates and subjective indicators: A systematic review. Journal of Experimental Psychology (66), 1-11.
Gordon, K. (1909). Esthetics New York: Holt.
Miller, E. (1999). Straight from the top. Nature (401), pp. 650–651.