Ana Calhoun and I recently attended the 2016 Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) conference hosted at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. The conference provides a cross-disciplinary platform for architects and neuroscientists to share knowledge of human behavioral responses to the built environment and current neuroscientific research. Neuroscientists and architects from across the world presented papers that provide insight into the potential integration of these two disciplines. Additionally, architect Steven Holl, FAIA, neuropsychiatrist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel, and Director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota Thomas Fischer gave phenomenal keynote speeches relating to their work on this topic and the potential that these two fields have for interfacing in the future.

Steven Holl, FAIA, speaking at the 2016 Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture Conference

Steven Holl, FAIA, speaking at the 2016 Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture Conference


ANFA was formed in 2003 by the San Diego chapter of the AIA, largely led by senior neuroscientist at the Salk Institute, Dr. Fred Gage. The design and collaboration of the Salk Institute itself, between medical researcher Jonas Salk and architect Louis Kahn, FAIA, serves as the conceptual nexus for the conference. These two geniuses set out to create an institute that would house the labs for scientific research working to solve some of the world’s most prolific problems. (In case you didn’t know, this is where Jonas Salk developed the Polio vaccine).

I found inspiration from Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute

I found inspiration from Jonas Salk at the Salk Institute

The building itself is intended to rejuvenate and inspire the scientists as they work as well as humanize traditional lab space, while simultaneously allowing for extensive flexibility since the methodologies for scientific experimentation are constantly evolving. These two men inherently understood the sentiment captured in a quote by Winston Churchill:

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

We as designers need to be prepared to work alongside the burgeoning neuroscience field, as it has an enormous capacity to inform our work and our work has enormous capacity to affect our users’ minds.


An important scientific distinction surrounding the conference is the philosophical difference between prescriptive and descriptive scientific study. Descriptive science describes what can be learned and are statements of observation (e.g., students perform better in naturally lit environments). This statement describes an observation based in scientific study, but does not ask the question why or, more specifically, how. Neuroscience is a prescriptive science that aims to understand why the particular parts of the brain are physically stimulated under certain circumstances and how these processes and circuits work. Neuroscience is big data and studies the activity of neurons, stimulated or not, within the brain. If we understood why or how the brain was stimulated by natural light, we might be able to simulate this phenomenon through other means. Imagine being able to study the activity of the brain as one walks through an awe-inspiring space, which was the subject of one of the research studies presented at the conference. We could begin to understand why and how we perceive awe through neurological stimulation and therefore design for that neurological response. Within the context of sustainability and mental well-being, this could have significant impact on how we design our healthcare facilities, churches, education facilities, contemplative spaces, and offices.

Our brains are remarkable and complicated.

Diagram of the brain involved in the beholder’s response

However, the neuroscience field has one significant technological limitation: we can currently only study the neural activity of the brain within the confines of a MRI machine. We can still certainly learn a lot from current cognitive psychology and physiological testing, but we do not yet have the ability to study the brain as it is actively experiencing space. Most of the studies presented at the conference involved showing photographs to patients while in an MRI machine, and gathering data based on their experience of the photo. This is a good first step, but a photo, which is a purely visual experience, does not convey what is happening to the brain as it encounters space through all senses. This is a significant limitation and one that modern technology will be addressing. Virtual reality may help mitigate this limitation as it is a significant step forward from a photograph in providing a more comprehensive spatial experience; however it is also primarily a visual stimulus and does not engage the mind as actively as reality.


The methodologies associated with neurological research will evolve over the next twenty-five years, and it is realistic to assume that, in our lifetime, the design community will have access to massive amounts of objective prescriptive data concerning the human mind. This data will inform our practice of architecture and urban design, which has the potential to completely transform the trajectory of the built environment. When we can comprehend how spaces affect people, we will create environments that enhance well-being more effectively than ever before. While the field of neuroscience is still in its infancy, it is encouraging to know that conversation bridging the design community and neuroscience is already underway at ANFA. The future looks mindful.

The Salk Institute

Evening at the Salk Institute

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