Neuroscience, Architecture, and Human Happiness

Author: Rosalyn Wells

Amid the rows of identical houses on streets that curve, wind, intersect, and dead end on miscellaneous cul de sacs, are the Americans who have seemingly attained their perfect life in the suburbs.  This life, one with front and back yards, free and ample parking, and short drives to big box stores, is purported to hold the promise of happiness for many.  But are these spaces designed to make us feel happy, safe, and fulfilled?  Neuroscience major, Andrew Parrazzo ‘18, spent his last semester at Notre Dame trying to answer that question through an independent study course titled The Intersection of Placemaking and Neuroscience.

Parrazzo sought to explore the link between cognitive science and the built environment with help from faculty advisor Marianne Cusato ‘97 and ‘17 EMBA, Adjunct Associate Professor, who advised on placemaking and the societal impacts of architecture and urbanism.  Parrazzo paired Cusato’s expertise with his neuroscience background to explore the correlations between the disciplines and their impact on the construction of hospitals and patient outcomes.  

Prior to this independent study course, Parrazzo had no formal introduction to the ideas of placemaking.  In order to develop an understanding of urbanism and architecture, Cusato led him to foundational texts Vitruvius:  The Ten Books on Architecture, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, and several other books and articles on design and architecture.  Through this research, Parrazzo was ignited by the emerging research field that explores the ways that architecture can positively impact physical and mental health.  

Parrazzo’s study led him to the conclusion that the human mind is wired to enjoy architectural elements such as clearly defined boundaries, landmarks, and grids - all tenants of traditional architecture.  He suggests that, although preferencing these architectural attributes in more contemporary buildings and spaces has become somewhat outmoded, that society could benefit by employing them more consistently.  He says that by including these design elements, we can play to the strengths of the human mind instead of creating challenging environments that are ultimately unhealthy for humans.  Good placemaking and urban design is good for the body, the community, and the brain.

Cusato backs Parrazzo’s suggestion with the observation that “we tend to treat the symptoms [that arise from poor urban design] instead of the disease.”  Cusato asserts that Americans are off track in our understanding of the effects of space.  We have failed to address the ways that spending increased time in cars and being isolated from others, both inadvertent facets of suburban life, are linked to feelings of loneliness, purposelessness, addiction, depression, obesity, and ADHD.  She advocates for places that offer options for driving, public transportation, biking, and walking to support holistic health for all.

During Parrazzo’s final presentation, he offers an image of a Dutch woonerf, streets that are designed to be safe and inviting for walkers, bikers, and drivers.  These streets are both beautiful and functional.  In order to explain why we feel safer in these spaces, Parrazzo explains the concept of thigmotaxis.  Thigmotaxis asserts that humans, like mice, when introduced to an unfamiliar wide open space, prefer to stay close to the perimeters until we are more comfortable in the space.  The brain likes physical barriers and focal points.  The woonerfs are lined with buildings on both sides and provide a clear direction to move ahead thus lessening any confusion about where to walk and in which direction.

Strip malls, Parrazzo claims, are almost the opposite of woonerfs.  They are collections of stores that are lined with parking lots, often with no barrier between humans, cars battling for parking spots, and cars on adjacent streets. Parrazzo notes that at any moment, a person could be hit by a car zooming by on the streets or a car in the parking lot. With no walls, barriers or focal points, these places invoke feelings of alert and danger instead of safety and comfort.   

Landmarks are also an important aspect of feeling comfortable and safe in a space, says Parrazzo.  Citing a study that confirmed that the hippocampus, the area of the brain that computes spatial memory, grows larger as we learn to navigate new spaces - he asserts that the mind continually uses landmarks and grids to build these cognitive maps.  Landmarks provide focal points and grids and allow humans to understand their position in space.  Grid layouts are intuitive to the human mind, thus they make us feel good and safe, whereas curvilinear layouts produce confusion.

Parrazzo asks, near the end of his presentation, “Why are we still building cities like Houston?”  He then suggests how we might pivot and begin fixing such intersectional problems.  Because zoning and redlining laws often prevent us from building spaces that are more conducive for our minds, he suggest that we need major policy change.  To bring about this policy change, Parrazzo believes that people need to know more about the ways space affects the mind.  We need more academic research, he says, and we need mainstream reporting of these findings.  

Cusato adds that in order to address the issues that arise from the correlation of health and space we need to involve all institutions that are involved with building our spaces including local governments, lenders, developers and insurance companies.  The demand for healthier spaces is there, we just need to build a coalition to create it.