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Buildings, beauty, and the brain: psychological responses to architectural design

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People today spend most of their lives in buildings. The design of the built environment can impact mood, behavior, and wellbeing. The evidence discussed in Chapter 1 suggests that the perceived beauty of an environment may influence wellbeing more than any single design variable considered in isolation. Some researchers have leveraged empirical methods of neuroscience and psychology to identify aesthetic features of architecture that support healthy psychological experiences. However, this line of inquiry faces persistent challenges in terms of a) measuring the environment itself and b) evaluating acute psychological responses relevant to design. This dissertation addresses both of these gaps in the literature by using pattern theory and image statistics to quantify aesthetic properties of architectural scenes (Chapters 4-5), and by advancing our understanding of how specific neural networks and psychological processes contribute to architectural experience (Chapters 2-3).

Chapter 2 outlines the first neuroscientific model of architectural encounters. According to this aesthetic triad framework, three large-scale neural systems generate aesthetic experiences in the built environment: sensorimotor, emotion-valuation, and knowledge-meaning systems. The chapter explores how design features interact with each of these neural systems to influence mental states and behaviors and investigates how emerging technologies like virtual reality and brain imaging could be leveraged in future research on the neuroscience of architecture. Building from this neural model, Chapter 3 investigates the core psychological dimensions of architectural experience within the context of the aesthetic triad framework. In a pair of experiments, participants rated architectural images on a series of diverse psychological measures. A Principal Components Analysis yielded three components that explained most of the variance in ratings: fluency (ease with which one organizes and comprehends a scene), fascination (a scene’s informational richness and generated interest), and hygge (extent to which the scene reflects a warm, personal environment). Whereas fluency and fascination are well-established dimensions in assessing natural scenes and visual art, hygge emerged as a new dimension in relation to architectural scenes.

In Chapters 4 and 5, the focus shifts from measuring the brain to measuring the environment. Specifically, these chapters investigate whether people are innately attuned to nature-like visual patterns in architecture. Chapter 4 introduces Christopher Alexander’s theory of natural structure and reviews past literature linking biophilic design and wellbeing. In Chapter 5, a series of experiments are presented suggesting that subjective perceptions of naturalness are strongly predicted by low-level visual features of architectural scenes. Furthermore, naturalistic scaling and contrast features – two of Alexander’s proposed patterns of natural structure – are found to reliably predict similarity evaluations (derived from an image arrangement task) and aesthetic preference ratings of architectural scenes. The results of a final experiment suggest that preferences for nature-like architectural patterns may be associated with feelings of comfort and excitement that such patterns generate.

This research adds to a growing body of literature showing how aesthetic qualities of architecture impact human experiences. Novel theoretical frameworks are proposed for researchers to contextualize empirical studies on the psychology and neuroscience of architecture. New methods of image analysis are also used to quantify aesthetic properties of the built environment and to investigate how nature-like patterns in architecture influence psychological experiences. Together, these chapters provide new insight into the psychological influence of our physical surroundings, and they offer new research tools to inform the design of beautiful and brain-friendly buildings.





Steemers, Koen


Architecture, wellbeing, environmental psychology, biophilia, neuroaesthetics, aesthetics, psychology, christopher alexander


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge International Scholarship (Cambridge Trusts)