January 22, 2020

How the Application of Neuroscience in Design Can Separate Us from Artificial Intelligence

Intuitively, most people can see a well-designed space and say, “Yes, that looks nice.” But what is it that makes us respond this way? Why do some spaces appeal to our senses better than others? And in an era of artificial intelligence, how can designers tap into those sciences to design spaces that help us continue to develop our humanistic traits and skills?

Frederick Marks, president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, shares that “neuroscience is a multidisciplinary branch of biology that deals with the structure or function of the nervous system and the brain. This includes psychology, physiology, anatomy, molecular and developmental biology, neurochemistry, cytology, and mathematical modeling.”

Understanding how we learn helps us create environments that are conducive for continued growth. Photography courtesy of Herman Miller.

According to Marks, “Neuroscience is an emerging field whose focus is primarily, because of need and available funding, on the prevention of disease and treatment. But what is being learned has potential secondary applications for design and architecture. The environments we live, work, and play in are changing our brains and our behavior all the time. As explained by one neuroscientist, while the brain controls our behavior and genes control the blueprint of our brain, our environment can modulate the function of genes and, ultimately, the structure of our brain.”

Because this research shows that design plays such an active role in the continuous formation of our brain, the science behind how we respond to and interact with different environments is coming to the forefront. And its applications are fascinating. Let’s take a look.

The importance of designing spaces that cater to our continued desire to learn

According to architecture, design, and planning firm Gensler, one of the keys to scientifically backed design is an understanding of how our built environment can best support cognitive development. Separate from the research conducted by the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, research led by Amrita Kulkarni and Vincenzo Centinaro of Gensler Chicago suggests that “‘creative’ behaviors like critical thinking, problem-solving, empathy, and emotional intelligence are foundational skills of tomorrow’s workforce and are traits that make us intrinsically human.”

Spaces that foster creative behaviors like critical thinking, problem-solving, empathy, and emotional intelligence are foundational to design. Photography courtesy of National Office Furniture.

These researchers have deducted that, contrary to popular belief, learning is not a fourth work mode beyond focus, collaboration, and socialization, but instead it is a continuous path that occurs every moment during our workday. And Kulkarni and Centinaro suggest there are four distinct kinds of learning dimensions we transition to throughout the day: training-based, mentorship-based, chance-based, and platform-based.

Designing for each learning environment

Training-based learning traditionally takes place in formal or structured learning environments such as classroom settings designed for CEUs or certification. According to Kulkarni and Centinaro, designers focusing on training-based learning need to adapt their designs to prioritize cross-training and forge connections among learners. These types of learning scenarios should offer an open-concept feel, with the ability to have breakout sessions, as seen with activity-based workstations.

Contrarily, mentorship-based learning happens in more informal ways, in environments like management offices or even in cafeterias or common places. Organizations have an opportunity to amplify learning by demonstrating commitment, offering protected time, coaching on critique styles, facilitating dialogue among unexpected groups, and encouraging opinion sharing openly throughout the workplace. To facilitate this, we often see designs that prioritize water cooler conversations or spontaneous touchdowns, complete, of course, with amenities and technology like smart boards, teleconferencing capabilities to loop in remote workers, and adjustable workstations for groups to congregate as they see fit.

In chance-based learning, people learn in unplanned and unstructured ways by creatively thinking about problems they face. These creative learners often request environments filled with visualization and co-creation tools so they can problem solve wherever the creativity strikes. Again, a popular method here is activity-based workstations and unassigned seating, allowing learners to position themselves where they can collaborate best.

And lastly, in platform-based learning, curators need to boost participation through seamlessness, friendliness, persistence, and diversity in available platforms. This type of learning occurs in formal settings such as fireside chats, town halls, or even in online forums, resulting in the need for a variety of workstations, from conference rooms to even less formal settings like café workstations or even outdoor work spaces.

Deloitte’s 2018  Future of Work study suggests that 65 percent of our future jobs—those that today’s primary school children will grow into—don’t exist yet. Because of this, Kulkarni and Centinaro suggest that skills that separate us from artificial intelligence—things like critical thinking, creative problem-solving, empathy and emotional intelligence, systemic understanding, interdisciplinary collaboration, camaraderie and fellowship, comfort with ambiguity, and iterating contexts—are all foundational skills of tomorrow’s workforce. By fostering these skill sets through design elements that encourage learning, we can continue to nurture the very elements that make us human.

In this spirit, Marks leaves us with this prediction for the future of neuroscience and design: “As knowledge grows in neuroscience and provides insight into how and why neurons fire in response to certain conditions, data also will increase relevant to the built environment. The hope is that a branch of neuroscience will emerge that is dedicated to understanding how humans interact with space and place. Designers are ultimately in the business of creating experience. The more they may know about pattern statistics and visual perception, how sound waves enter the ear, how the skin reacts to various textures and temperatures, what smells initiate pleasure, and what is retained in our collective memory, the more they will be proficient at their craft.”

This article originally was published in Bellow Press and was reposted here with permissions.

Amanda Schneider is President of ThinkLab, the research division of Interior DesignMedia. At ThinkLab, we combine Interior DesignMedia’s incredible reach within the architecture and design community with proven market research techniques to uncover relevant trends and opportunities that connect back to brand and business goals in a thought-provoking, creative, and actionable way. Join in to know what’s next at thinklab.design/join-in.

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