Ann Sussman’s brain works really, really well and I am quite envious. On a call we had last fall she told me about her research in a field she calls cognitive architecture, which is about how people’s brains are affected by the built environment. In her research at the Boston College of Architecture, she’s been tracking eye movement as it relates to buildings. She found that people find buildings that resemble faces to be particularly familiar and therefore pleasing. On the other hand, modern buildings give people trouble figuring out where to settle their eyes. They are harder to relate to since they don’t reflect much of our natural environment. She finds the eyes search for certain familiar patterns and when finding none, it causes stress.
What she has realized through her work is that beauty is much less subjective than what we once thought. Nearly everyone agrees on what makes a beautiful face, the symmetry, health, and age of one’s face are the best predictors of someone’s overall physical health and ability to successfully reproduce. We are attached to those that give us the best shot to successfully extend our line.
The same is true for the places we find beautiful. Ann explained that certain settings mimic the places in which the human brain developed. It isn’t that a place is pretty, but that it makes us feel safe, it’s familiar and comforting. Those places make us feel better because our brains evolved to be in similar settings and the opposite is true. When you find yourself in a landscape you find unattractive or ugly, what you are actually experiencing is the discomfort of being in an environment that doesn’t make sense. These environments are foreign to our brains and put us on edge.
When we find ourselves in such settings, we are getting a little dose of stress and discomfort. Just like our bodies, we can handle a little pain. We can carry a heavy load for a couple of feet, but when it turns into a couple of miles, we fatigue and we collapse eventually. We can handle certain surroundings for short periods, but if forced to live in such an environment, it takes a toll on our mental health.
When we let something go, it begins to stress us out. We know we need to take care of it, the obligation looms in the back of our minds. This is because our minds prefer order. When we experience scenes of disorder, it creates a little stress. An overgrown yard, a building with a sagging roofline, and a rusty car. This disorder takes hold and sets us on edge. A little bit of disorder is manageable, but too much becomes overwhelming.
It is the same for landscapes that feel unfamiliar. Auto-oriented landscapes are disconcerting, unfamiliar, and alien. These settings put our brains on high alert and stress the body and mind.
So when a person is surrounded by disorder or finds themselves in an unsettling landscape, they grow stressed. As mentioned above, this doesn’t have a huge impact over short periods. But as the heavy load breaks down the body, unsettling surroundings begin to break down the mind.
Think about a place, in this instance, it’s a downtown that is full of collapsing buildings and broken sidewalks. Weeds growing up through those cracks. Litter in all the tree wells, old campaign signs lingering in empty flower beds. You drive through downtown to get some gas. You instantly feel lower for being on this street. You make assumptions about the people that live there. You fill up your tank and you are anxious to move on down the road.
Now, what if that was your home? That scene you couldn’t wait to escape from is the setting in which your life takes place. Your surroundings are always out of order. Your environment is clearly collapsing. The very scene your eyes take in every day is fatiguing your mind. The sights and sounds of your place are stressing you out every single day.
Well-designed cities improve our mental health. The order, the beauty, and the scale, all set our minds at ease. These places make us feel warm and welcome. Poorly designed places deteriorate our mental health. They lead to stress, loneliness, and depression. When we look at a place we make assumptions about who lives there and this makes perfect sense. We can glance down a street and make a fairly safe assumption about addiction or crime. People dealing with these issues didn’t all decide to locate next to one another in some sort of savvy real estate scheme. No, they were all shaped by the same environment and that environment lead to unfortunate outcomes.