Behavioural science and man-made architectural environment
It all starts with the beginning of 'Homo Sapiens'. The evolution of the genus 'Homo' has had undoubtedly the greatest influence on the world we live in now. The addition of the term 'Sapiens' to it has been far more influential. 'Wise Man' is what we named ourselves, as in Latin we say'Homo sapiens'. A little boastful though; have we done any less to justify it? We have not only survived, unlike Homo neanderthalensis, Homo habilis, and other members of the genus, but 'wise men' now are capable enough in controlling the major changes of this very planet. Natural environment shapes the behaviour of mankind as well. Behavioural change leads to the change of social order. Along with the lifestyle, living arrangements transform and so do our built cities.
Built structures have come a long way. Long gone are the days when our forefathers fought with mammoths to collect bones for erecting shelters. With the discovery, modification, and alteration of mud, brick, stilt, yurt, timber, shipping containers, prefab, 3D printed houses, etc technological solutions to our physical comfort in diverse seasons and environments have rapidly advanced. Functionally and ergonomically, the architectural forms and structures are constantly in a motion of progression. Yet in this constant flow of advancement, psychological health today needs more attention than ever.
Human behaviour is constantly being affected by the surrounding built forms and surfaces. The famous statement of Winston Churchill- "We shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us" is not only an observation today, it is rather an ultimatum. In the early world, indoor and outdoor activities of human beings were somewhat balanced. The resting spaces, tool-making workshops, prayer spaces or painting studios etc were sensibly designed as there were practical aspects such as protection from weather. Hunting, agriculture, even schooling in most cases took place outdoor. The activities of the current world are contrariwise shifting more towards indoor. The current era of capitalism, increasing use of the cell phone and the internet, corporate and competitive strategies etc contribute largely towards this change. With the increase of population, our world is likely to run out of space in the near future.
According to the survey data of 'The National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS), 2001,'we spend 90% of our times indoor today. An office, a school, a market or our very own home, every built infrastructure is an artificial environment planned by the architects and the designers. Functional requirements being the priority, some definite set of standards, codes and regulations have directed the designers to arrange the infrastructures. However, insufficient knowledge in behavioural science has been leading us to a very unpredictable future. Following old models for explaining today's functional requirements is a misleading concept. The language of old models does not permanently connect with the next generation of users. Old models and systems are themselves outcomes of behavioural studies in specific periods. Behavioural science does not only promise a better understanding of design but it explains show and when our surrounding spaces stimulate our senses.
Response to psychological stimuli assures the formation of a healthy and well-designed environment. ''Aesthetics'' a term commonly used by designers and artists, was appropriated by German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in the 17th century as 'the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of the intellect'. The relationship between a subject and an object is to be judged following how the arrangement nurtures the subject's senses. Similarly, the relationship between human behaviour and the environment is the result of a symbiosis between them. Surrounding walls, floors and ceilings promote psychological and sensory development. These psycho-sensory experiences of light, colour, texture, shape, proportion, temperature, sound, and smell in a man-made architectural environment remain unanalyzed most of the time. The purposes of these features are more than just ensuring comfort and decoration.
Design practice without realizing design's influence on our biology is contributing in mental health degradation today. Mental health statistics shows a rise in depression, anxiety and stress around the globe due to countless identified and unidentified sources. Several research platforms have been formed worldwide with thinkers of different backgrounds to discuss the significance of environmental psychology, visual ergonomics, neuro-architecture, psychosomatics, etc in architecture.
Scientists ascertain that stimulation of our senses needs to oscillate throughout the day. Even the perfect stimulation desires to vary for achieving a balanced psychological condition. Hence, the monotonous repetition of spaces creates unsatisfying stimulation of senses. Today in the common minds of 'wise men', the impression of 'room' is confined to a rectangular volume only. The learning rate in schools declines because according to the survey, traditional classroom models currently engage only about 20% of students. Depression after long office hours grows often because decreased sun exposure reduces the brain's release of a hormone called serotonin.
Psychologists proved that sharp and straight surfaces increase a sense of fear and threat due to activation of a brain area called amygdale, while curve and looped spaces do the opposite. Our covered feet rest on flat floors of built surfaces (tiles, wood, mosaic) for about 90-95 percent of the time on average, whereas research shows barefoot on grass texture only for 30 minutes could stabilize the circadian rhythm of our body. Chirping birds replaced by vehicle horns in cities can no longer motivate a poet into poetry; nevertheless, the proper sound design of the adjacent auditory objects may reduce emotional stress to a notable extent. Touch, sound, scent and every other sense are capable of reinforcing our life experiences. Only through in-depth behavioural studies, the existing disorders could be reshaped.
For tackling mental health issues, behavioural science is recognized as the hidden answer to architecture. The absence of knowledge in this sphere limits our design sensibility. American physician John Spencer has quoted 'If you do not change, you can become extinct'. This change towards better wellbeing is possible if we, the 'wise men' practice design referring to our behavioural traits. Behavioural science in architecture is thus, a prerequisite for the survival of tomorrow.
The writer is a lecturer, Department of Architecture at Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology