Neuroscience and Society: Buildings and the Brain

Panelists Justin Hollander, Eve Edelstein, and Margaret Calkins listen to a question from the audience. About 1/3 of the people in the audience were architects.

“Design saves lives,” Eve Edelstein says. She and her two fellow panelists at a recent neuroseries event at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC, described research and real-world examples of how changing aspects of our built environment can improve people’s mood, performance, and way-finding skills.

When Edelstein was at school studying clinical neuroscience, “neuroarchitecture” was defined as architecture of the brain; now the definition has changed, “and we’re asking how people—how brains—interact with buildings,” the influence of buildings on the brain, the mind, and the body. Now research director for the Human Experience Lab and Gadget Lab at Perkin+Will, she focused her talk on aspects of sound and hearing.

“We need to start changing acoustics for not just building performance but human performance,” Edelstein said. She described emergency rooms in which the sound level averages 80 decibels (equivalent to a jet flying overhead). Normal speech is 55 db and you need a 20 db difference to distinguish speech from noise, so “imagine trying to hear the difference between adrenaline and aspirin with the sound of an airplane engine going on around us,” she said. Citing the number of people suffering “preventable adverse events” in hospitals as around 8 million, she said if designers could alter just 1 percent, by making the areas quiet enough to hear better, “that would be in this country, each year, 80,000 people.” Continue reading

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