Michael Gazzaniga began his essay in Neuron by saying, “…scientists ask how the brain causes human beings to perceive, think, behave, reproduce, eat, drink, and all the rest. Enormous advances have been made toward this goal, and today, the excitement in the field is palpable.”
After exploring ways in which these advances might be applied to architectural settings, I have come to believe that the key to understanding how our brains enable our minds to experience architectural settings is consciousness. There are a wide range of studies and opinions on what consciousness is. As early as 1912, William James said that consciousness is a process whose function is knowing.
While we gnaw away at understanding the elements of consciousness, we may produce some clarity that eventually enables us to incorporate human experiences of architectural settings directly into the neural networks of designers. This would be a multifaceted design process, built on a foundation of new knowledge and resulting in a much richer and more satisfactory context for our lives. Designers will be consciously able to understand what is, today, merely an empathetic guess.
In their book, Edelman and Tononi (2000) argue that a scientific approach to the still elusive concept of consciousness will gradually reveal that this mysterious process is knowable. They believe that we will eventually understand how consciousness arises from particular neural processes resulting from the interactions between our brain, our body, and the world. We would next be able to identify the key properties of conscious experiences and understand the role of qualia in neural terms and how to connect these scientific descriptions of consciousness to human knowledge and experiences. At that point, the way designers basically “think” about occupants experiencing the spaces they are designing will be changed. The details of how these processes change will only unfold once neuroscience research progresses to provide a deeper knowledge base than what is now available.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet whose works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, humanism, and science, said, “I call architecture frozen music.” His statement was probably intended to convey how much of the emotional response he had to architectural settings was the equivalent of those he experienced with music. Most visitors to one of the great cathedrals of Europe are overwhelmed with the “beauty” of the interior setting on first entering the nave—in fact, cathedrals are designed with a narthex (entrance) that is small to prepare our minds for the awe inspiring experience that follows as we enter the nave. If an organ is also playing as we enter, this music will be included in the dispositional memory record we create. Visual, auditory, and emotional content are merged in our consciousness. The sounds of the music being played will be included in the memory we recall on our next visit to a cathedral.
Dispositions are described by Damasio in his book The Feeling of What Happens.He indicates that dispositions are records that are “dormant and implicit.” These memory records that lie just below the surface of consciousness include our perception of the object (e.g., a cathedral), the sensory aspects of that object (such as color, shape, texture), as well as records of the motor adjustments that accompanied the gathering of the sensory signals and emotional reactions we had when perceiving the cathedral and hearing the music. When we return to a previous locale once recorded in a disposition (i.e., our next visit to a cathedral), we allow the disposition to make explicit the stored implicit information. We recall not just our sensory experience during the previous visit, but our past emotional reactions. According to Damasio, this is why we can be conscious of what we recall inside of our head as much as what we actually see, hear, or touch in real time. It’s probably the “stuff” of which dreams are made. However, my experience would suggest that places in our dreams are often “embellished disposition”—that is, they are more elaborate than the actual place we once visited.