An interview with neuroscientist Michael Arbib on his book release of “Where Brains Meet Buildings: A Conversation Between Neuroscience and Architecture”

In this episode, we have the special opportunity to meet with neuroscientist Michael Arbib who shares his scholarly insights in a conversation on neuroscience and architecture. Highlighting topics in his book on the brain landscape, mirror neurons in architecture, and wayfinding.

Rachel: Okay, well welcome to the Psychitect is In. We have a special guest today. We have Michael Arbib, who has come out with a book called “When Brains Meet Buildings, A Conversation between Neuroscience and Architecture”. I’m just gonna show any of our audience members who are gonna see some video clips the book. This has been a really exciting conversation for me to hold with Michael Arib because he, in my estimation, is one of the authorities on neuroscience and architecture and in psychitecture, as we previously had talked about, looking at how our external environment reflects in our inner world, we really need to see or just explore what the neuroscience is behind that. Without any further ado I’d love to introduce Michael and welcome to the podcast.

Michael Arbib: Thank you.

Rachel: Okay, Michael, so first of all, because your book has debuted and it just came out when?

Michael Arbib: A year ago

Rachel: A year ago. Okay, great. I’m really excited for the audience to really learn about some major concepts that you cover in the book. The first one, when you were on the panel this week for Anfa, you had talked about the bird’s nest. And I don’t know if we wanna start talking about the neuroscience related to construction and architecture, but I was always very fascinated about, you know, the construction of the bird nest and what that entailed. Can you speak a little bit to that?

Michael Arbib: Okay. So I’ve had some very good conversations with a woman in St. Andrews in Scotland, Susan, who studies bird nests. And one of the interesting things that she finds is that as she moves from place to place to look at the bird nests, they vary. What’s available in the way of materials, what sort of place in the tree can they make, the nest and so on. But nonetheless, the nests are very species specific. And so a lot of people are very excited about animal architecture, but the difference is that animals really have a genetic program, but it’s a flexible one. It allows them to do different things within a limited scheme, whereas architects have so many possibilities for the imagination.

And so I talked to Susan both in terms of what is it the birds have in their brains, but what makes our brains so different. And so that gets into the whole theme of imagination. And there I quoted a lot, a guy named Peter zk, who is a Swiss architect who’s well known for his aboves at Vals in Switzerland, but is now controversial for his new design for lacma.

But he said, when I design. Images come to mind and yet in the end, all is new. And so I’m very intrigued as a neuroscientist, and lemme make a parenthesis here. There is a fashion nowadays, especially in Brazil, for people to call themselves neuro architects. But without really knowing anything about the brain.

And so part of the design of my book is to come up with a book that tells architects more about what they need to know about the brain, but also neuroscientists who might be interested in collaborating, give them more insight into ideas from architecture. But Peter Sumter said New images old images, new ideas.

And so I got into a whole interest in the hippocampus, which is the basic brain area for episodic memory. How do you remember a particular event in your life? But also I’ve thought a lot about visual perception, and the idea is that when you see something, you are already directing your attention.

What am I interested in? What am I looking at? What sense do I make of this? And you may stop paying attention. And so I wanted to look at how the visual system interacts with the hippocampus to be able to, in the one hand, feed the hippocampus with the memories, but then in imagination, not just simply retrieve an old memory, I remember such and such, but to somehow look at a problem and all these different things flash in and little pieces begin and sort of form together until finally there’s this new idea, this new image that allows you to proceed.

Rachel: And that’s fascinating because when we’re looking at how we, or how an architect envisions space or projects an idea into what that design would look like or how somebody experiences this space, you are saying the hippocampus, this is what is at play to create memory in place, so to speak.

Michael Arbib: Yes and no. I mean, there, there was a Nobel Prize in 2014 for a man named John O’Keefe and a couple of other people for showing that there are cells in the hippocampus that are called, that he called play cells that will light up not for what the animal looks at or what the animal’s doing, but where it is in its little world and among the Anfa for the Academy of Neuroscience for architecture members, there was a lot of excitement about the hippocampus provides the g p s for the brain and so on. But in fact, what I’ve done in my own research, and there’s a little bit about it in the book, we won’t get into it here, but trying to understand many different parts of the brain must work together.

So you use a particular part of the brain as an anchor point. So maybe if you’re designing a house, maybe you say, Here’s a fantastic view. How do I place the windows and the balcony to get this fantastic view? And that provides the anchor. But if you just gave your clients the balcony and the windows, I suspect they’d be disappointed.

So then you have to start filling in the other parts of the house. So it’s the same way for the brain that we try to understand what does a particular part of the brain contribute, but it can’t do anything by itself. It’s connected to vision, it’s connected to the sense of touch, it’s connected to emotion.

How do we bring all those together? And so slowly just like. The architect might build out what goes into the house. So we build out how to understand, not just here are a couple of important areas in the brain, but really what they’re doing, how they talk to each other, and how that relates to our experience or our memory, or our behavior.

Rachel: Right. And in your book, you get more in depth into how these processes do work and interact much like you say to, you know, build a home, all the working parts that are communicating. As we know, the brain is one of the most, is the most complex system, right? Would you say one of the most complex?

Michael Arbib: It’s certainly one of the most complex on this planet. I mean, on Alpha Centuri, there are some really incredible systems, and as somebody pointed out, there are now 8 billion people. So 8 billion people with their brains is more complex perhaps than one brain.

Rachel: But that’s quite the system. Yes. And yes, so much of it is really uncharted and undiscovered, right? As much as we know and how much that you can break down in your book, which I do wanna get more specifically connected to because I really think it lays out such a rich introduction. Not even just an introduction, but really to have that conversation between architecture and neuroscience is what you emphasize and in this dialogue, how both fields, like you were saying in your introduction, can really learn and benefit from each other in the design space. I’d love to go back to how, you know, if it’s not too rote and boring for you to go into how you started to embark upon architecture as your specialization in neuroscience.

Michael Arbib: Well, it’s not, um, , so, so it goes way back. I would say perhaps, the most important pair of papers was won by Huber and Weasel, who got the Nobel Prize for their work on vision in cats monkeys and so on, where they were looking at the visual cortex, the primary visual cortex of primates, monkeys, us, and finding there were little cells that could detect oriented edges and so on. So that raised the whole question of what is it the early stages of visual processing that provides these ingredients that are meaningless? And then that challenges us, and we still haven’t fully answered it. How do those pieces, this is what this piece of the retina doing, this is what the seller’s doing, how do they all work together? So we really appreciate, oh, look what’s around me, look what’s around me. And so they started and the point was that when you, even though you got several layers up into the cortex, It’s still very general purpose. It’s sort of, here’s a patch of color, here’s an outline, here’s that one area is distinct from another, and you have to go way forward into the brain before you get to the stage where you can say, well, this is what’s happening around me and this is what I want to do about it. Now in the frog at the same time, there was a wonderful paper came out in 1959, called what the frogs Eye Tells the Frog’s brain. And what they discovered was that in that case, they didn’t have, the frog doesn’t have much of a cortex. They were going back to an area of the mid-brain called the tectum, and there they found cells that were already seeming to be relevant to action. Here’s a cell that seems to be saying, oh, here’s something moving in just the way I’d like to eat, and here’s something moving in the way that’s scary. I better avoid it. And so one of the themes I had in my early career was just modeling the brain and again, going beyond just the retina and this mid-brain area and saying, but how does the brain actually use it? Their title was, what Does the Frogs eye tell the Frog’s Brain. My question was, what do the frogs eye tell the frog? How does it know how to behave, how to grab the fly? How to escape the predator, how to go round a barrier? And so again, this idea of thinking about action in relation to perception. Not just what do I look at, but what does it mean to me? What am I gonna do with it? And so, that’s the theme that was established a long time ago. And then since then I’ve gone on now, meanwhile, as a citizen, as it were civilian, I’ve been very interested in architecture. My wife’s very interested in architecture. My son’s an architect, so when we travel, we look at interesting buildings. We think about them, but then 20 years ago, A group in Zurich put together a pavilion called ada, which half a million people visited at the Swiss Expo. And as they walked through, the system would respond to them. They’d take some ideas from the brain and animal responses. So the floor had floor tiles that could figure out that people were walking on them and what direction they were going, but they could change colors so people could recognize, oh, it’s tracking me. And then they would follow it as it sort of led them to form a group and then would interact with the group and then finally would say, Hey, time to go the next batch of visitors is coming.

So that got me interested. I talked to my students about it. We did some work on what would a brain for a building look like, but then it just sat there and then, 12 years ago, there was a meeting of the Academy of Neuroscience for architecture downtown, and I went to it and they were talking about other things. So I left up and said, Hey, what about intelligent buildings, brains for buildings? And that led to me becoming a board member of the academy. And that led to invitations to give talks. And then I decided, as I said earlier, that I felt that it was exciting. A lot of it was talking too much in very loose ways without enough people knowing the brain if they were architects or enough people knowing the architecture, if they were neuroscientists. So the book really is a 10 year project that came up with. Hey, it’s a big book. I’m sorry. It’s bigger than I expected, but I’ve tried to be readable and I’ve tried to tell people, Hey, you can hum this part. Don’t worry about it. And the idea thing, you can dip in, read a chapter or two, or a section or two and just begin to build up the vocabulary and then you can go back and read the details.

But I think in this way, hopefully we will get people who enter the conversation, not just the level of chit chat, but at a level of, Hey, I know something, and now I can ask you a question that’s detailed rather than a very generic question, and so we carry it forward.

Rachel: Right. Well, I think, you know, just being able to delve into it myself, I think it is highly approachable because it’s a compendium of just so much about neuroscience and architecture. I mean, the way that you outline the chapters, I think is very approachable and readable. For instance as I’m looking into the book and as a psychotherapist I’m particularly interested–

Michael Arbib: Uhoh. What am I gonna discover about myself?

Rachel: Ah, no! You’re not on the couch. However, you bring up in one of your chapters that I would love to expand upon and just get more feedback around mirror neurons and how mirror neurons as we know in the psychology field, and this is not the neuropsychological perspective, but how that develops empathy for our, you know, surroundings, for people, and these mirror neurons I think are just such a vague concept to me still, and furthering that, when they talk about an empathetic environment now. There’s this kind of buzz word around the empathetic environment. So I don’t know if you can speak on a little bit how the book addresses mirror neurons in architecture? Cause I think that’s really cool.

Michael Arbib: Well, the point about mirror neurons, they were discovered by some friends of mine in Italy in Parama, Jao and his colleagues, and they were exploring the area of the brain that provides the monkey with the instructions that tell the motor cortex how to get the muscles to work. And to their amazement they found that some of the neurons were not only active when the monkey did a particular thing like grasping, but when the monkey saw the experiment at grasping things, like to pick up a pellet to put on the tray so the monkey could grasp it. And so that led to this understanding that there are mirror neurons that will be involved both in how you do something and how you observe others doing it. And that becomes a fundamental idea in social psychology. But again, I go to my old obsession that it’s not just this one little piece of the brain that has mirror neurons that does it. You have to have the perceptual systems and the action systems and the memory systems that make use of it. So there was one study on empathy where they where they looked at– in this case, not the individual neurons as you can do in the monkey, but the activation in a brain scan as you can do in humans. And they found that if they looked at people whose mirror neuron area rather than the individual neurons lit up more, they would do better on an empathy scale, but it only accounted of for about 40% of the variance.

So this just tells you that, yeah, being able to recognize what somebody else is doing or thinking, or to get a sense of their facial expression, or their pose, know by their looks, if they’re confrontational or friendly. All those things contribute to being an empathetic person. Now the weird thing then, and I get into discussion of this in the book, is some people talk about a building itself being empathetic. The 19th century Germans talked about Unum, which is, we think is the same word as empathy, but the idea is you feel your way into a building so that in some sense, the mechanisms that support empathy between humans should support empathy between you and the building. But I think there’s something in there.

So to try and broach into your field, suppose you look at a building that you think is awesome, right? Now, from a psychotherapy point of view, you might think, well, part of that is that as a little kid, you looked up to your parents and so the part of the awe in a building that’s tall like a cathedral is that you are in that spatial relationship that you had as a young child.

On the other hand, as an adult, you still look up to mountains, and mountains have a lot of associations that have nothing to do, I claim, where with the basic empathy is just the challenge of looking up, climbing up them. The beauty of the view you can get when you get to the top, all these associations create something else and so on.

Rachel: That’s fascinating. So one could postulate that these early childhood embodied neural pathways that go into looking up as just an embodied response could be–

Michael Arbib: but notice, notice again the point that you have to have many brain regions. Because if it was just a matter of you see a tall person, you look up, and then you see something else that’s tall, you look up, you wouldn’t be invoking the emotional systems, the action systems and all those cultural overlays that come into how your father treats you versus how your mother treats you and so on. So it’s always that issue. And I guess there, I have to say that I think that, The dialogue is not directly between, here’s a study of the brain and here’s how we can do a better job as architects. I think it is mediated by this sort of conversation of, well, how can I enrich the ideas from psychology, content of science, daily experience that I bring to the architecture that’s going this way, and then going the other way, what new insights in neuroscience told me that, oh, I was a little simplistic before my phenomenology needs a little dissection and inspection so that I can be a little less naive in the way I go about things. And I think creating this circle between the more cognitive psychoanalytic, if you like, region, the neuroscience more about what does the brain really do and this is our experience in buildings and how does our experience in buildings inform our designer buildings?

Rachel: Right. And I think, yeah, like you’re saying, it really allows for that conversation to enrich both fields in that, just as you explain and unpack, looking up how many faculties or you know, how many brain mechanisms are at work in just that place of, you know, action oriented, wanting to go forward, feeling yourself in it. What are the culture overlays? I mean, I really appreciate how even in this book you can break down a complex system that I think is just very interesting from both these fields point of view. But I think just even in treating trauma and everything about how humans behave, maybe we are all like frogs, right? Are we just like a frog brain or haha? But I would love to go into what you had talked about in the brain landscape, you had brought up, or we had discussed this, John Ahas. This mission in rain landscape. Can you tell us some more about that?

Michael Arbib: Well, yeah. Okay. The word empathy has become, for many people synonymous with sympathy, but you can have empathy for a person in sort of understanding how they’re feeling without feeling the same way. So sympathy is in some sense that makes you feel with them. Empathy in this more general sense says you can understand what they’re doing. So if I’m an architect, which I’m not, but I’m designing for a school, I’m trying to create empathy with let’s say, four year olds, and how they’re learning and so on. And so how do I inform that there I may need to go to scientific studies, psychological neural on child development, and factor that into what I think would be nice, might not work for them.

And if I’m designing for Alzheimer’s patients in a rest home, then We’ve got to remember what they’ve forgotten and come up with what are the features of that environment, which would confuse them. I think you were present at the first UCLA Anfa meeting, where we had Neil talk to us about designing Alzheimer’s homes and one of the members of the group was recounting how they’d gone to an Airbnb basically with their mother who had Alzheimer’s, and she had a terrible time because when she came outta her bedroom at night, although the bathroom was right next door, it was on the opposite side from what she was used to in her house. And so the poor woman would panic in the middle of the night. And now I was saying in the homes he’s designed, there’s a toilet bowl in the room and there’s a very dim light that shines on it. So that if the person gets up in the middle of the night with the call of nature as we say, then as they look around, they immediately see what they need. So just that sort of trick, I don’t think the neuroscience has something to do with that, but understanding that phenomenon as a special case of other broader things about the relationship between the current stimulation and memory, and to what extent you can trade off. If you’re designing for most people, if you put in little reminders all over the place they go crazy. In the book I talk about designing an intelligent kitchen and I comment that, well, for a novice chef, having the room keep telling them, well, why don’t you get that thing and why don’t you stir that, would drive any decent chef crazy. But, then you could have an adaptive architecture where you learn from what we’ve got now, an artificial intelligence that’s informed by the work on how brains learn, to learn what happens. Then the broom would have to understand emotional expression, so it could recognize whether you are pleased with what it’s doing or frustrated with what it’s doing, so you wouldn’t have to swear at it to get it to learn. It would adapt to what you’re doing. So in the end, it would come up with knowing when you need help and knowing when you don’t need help, knowing when you’d like to have a piece of food whipped outta the refrigerator for you and when you don’t, and so on.

Rachel: It’s anticipating your needs. That’s the perfect tool, instrument, partner to anticipate your needs.

Michael Arbib: And then we get into– did you see the movie, the cartoon movie called Wally?

Rachel: Oh yes, yes.

Michael Arbib: Yeah. Well, that sort of indicates that. As a discussion I had with an architect just the other day about, well, if you go too far in having the building or the environment, anticipate all your needs, then you regress to being infantile, and you’re no longer a real human being and the robots are more human than you are. So, part of this design is what in a sense helps a person in a way that challenges them to explore their humanity, rather than ignoring it.

Rachel: That brings a good point up when I say anticipating needs, but yet in our mature adulthood, being able to meet our own needs, and how, yes, you don’t wanna be regressive in design, but much like you talked about designing for Alzheimer’s or dementia, it’s not maybe so straight up, like you’re saying, the neuroscience of doing that little trick of a light shining on a toilet right there so somebody isn’t panicked in the middle of the night, but in that conversation, what I also found fascinating is the concept of what we look at. I guess I don’t know if it’s based in environmental psychology, but the concept of wayfinding. I wonder if you can speak to wayfinding, help us define how wayfinding, the science of wayfinding, and how that does inform our design practice or even, in our homes or healthcare settings. But there’s always this kind of tension, I think, of what you’re describing and what they were saying in the panel. it’s like if you have dementia, you don’t wanna get lost. You know, to get lost can be a panic stricken experience, but also to get lost can be a wonderful thing, like when you’re walking the streets of Venice. Right? So, I think inherently there’s this balance of supporting needs while also giving that sense of exploration and curiosity. So I was long-winded in, in my asking of what your view of wayfinding is from a neuroscience point of view.

Michael Arbib: Yeah. Well, one thing that’s is really interesting neuroscience is that the hippocampus is not only involved in episodic memory, as we said earlier, but involved in navigation. That was the Nobel Prize of John O’Keefe I mentioned by knowing where you are, but there’s a distinction between knowing a neighborhood and just finding your way around it. And we talk about that by saying you have your own cognitive map and relying on something like a paper map or a computer app to tell you where to go in one case, you really need the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a crucial part of the system for building a cognitive map and using it. But if you are just following the map, you don’t need the hippocampus. Because you’re just saying, okay, I go along here till I see this sign, or I go along here till the next intersection, and that’s all you’re doing. And so a system that can just say, wait for the next opportunity of a particular kind, and do what I’m told, wait for the next opportunity of a particular kind, oh, turn right here. Okay, keep driving. Okay. Turn left here. And you don’t need the hippocampus. So that’s interesting.

There are two kinds of wayfinding. One is, The computer or the paper map is telling you what to do. The other is you are using your structured memory of an environment and your particular things that you know about that environment. So that’s 0.1 about real neuroscience telling you about the differential allocation of brain regions, depending on the way in which you do the way finding.

Now the other thing is building on this idea of the app, is that we probably will see more and more reliance in the future on augmented reality. In other words, where you wear your special glasses and little things come up telling you about the environment or showing you, and that’s gonna be interesting because it then says, to what extent do I still need signage in a building? And to what extent, you just say to your glasses, take me to the emergency room when you’re in the hospital, and then it shows you the arrows telling you which way to go. You’re not looking at signs on the wall or a path colored on the floor. And then I think coming back now, in a sense to your original question, you can imagine that for different people, They can tailor that augmented reality program. So if you’re the sort of person who, I mean, take that example in Venice, which is in the book too, is that you wander through Venice, and you come on a canal and there’s no bridge, and you look to left or right, and there’s a bridge down there so you head back into the alleys, and you come out and now the bridge is on the left. And that can be charming if you are in pure tourism mode. But finally, you know, you look at the watch and say, oh my God, the hotel’s about to stop serving dinner. And then you could turn on your goggles and suddenly you’ll see the arrows pointing your way back to the hotel. So you could have the mode of where I’m just enjoying exploring, don’t bother me or, you know, Walter Benjamin in talking about Paris, talked about the flair, right? The person who is enjoying just the street scene and wandering and looking at the buildings, looking at the people.

So I think that idea is, How much is the architect going to continue to provide? How much will this personally controllable augmented reality provide? Interesting trade off.

Rachel: And I think there’s so many studies going on now. I was talking to a professor even about, working with addiction and showing an image of a bar in vr, you know, and how an addict’s cravings would be stimulated, right? And just showing how environment, but then going into like an aquarium, I mean, that’s simplistic, but calms you down. So there’s something about that augmented reality can help, really, you know, change our psychological experience, right? So that’s a whole nother conversation and I’m hoping to have you back on this podcast because the wealth of information that you carry and have, and the panels that you’re on, I think we could go for like hours as well as many different topics. But what I wanna make sure, because our time is running short here, is that we really do emphasize this book, because I’m just really such a fan and so excited. It’s so great. I’d like the readers to know where they can buy your book.

Michael Arbib: It’s published by Oxford University Press and it’s available just about anywhere, on Amazon or your favorite distributor. If you have a favorite retailer, you can order through them or you can go online. On Amazon Kindles about $18 and the hardbacks are only 35 bucks. That’s a pretty good deal.

This is not psychological advice, always consult your licensed healthcare providers, and never disregard or delay medical advice based on information provided in this blog or articles. Our goal is to educate, guide, consult, and empower clients regarding mindfulness, design with intention, and experience to create spaces that reflect an elevated psychology of wellbeing.