What makes us enjoy spaces, including outdoors?
reading time: 6 minutes
interview with Stefano Calabrese
Neuroscience has the answers. The human brain has always favoured outdoor structures, or rather, there is nothing so capable of balancing the right and left hemispheres of the human brain as external protective structures.
This is one of the interesting results that have emerged from the new neuroscientific “Design for Well-being” study, the fruit of a long-standing collaboration between Pratic and the staff led by Professor Stefano Calabrese of IULM University and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia.
“When we observe the contemporary design world – from architecture to interior design to objects – it is tempting to think that creation is governed by the analytical left hemisphere of our brain, which focuses on the useful, practical and functional,” remarks Stefano Calabrese. “However, looking at the whole bihemispheric brain, it is possible to draw up a neurohistory of human design, in which everything – production of objects, languages, social systems, aesthetic formats – is the result of a competition between the two hemispheres, the right and the left. A competition conducted through shapes, colours and architectural compositions.”
The close connection between the characteristics of the left brain and the salient aspects of Western modernity highlights a mechanism in which technology tends to reduce the meaning of the socio-environmental context and the physical and emotional dimension of life, which is what allows the right hemisphere to position the – precise, but fragmentary – information processed by the left hemisphere within a single framework.
The rediscovered role of the right hemisphere is evident above all in design’s new attention to contexts and eco-sustainability.
In this new scenario, the application of neuroscience to architecture is fundamental, since designers are increasingly interested in constructing buildings with features designed to promote the well-being of their inhabitants.
“Recent neuroscientific experiments,” continues Professor Calabrese, “reveal that the ‘panoramic’ and contextualising visual-spatial mechanisms of the right hemisphere are sensitive to horizontal linear stimuli and to the specific layout of the environment – open or closed, curvilinear or rectilinear –, influencing the feeling of pleasantness and emotional assessment, from states of surprise to states of fear and defence. The right hemisphere also detects a space’s degree of visual potential: if a space is open and also allows you to see into the distance, you will really like it since it allows you to feel safe in the environment and to see the surrounding landscape without being seen.
By contrast, the focal and detailing visual-motor mechanisms of the left hemisphere process vertical linear features and environmental landmarks and determine abstract and categorical spatial relations such as the height or lowness of an environment, evaluating so-called motor comfort: space appears beautiful and safe to us if it gives us the possibility to approach or quickly move away from it.”
The neuroscientific “Design for Well-being” study published in June reveals that the pleasantness of spaces depends on the impression of inclusion that they create, on their ability to welcome us inside them.
In addition to the motor and perceptive potential of a space, i.e. the possibilities that it gives us to move freely and to survey the surrounding habitat with our gaze.
A pergola, a shielding structure, offers both openness and protection, confirming that the aesthetic pleasure generated by an environment derives from the fact that it is perceived as satisfying and reassuring for basic needs.
Again, it is a question of the visual range that enables, in evolutionary terms, survival, allowing an individual to see into the distance, hide, identify threats and potentially decide on approach and defence manoeuvres.
Stefano Calabrese teaches Narrative Communication at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Semiotics at IULM and NeuroHumanities at the Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples. Together with his research group he applies neuroscientific methodologies to fields traditionally linked to humanities and directs an advanced course in “Narrative Medicine”. He has published “Anatomia del bestseller” (Anatomy of the Bestseller – Laterza, 2015), “Manuale di comunicazione narrativa” (Manual of Narrative Communication – Pearson, 2019) and “Destra e sinistra al tempo delle neuroscienze” (Right and Left in the Age of Neuroscience – Mimesis, 2020).
Photo Courtesy: Practic