Neuroscience and the architecture of spiritual spaces

The Academy for Neuroscience and Architecture has as its mission to “build intellectual bridges between research on the brain and those who design places for human use”. That sounds promising.

In addition to the architecture of K-12 learning spaces (less-cluttered, better-lit classrooms promote learning) and hospitals (green walls help healing), the group is focusing on a topic of interest to Numenware readers: religious spaces. If this research succeeds, then as their web page says:

future generations of school children, hospital patients, office workers, and worshippers in sacred places will have their environments more carefully tuned to their needs and desires.

One wishes this group all the best. As Alison Whitelaw, one of its founders, wrote: “The prospect of designing rooms, buildings and public spaces that are in tune with human biology could have far-reaching social, personal and economic benefits.”

Current priorities for the group apparently include doing research (neuro-imaging of people looking at buildings) and doing databases. What seems to be missing is any hypotheses about the potential relationship between neuroscience and architecture, whether sacred or profane. One section of the group’s website does include some “hypotheses” but they are limited to the circular, such as “the sequence of brain activations as one processes a place of worship may bring about a spiritual feeling”, or “a [religious] space may evoke a spiritual feeling, resulting from the mystery or surprise of the arrival, that becomes a meaningful religious experience.”

I must admit to some doubts about this enterprise. I have visited the new Cathedral here in Los Angeles and it is a competent, pleasant building. But I can’t imagine the building itself stimulating some kind of spiritual experience. A spire points to the sky—reminding us of God. But this begs the question of what we think God is or why he is in an “upward” direction. The experiences of people attending masses in that building, I would think, are dominated by the music, the words, the rituals, the symbols, and the religious authority figures, not the shape of the building.

Remember that church buildings as we think of them are specific to the types of large-scale organized religions that evolved in the political and economic environment in the West. Wide swaths of world-wide religious behavior do not involve buildings at all, other than perhap the shaman’s hut. So any neurotheological theory of architecture would first have to explain what’s different about the brains of billions of people who do just fine without any architects around to design big buildings for them to worship in.

Timur’s astonishingly beautiful Registan buildings in Samarkand include mosques, but were mainly about him strutting his wealth and power (as is the case, indeed, with many other “religious” buildings). Pachacuti, the legendary Incan ruler, built the fabulous gold-encrusted Coricancha temple in his capital Cuzco, but it was not a place of worship per se; instead, the mummies of the dead rulers were kept there. Thailand’s Emerald Buddha is housed in a temple of moderate architectural interest, but the main focus, it goes without saying, is the statue itself.

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