By Jonah Lehrer
We spend our lives inside buildings, our thoughts shaped by their walls. Nevertheless, there’s surprisingly little research on the psychological implications of architecture. How do different spaces influence cognition? Is there an ideal kind of architectural structure for different kinds of thinking?
At the moment, I think we’re only beginning to grasp the relevant variables of design. Christian Jarrett, for instance, highlights a new study on curved versus rectilinear furniture. The study itself was simple: subjects viewed a series of rooms filled with different kinds of couches and lounge chairs. The results were bad for fans of high modernism – furniture defined by straight edges was rated as far less appealing and approachable. Sorry, Corbusier.
Or consider this 2009 experiment, published in Science. The psychologists, at the University of British Columbia, were interested in looking at how the color of interior walls influence the imagination. They recruited six hundred subjects, most of them undergraduates, and had them perform a variety of basic cognitive tests displayed against red, blue or neutral colored backgrounds.
The differences were striking. When people took tests in the red condition – they were surrounded by walls the color of a stop sign – they were much better at skills that required accuracy and attention to detail, such as catching spelling mistakes or keeping random numbers in short-term memory. According to the scientists, this is because people automatically associate red with danger, which makes them more alert and aware.
The color blue, however, carried a completely different set of psychological benefits. While people in the blue group performed worse on short-term memory tasks, they did far better on those requiring some imagination, such as coming up with creative uses for a brick or designing a children’s toy out of simple geometric shapes. In fact, subjects in the blue condition generated twice as many “creative outputs” as subjects in the red condition. That’s right: the color of a wall doubled our imaginative power.
What accounts for this effect? According to the scientists, the color blue automatically triggers associations with the sky and ocean. We think about expansive horizons and diffuse light, sandy beaches and lazy summer days. This sort of mental relaxation makes it easier for us daydream and think in terms of tangential associations; we’re less focused on what’s right in front of us and more aware of the possibilities simmering in our imagination.
Lastly, the psychologist Joan Meyers-Levy, at the Carlson School of Management, conducted an interesting experiment that examined the relationship between ceiling height and thinking style. She demonstrated that, when people are in a low-ceilinged room, they are much quicker at solving anagrams involving confinement, such as “bound,” “restrained” and “restricted.” In contrast, people in high-ceilinged rooms excel at puzzles in which the answer touches on the theme of freedom, such as “liberated” and “unlimited.” According to Levy, this is because airy spaces prime us to feel free.
Furthermore, Levy found that rooms with lofty ceilings also lead people to engage in more abstract styles of thinking. Instead of focusing on the particulars of things, they’re better able to zoom out and see what those things have in common. (It’s the difference between “item-specific” versus “relational” processing.) Sometimes, of course, we want to focus on the details of an object or problem, in which case a claustrophobic basement is probably ideal. However, when we need to come up with a creative solution, then we should probably seek out a more expansive space. Especially if it has blue walls.
Needless to say, we’re only beginning to grasp how the insides of buildings influence the inside of the mind. For now, it’s safe to say that tasks involving accuracy and focus – say, copyediting a manuscript, or doing some algebra – are best suited for short spaces with red walls. In contrast, tasks that require a little bit of creativity and abstract thinking benefit from high ceilings, lots of windows and bright blue walls that match the sky. The point is that architecture has real cognitive consequences, even if we’re just beginning to learn what they are.