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Neuroscience and Real Estate

Posted by Tom Flounders 4 months ago

Neuroscience, put simply, is the collective term for the study of the nervous system and, in particular, the brain. Rising to prominence in the 1950s and 60s as a result of the discovery of the first (effective) psychiatric drugs and the establishment of credible links between brain damage and associated symptoms/behaviours, advances in technology have pushed neuroscience further than was initially thought possible.

The concept of applying neuroscience (in all but name) to real estate development is not a new one – urban planners in communist East Germany, for example, are considered to have consciously designed town layouts to give residents a sense of being watched… Contrast this with the ‘Urban Thinkscape’ project in West Philadelphia, U.S.A., with puzzles and games implemented at bus stops in an effort to engage and develop children, ultimately with a view to bridging the gap between children from lower and higher income families.

We all, on a basic level at least, have some experience of this concept. Perhaps when walking into a potential new home and immediately dismissing it, or announcing that it ‘just feels right’.

When leaving a city break with a particular affinity for the area in question, without being able to put a finger on why.

Perhaps when buying the item that you don’t want, from the aisle you never intended to visit, as your local supermarket subtly ferries you through its labyrinthine maze.

 

Neuroscience can provide explanations to these unexplained behaviours, thereby indicating just how to achieve that certain pushing of our buttons. The modern predilection for open-plan offices, for example, accords with  Harvard’s Edward Wilson’s explanation of humanity’s historic fondness for wide open spaces, providing a clear view of potential threats. Should such threats emerge though (perhaps in the form of a call with a difficult client or an overbearing workload), smaller, protected spaces suddenly become far more comfortable to work in, meaning ‘quiet rooms’ are an essential element of the design.

Colour schemes are relevant (with blue, being the colour of the sky during daylight hours, sending messages to the brain to be alert), as are ceiling heights; Joan Meyers-Levy of the University of Minnesota christened this the ‘Cathedral Effect’ – high ceilings encourage high-level problem solving and discussion, lower ceilings lead to assessment of the finer detail.

Advances in technology have permitted the application of neuroscience to grow further, by way of augmented and virtual reality. Through the use of a virtual reality headset that simultaneously monitors the brainwaves of the user, scientists can obtain a real-time assessment of how an individual is reacting to a proposed development. Araceli Camargo, a cognitive neuroscientist, used London’s Millennium Bridge as an example: the bridge wobbled due to a failure to understand the hypothesised user’s footfall - it was assumed that the average person would simply pass over it, in accordance with its raison d’etre. In reality, many crossers stopped to admire the view and take photographs, leading to pressures upon the structure which were not taken into account during design.

Whether neuroscientists will become as crucial to future developments as architects and builders remains to be seen, but it is clear that scientific study is being taken seriously, with Lendlease and AXA IM among those commissioning reports in recent years. Developers, also, are increasingly recognising the virtues of designing around the eventual occupiers. Speaking after the receipt of Property Week’s inaugural ‘Property Wellbeing’ award, Nick Lee of CEG, developer of the Kirkstall Forge project in Leeds, stated: “Everything from its design and build, to its setting and sustainable travel offer are conceived to make the building’s occupants happier and healthier; which in turn has a positive impact on productivity. This building truly is different by design.”      

This post was edited on Aug 15, 2018 by Karolina Labrenz

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