Experience is in the Eye of the Beholder

On the Significance of the Subjective Component 

My Hello Happy design research grew from an instinctive recognition of the spatiality of places. Given this, I believe that urban designers and planners have the ability to manipulate the qualities of a place with the intent of positively influencing the sensations, perceptions, emotions, and decision-making of people encountering that space.  

I began my investigation by reading about Positive Psychology, progressed into the realm of neuroscience, and recently discovered the fitting field of neuroaestheticsa new study with huge potential to guide the future of cities and public spaces. 

Is it More Art than Science? Or more Science than Art? 

Is it art or science? In a word, the answer is “Yes.” Neuroaesthetics is a form of empirical aesthetics, a scientific approach to studying perceptions of art.  

“Neuroaesthetics is the study of how aesthetic perception, production, judgment, appreciation, and emotional response are produced and experienced from a neurobiological basis.”

(McClure and Siegel, 2015

As the study of neuroaesthetics developed, a related specialty in neuroscience emerged to focus on architecture (neuroarchitecture). More recently, the term neurourbanism has been used to describe the interdisciplinary study of wellbeing in relation to city life. Uncovering these fields, I believed I had found a home for my niche focus on urban design for happiness. 

When my curiosity dug deeper, however, and I began to discover the emphasis that neurourbanism seemed to place on the use of biosensing technologies, I found myself questioning if this was indeed the right direction. 

Over-Designed and Over-Studied

In search of a science-informed approach to create happier places, I was beckoned toward neurourbanism. Much of what I started to uncover, however, was intensely focused on bionsensing technologies like mobile electroencephalography (mobile EEG). Neurourbanism studies felt at once uniquely human (given the data inputs), but completely devoid of the magic that comes with making spaces feel human. 

This was a catch-22. As I was eagerly learning about neurourbanism, I grew dismayed by this reliance on biometric data. Biometric sensors can reveal when and how the neurons in our brains are firing in different environments and in response to different elements, but physiological metrics can sometimes seem so exacting and precise. It can be difficult to argue with data, but does this biometric data reveal enough to confirm the causality of measured responses? 

Causality and Relational Spaces 

An understanding of brain functioning provides a useful baseline for interpreting and predicting human behavior. However, when relying on this information exclusively, our view of the person-environment relationship risks ignoring broader social determinants. 

Informed exclusively by data from biosensing methods, it’s easy to imagine a future in which the creative act of designing space is replaced with an impressive yet sterile, one-size-fits-all process that’s based on a handful of measured experiences of a select few individuals. No two places are alike, nor do any two people emerge from the same realities. Therefore, we must find ways to consider contextual factors. Without considering the broader context of a space, it’s impossible to isolate place-specific determinants of stress or distress. 

When we ignore social factors, we focus too much on localization and correlationism, thereby reducing spaces to mere containers for population-level data and ignoring the significance of social influences. Considering relational spaces, on the other hand, offers an interpretation that’s dynamic, connected, and operates across multiple scales. Might there be room for nuances in a science-informed design practice after all? What would it take to cultivate spaces that embrace data-driven and technology-enabled insights while also embodying social structures, individuality, and human spirit? 

Just as I was beginning to think that neuroaesthetics and neurourbanism (which seem narrowly focused on biometric data and lacking consideration for the individual’s unique perspective) might be a less significant part of the Hello Happy equation than initially imagined, I stumbled across some compelling voices. 

Preserving the Idiosyncrasies of Spaces  

In my work, I’ve always believed that people are the experts of their own lives. By extension, I have to believe that someone’s life is the best backdrop against which to understand their physiological responses to external stimuli.  

In the article, From Urban Stress to Neurourbanism: How Should We Research City Well-Being?, Pykett and her colleagues warn that believing all people think, act, and feel the same in response to the same stimuli risks reducing human behavior to a model of stimulus (Pykett, 2020).  While neuroscientific research helps us understand aesthetic preferences, we should be cautious to apply such findings as rules of thumb across the board. Rather, we need space to accommodate both individual and group (read: societal or cultural) differences in aesthetic preferences. Beyond neurons firing in our brains, there are a great many factors that influence how we perceive and feel in different environments (e.g., genetics, personality, sociodemographic characteristics, et al.). Our experiences are informed by our personal lives, our history, and the societal structures around us. 

Spaces, some researchers argue, should be understood as layered experiences that include both built and social environments. We have to move from a behaviorist mindset (which isolates and associates specific responses to given stimuli) and instead adopt a retroductivist mindset (which seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms that frame one’s experience). 

Insights from Interpreting Experiences 

Including the word “experience” in the title was deliberate. Two of the more interesting pieces I read this week focused on experience. First, Pykett and her colleagues dissected experience as including three realities: empirical, actual, and real (Sayer, 2000, as cited in Pykett, p.8).  

  • Empirical: that which is experienced directly 
  • Actual: that which occurs but is not necessarily experienced 
  • Real: “the deep structures and mechanisms that generate phenomena” (Pykett, page 8). 

Biometric methods of analysis focus on what’s happening in the brain as a response to a specific environment, but without much consideration for the contextual or emergent factors at play. The backdrop of life, generally—even though it’s not always part of someone’s empirical (lived) reality—is influential in how someone experiences space, but is infrequently considered in neurourbanist studies (Pykett, page 9).  

As we interpret responses to elements, we must consider what are referred to as the “structures or powers of objects.” Essentially, objects embody a sort of structural legacy that stems from what we know of the world around us. This legacy informs experiences and interpretations. The structures of objects are rooted beyond our immediate surroundings and are therefore less observable than the direct physical stimuli which seem to evoke responses, but nevertheless have real impacts. 

Every experience, we see, is set within multiple realities. Furthermore, our experiences are simultaneously processed across multiple levels: aesthetic, mental, and emotional (Dewey, as cited by Hekkert). We process the aesthetic experience through our senses, the cognitive experience in our thoughts, and our psychological experience in our emotions.  

When neuroaesthetic studies rely principally on biometric inputs, the interpretation is limited by a behaviorist mindset—one which assumes cause-and-effect. Instead, a retroductivist mindset can affort the ability to honor the multiple realities (empirical, actual, and real) and the multiple layers (aesthetic, cognitive, and emotional) which influence perception. 

A Mixed-Methods Approach to Understanding Perceptions of Spaces 

This week, I’ve come to appreciate how biology, alone, cannot provide an adequate assessment of our experience of things, spaces, and places. While I see the value of biometric studies, heading too far in that direction threatens to sacrifice the distinct qualities of human-designed and interpreted spaces. I grew weary of implications for cities of the future. 

Fortunately, neurourbanism can honor inputs both from life sciences (e.g., neuoroscience) and lived experiences (e.g., sociology and anthropology). With this in mind, we can employ a mixed-methods approach that pairs biosensing (that is, using technology and life sciences to conduct spatial assessments of people’s experiences) and anthropological techniques (or narrative, qualitative assessments which position user responses within a broader historical, geographical, and cultural context). 

To the oft-used biometric devices (like the mobile EEG), we can add narrative interview data, interpretation of lived experiences (interpretive phenomenological analysis), postphenomenological accounts, biomapping visualizations, etc. With such a ‘biosocial methodology‘ we can, as Pykett and colleagues explain, “reconnect the self, the social, and the spatial.” 

In Short…

While I believe urban design has much to gain from a better understanding of neuroscience, our preferences for and aversions to different design elements cannot be interpreted without consideration of broader contexts. 

After reading the Pykett et al. and Hykkert pieces, I’ve maintained an optimistic level of enthusiasm for neuroaesthetics and the potential to inform the design of happier places!


Resources: 

Jessica P., Osborne, T., & Resch, B. (2020). From urban stress to neurourbanism: How should we research city well-being? Annals of the American Association of Geographers, 110:6, 1936-1951. 

Hekkert, P. (2006). Design aesthetics: Principles of pleasure in designPsychology Science, 48(2), 157–172. 

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