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Influence of Architectural Stimulation on Human Cognitive Response

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Architectural design has always been interdependent on human psychology. All human beings are unique and so are their abilities to perceive & absorb from their environment. Human Psychology starts developing as soon as a baby is conceived till death and keeps evolving from birth to infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood to old age and to death. And so does human needs and in-turn human behavior. An infant needs smaller architectural spaces, as per his scale while an adolescent will require intellectual yet social spaces. Architectural Design industry has been transforming since beginning as per customized user needs, however. an efficient spatial planning stimulates and gets affected by human cognition. As small as light, color, texture, smell and as large as shapes, materials, built forms, open spaces, etc can both positively or negatively influence human response towards his/her surroundings. Similarly, human psychology, social circle, economic status and political environment can also alter natural or manmade architecture.

A human central nervous system meticulously process all the smaller details to frame a larger picture in totality. Our brainstem is responsible for involuntary functions such as reflexes, breathing, cardiac functioning and relays information to & from brain to the body. The nervous system depends on our senses for emotion formation, learning, memorizing, motivation, mood patterns and responding to various action form built- unbuilt spaces.

This paper focuses on myriad psycho-social responses due to diverse architectural vocabulary and vice-versa. It highlights how psychological study can be effective in structuring of architectural design elements & principles to demonstrate a model of physical & psychological well-being of humans. It elaborates on how architecture can change the social model by making it more interactive or isolated, depressed or healthy. The scope of this paper is limited to the use of human sensory system in the experience of architecture. However, this paper concludes with probable solutions and amendments that can stimulate human cognitive response towards his surroundings.


Psychology is the science of human behavior and mind. It is influenced and developed by the environment of the human being. That environment can be of the domestic front, social milieu, economic grade, educational genus or of the work setting. And, these environments act as the backdrop for the human conscious, sub-conscious and unconscious mind. Architectural planning of the built & unbuilt spaces, in all these milieus greatly contour human psychology either directly as a physical contact node or indirectly as an influence. They are dominated by many simple and complex stimuli such as light, color, texture of materials, sound & noise, fragrances & odors, shapes of built-unbuilt, etc.

All these factors, when deficient or present in excess results in extreme behavior responses. For example, depression due to lack of natural light, irritability due to high noise level in domestic or work environment, calm & healing atmosphere by use of cool colors, elevated rush of adrenaline hormone due to presence of warm vibrant colors such as red/orange, lack of sufficient illumination resulting in slower intellectual development of students. Use of colors can infact, make a built space appear larger or smaller than its actual physical dimensions and same by illumination or presence reflective surfaces. People sub-consciously map all the cognitive elements present in their surroundings by their observations and also by perceptions developed since infancy, in-turn framing their sense of safety, security, well-being & comfort in that natural or man-made environment.


A lot of psychologists & philosophers have modulated theories related to how human reacts, responds, and evolves in various surroundings pertaining to architectural values. Such theories have been adopted in various architect’s design styles where they stimulate user’s needs. Evidence based designs are prevalent in institutional, commercial, residential & hospitality sectors that play with human cognition.


AS per Gestalt Psychology or Gestaltism, the philosophy of mind given by Berlin School of experimental Psychology, whenever the human mind perceives an idea, image, form or shape, the whole surrounding or form has a reality of it’s own, independent of it’s parts. It implies that human mind collects information via all senses and projects a comprehensive image of his/her environment.


Post-Structuralism theory revolves around the inter-dependent relationship between humans, surroundings and the process of interpreting meanings. Post-Structuralism is closely connected to the theory of structuralism, which claims that the true character of this (in this case, architecture & elements of the built environment), does not lie in these things themselves, but rather in the relationships which one builds between them and the meanings one gives them (Nessbitt, 1996: 450). It explains that every human being has his own unique perception generally dominated by his usage or requirement.


Perception is the ability of any human being to interpret information received though various senses from his direct-indirect environment. Every perception is distinctive and can be unreasonable yet subjective. According to Van Kreij’s Philosophy, sensory perception of architectural spaces consists of three major concepts:


Sense of touch that is generally three-dimensional. One’s sense of depth, perceived through the sense of sight, is verified by hapticity. Achieved in architecture through forms, materials & textures.


Concept of exploring surroundings through movement of sight or physical. In architecture, movement plays extremely important role and is either actively accomplished by fluid design patterns, e.g., in Museums or exhibition galleries, circulation flow as per functions e.g. in healthcare building in which segregation of departments is achieved inspire of interconnectivity among them, multilayered yet static flow, e.g., in hospitality buildings, etc.


It refers to the phenomenon that transfers sensory information from one sense to the other. It is often seen as a combination of all the input from the senses in the mind. For example, use of tactile flooring in visually impaired institutes, makes them feel the texture difference and transfers their haptic feedback to their nervous system. Also Van Kreij (2008) goes so far as to conclude that the synesthetic characteristics of materials are of more importance in one’s perception than the acts of seeing, hearing, tasting and touching.


Kevin Lynch explored the urban surrounding through movements. As per his theory, almost all senses are utilized via navigation in an architectural space. This theory is powerful in achieving and holistic experience accomplished through multiple sensory stimulation. He defines it as:

“…that quality in a physical object which gives it a high probability of evoking a strong image in any given observer.” (Lynch, 1960: 9)


This theory by Norberg-Schulz given in Genius Loci – Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, elaborates a methodology for place making and proposes that the essential purpose of architectural spaces is to transform a site into a place & to uncover the meaning of that place. Architecture strengthens the existential experience, one’s sense of being in the world, and this is essentially a strengthened experience of self. (Norberg-Schulz, 1966: 41, 422).

As per this theory, human being orients oneself accordingly as per the architectural space.


In order to stop the alienation of architecture and reintegrate the human being into the built environment, designers ought to strive towards a higher awareness of multi-sensory cognitive perception in today’s architectural world. By understanding of how a human responds, architects will be able to stimulate human mind to increase human productivity, elevate positive response, satisfy user needs and uplift human-world interface. Since long, architectural elements of built-unbuilt of both internal & external physical spaces of human-environment interface have affected human cognition & behavior, in-turn speculating Human Responses, Emotions, Moods & Actions. This direct-indirect influence can be either positive or negative.

However, an architect creates man-made environment & retain or develop natural surroundings complying to the user needs. Thus, the surrounding physical environment & human responses are interdependent. All these physical elements invigorate all five senses of human being, i.e. Visual influence via materials, colour, light, illumination, bodily movements; Audio Sense via sound or noise level; Olfactory Sense through fragrances or odors; sense of taste and sense of touch through textures & tactiles.

The sensitivity of these heightens as soon as there is modification or transformation in either of them, in-turn influencing the cognitive response. The Gestalt School of Psychologists, reveals the importance of the relationships between stimuli for the human senses and the contextual environment.

Human Cognitive responses can be temporary, permanent or sequential. For example, childhood environment scaffolds childhood memories, and that same human as an adult may desire to recreate same architectural atmosphere at domestic front by using same colours, interiors, open playful spaces, fragrances of flowers in neighborhood. And same insecure childhood may lead to desire for an enclosed & caged interior spaces with dark gloomy illumination. Hence, here is a role of an architect to balance the physical environment as per the user oriented needs to improve his/her physical & psychological conditions. The five most common senses can be used in varying degrees and even subconsciously as elaborated below.

The Visual Sense

The visual sense is the strongest stimulating sense, among others, in affecting & crafting human behavior in any architectural physical unit.It is through vision, that a human being sees the nature of any space, their shapes, sizes, forms, mass, texture, colours, and depth.


Different frequency of daylight (that comprises of sunlight & skylight) creates different physical stimuli. A human eye can see colors & objects lying within the electromagnetic wavelength of 400-700 nm light spectrum. Within this range, human eye can differentiate between one of the light’s main property – color. Color recognition from the light spectrum, due to its reflection, refraction, absorption or transmission through the form or space, results in heterogenous human responses & reactions such as irritability, happiness, joy, love, hopefulness, excitement, encouragement, frustration, anger, sadness, isolation, depression, restlessness, etc.

Objective & Subjective images are created in human mind by play of light in our architectural surroundings. And our perceptive environment, may not be a real space. Perception of spaces in totality is due to the visual characteristics only active under presence of light.

Light influences the quality characteristics of architectural elements and also their specifications. Any space which is full of light & shadows is rich with visual forces awn is sensitive, both physically & visually. Light controls the physical properties of spaces such as their their color, texture, depth, form, and strength.

Optimum illumination in any architectural space balances the following:

Human Needs

For example, Productivity of an office employee can be positively transformed by a combination of sufficient daylight & artificial illumination. Playfulness of light in paediatric waiting areas can sooth kids while controlled illumination in Wards lead to healing. Similarly, lack of optimum lighting Operation theatre can result in serious negative repercussions. In short, light can greatly contribute to human’s sense of well-being.

Architectural Considerations

The major purpose of lighting in any built-open spatial design can be deduced to compliment the presence of myriad shapes, sizes & colors.


Colour is the resultant outcome of physical interaction between light source and any space or object. It is second most important stimuli that helps human cognition to index events in conscious or sub-conscious mind. It galvanizes human perception with respect to variables such as time, location, shades &shadows, materials & textures of surrounding elements of different characteristics. It controls emotions & regulates cognitive reactions. In the manifestation of each colour changing to another colour, each colour will display its essential darkness or brightness in regards to another colour. Reversing this natural order will cause colour incompatibility. Every colour has three changeable characteristics: hue, luminance and saturation.

Hue is the quality of colours that determines its place in a series of colours (from red to violet) equivalent to the light of different wavelengths in the visible spectrum. Red, yellow and blue are primary colours and as they form the basis of other hues they are also called major colours. Secondary hues include orange, green and purple which are obtained from mixing equal amounts of two primary hues. Tertiary hues are those which are obtained from the mixing of primary and secondary hues. Primary colors attract children and generally are used in primary schools, paediatric spaces, neurotically challenged patients, for sensory stimulation.

Luminance is the second quality of colour and determines the relative degree of its brightness and darkness. In the colour cycle, yellow is the most luminous colour (light gray to nearly white) and purple is the least luminous colour (dark gray to nearly black). More than required luminance can result in glare, irritability and lack of visibility.

Saturation is the third quality of colour and determines its purity level. The purity of the hues of the colour cycle is one hundred percent but in nature we can rarely find a pure hue.

Bright walls and bright backgrounds of cold colours decrease the viewer’s body temperature briefly and warm colours momentarily increase the body temperature. Visually, warm colours stick out and cold colours bring back. Generally, colours are shining forces and energies, which consciously and unconsciously have positive and negative effects. Few examples of colors and their architectural interpretation:

Pastel yellow gives the impression of sunny, friendly, soft. The message in the interior space is stimulating, brightness, cosiness.

Red is arousing, passionate, provocative, fiery, and aggressive. The message in the interior is aggressive, advancing, and dominant.

Green is balancing, natural, calm with the message of simplicity, security, balance.

Black is authoritative and powerful and can evoke strong emotions that can be overwhelming.

White projects purity, cleanliness, open, vast, and neutrality.

Pink: Positive: Physical tranquillity, nurture, warmth, femininity, love Negative: Inhibition, emotional, physical weakness. – Ceiling: Delicate. – Walls: Intimate, sweet, feminine.


Positive: Intelligence, communication, trust, efficiency, serenity, duty, logic, coolness, reflection, calm.

Negative: Coldness, aloofness, lack of emotion, unfriendliness.

– Ceiling: Celestial, cool if light; heavy, oppressive if dark. – Walls: Cool, distant if light; encouraging, deepening if dark. – Floor: Feeling of effortless movement if light; substantial if dark.


Positive: Physical comfort, food, warmth, security, sensuality, passion, abundance, fun.

Negative: Deprivation, frustration, frivolity, immaturity

Ceiling: Stimulating, attention-seeking.

Walls: Warm luminous.

Floor: Activating, motion-oriented.

Purple: Royalty, wealth, sophistication, wisdom, respect

The Audio Sense

The sound measures the mass, scale, dimensions, distances from or within a space. It gets reflected, transmitted or absorbed just like light. Different forms or shapes of spaces reverberate to sound differently and can significantly influence mood of users.

For example; a busy restaurant with hard surfaces will create greater sound reflection, making conversation more difficult. If sound is completely absorbed it can feel flat and lifeless; while if sound resonates or echoes, the mood can become sharp and anxious. In Warren Brodey’s experience with blind people (1965), he has found that different sound qualities can create different moods. These moods would be appreciated by the visually impaired as well as unimpaired users and is thus worthwhile to note in this study. A space with hard-plastered block walls accentuates higher tones, making users sound as though they were speaking sharply, and therefore, increasing fatigue. An acoustically considered space with soft surfaces, such as carpet, becomes what Brodey refers to as ‘wet- blanketed.’ This is where any noise within a space is dampened (Brodey, 1965 in Walden, 2008: 18).

The Sense of hearing can be extremely stimulating for visually impaired people by use of water flow & cascades of different heights, speed, patterns etc to mark turns or entries in the built space.

The Olfactory Sense

This is one of the most neglected sense when it comes to application in architectural design despite of its ability to create & invoke memories. Inducing fragrances in personalized spaces can result in imitation of architectural design with sentimental value invoking memories from a human’s subconsciousness, for example, Smell of wood for a person brought up in hilly region or smell of sea. It also plays a major role in directing visually impaired people or mentally challenged patients in built spaces.

The Sense of Touch & Tactile

This sense holds equal importance as sense of sight and comprehensively ables an individual to distinct the characteristics of spaces such as depth, texture, mass, weight, density, temperature, form, pressure, etc. It engages the sensations & actions simultaneously and imparts 3-dimension to other senses.

For example, tactile flooring orient psychiatric, pediatric or visually challenged people. Change of surfaces is also used to visually & physically differentiate between transition of spaces based on functions.

The Sense of Taste

It is easy to assume that the sense of taste has little or no effect on one’s interpretation and experience ofa space. However, according to Pallasmaa (2005: 59), “there is a subtle transference between tactile and taste experiences.” Vision can be transferred to taste and various details and hues have the power to induce oral sensations.

The connection between taste and smell must also be mentioned. Gibson (1966) combines the two into a single sensory system in which neither can be provoked without the other. His logic in this connection is based on the type of information they receive. Ultimately, they are both seeking the same information, one by eating solubles and the other by breathing airborne molecules of solids (Gibson, 1966 in Bloomer and Moore, 1977: 33).

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