Glass House designed by Philip Johnson

’Design in Mind’ is a series of articles based on my research into the synergy between our brain and life enhancing architecture and design.

In my introductory article I mentioned that colour does  not simply offer a fashionable palette for  a decorator, that certain colours can get nursing mothers lactating and others lower our body temperature. We have shapes that affect our adrenals, proportions that  influence our creativity and beauty that boosts our  immune system. We also have evidence that our environment  can be strategically set up to help regenerate our cells.

With regeneration in mind  as autumn leaves  turn gold in preparation for a  spring renewal, I  thought I would  share something of our potential for cellular renewal via  design and our environment.

We tend to associate regeneration, particularly rejuvenation, with the beauty industry  or the  skills of a plastic surgeon, rather than a strategically designed environment. Yet evidence on the latter goes back decades. A trial took place at Harvard nearly 40 years ago,where for one week  elderly  participants  were  accommodated in a building set up to offer meaningful associations to their youth. The surrounding building and its décor, as well as the attire worn by the staff and residents, contributed to the overall  experience; memorabilia was used to induce and reinforce nostalgia  of an earlier  time in their lives. Within one week the majority of the participants experienced a reversal of their visual thresholds, improvements to their cognitive ability and IQ. Their manual dexterity was enhanced, some even discarded their walking sticks, they turned back their neurobiochemical clock.

Without our contemporary knowledge on our brain’s ability to renew and reorganise, back then the trial was overlooked. However, six years ago  the same professor worked with the BBC on a programme involving geriatric celebrities. Using  a strategically contrived  environment, the results were similar to the Harvard study decades before. The participants reversed their visual fields, manual dexterity  increased, cells rejuvenated. For an understanding of the above, it helps to know that we see with our interpretative brain.

To start at not quite the beginning on this,  the result of seeing with our brain is that we bring  emotive based reasoning into our experience. Thus for each of us our  perception of what is before us, even in the same setting,  is  different. We will even perceive  a simple brown cardboard box differently, personal associations and mood-altering opiates come into play. The  opiates  line our visual pathway, the link between our eyes for perspective and the association cortex  of our brain for interpretation.

So we are not only neurologically designed  to  see what we feel and reason is before us, and each of us differently; with the help of mood altering opiates we are also designed to bring imagination into the equation, so we see what we ‘believe’ we see. More surreal  than this is that real and imagined share similar neural pathways. The result is that we don’t just see  what we ‘believe’ we see – we  see what we see  as if our imaginings are real. Maybe read the  last three paragraphs again!

That we see what we believe we see – as if real, explains why some people who suffer from hay fever, sneeze if they see a plastic flower. It triggers  a histamine response – as if real. This also  helps explain something of the Harvard trial where, reinforced by the environment’s narrative, the participants bought  into their  youth-filled years in present time; the imagined became real for them – at the cellular level. I should mention that we do not  respond  randomly to an environment’s narrative, it has to resonate deeply for us, there has to be  context and relevance.

In the 1950s the renowned psychology Professor Abraham Maslow did a low-tech experiment where he took three rooms and furnished them as the ugly, the average and the beautiful. In each he hung the same portraits, he wanted to see if visitors in the different settings felt the portraits projected ‘well being’, or not. The beautiful room was dressed with works of art and fine furniture, and though there was a large window, the illumination was calculatingly subdued. The ugly room by contrast was cluttered and painted ‘grey’. Torn light shades with over-bright bulbs hung from the ceiling and odd bits of furnishings were strewn across the floor. The average room was neat and clean, presenting no real personality of its own. They had supervisors in each room, and as the visitors walked through it was found that what the supervisors and visitors’ experienced, varied from one room to the next, yet in a similar fashion. Visitors felt the portraits hung on the walls in the ugly room seemed tired, and the supervisors generally felt irritable there. In the beautiful room the visitors found the same portraits vibrant, and there the supervisors were relaxed. The average room recorded only slightly better results than the ugly one.

Fast forward 50 years to 2006, and neuroscientists did  a similar study. With the benefit of modern technology they measured neurobiochemical changes  in the brain and recorded that  ugly paintings activated the motor cortex. The motor cortex fires for movement. Reflect on Maslow’s study where the supervisors felt irritable in the ugly room and the visitors felt tired. If ugliness can fire up the motor cortex and seemingly motivate us to leave, what happens if our room is ugly, our motor cortex fires and we don’t leave the room or change the decor? Is that putting stress on our system, producing chemicals that affect our cells in an  erroneous manner? We know the system goes two ways, towards regeneration or away from regeneration; our system is not set to pause, it is always switched on. It is always moving one way or the other, day in -day out, moment to moment.

So for now keep in mind that: we bring reasoning, emotions, subjectivity and imagination into our experience, an environment can rejuvenate our cells, we see what we ‘believe’ we see and,  if there is context, our experience is as if real. Then with the above and colour,proportion, shape and  more  triggering all manner of chemicals, and  beauty alone boosting the immune system, recognise how vital it is to create an environment that, at the least, taps our deeply personal sense of beauty.

I look forward to sharing the ongoing  journey of Design in Mind.


Rosalyn Dexter works in architecture and design with a focus on her research into our neurological response to our environment.  She has published four books on design. Her latest book, Design is a Mind-Field’, is out now. Rosalyn can be reached on

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