The Parthenon, Athens, Greece

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

As we head into the new year I thought it timely to consider  the seasonal concept of ‘out with the old and in with the new’. Here in relation to beauty coming in and ugliness heading out.

Beauty has been a focus of artists, poets and philosophers for  millennia. In the 1950s the psychology guru Professor Abraham Mazlow proposed  that beauty was one of  the seven necessary qualities  for being human. In his now famous ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ he listed the following: 1, Physiological needs – 2, safety needs – 3, love/friendship needs – 4, esteem – 5, knowledge/curiosity – 6, beauty/aesthetics – 7, realisation of personal potential.

When it comes to beauty in architecture Le Corbusier said; “You employ stone,wood,and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces: that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say :”This is beautiful . That is architecture. Art enters in….”

Though often-times considered to be subjective, neuroscientists have today given a precise measurement to beauty, within three decimal points. Using various proportions of  a particular sculpture, neuroscientists mapped the area of the brain that relates  to art appreciation; from this they achieved an independent variable, isolating proportion from other influences. It was found that the area of the brain that responds to beautiful images  was particularly stimulated when the image had a ratio of 1:0.618. In ancient times, this was a  ratio that the Greek mathematician Pythagoras associated  with  great beauty. Today this ratio has been  found  in the patterns on a leaf; whereby we  can  predict the shape a tree will become. Since   their unveiling these predictive patterns, called fractals,  have been  found in cloud formation, lightning and the shorelines of  our landmasses. They  are to be found  in the particle field of our expanding universe, in our DNA  and in the folds of our brain. Fractals are used in our day to day working world, from Tokyo and London, to New York  and Wall street fractal graphs are used to anticipate/predict  financial markets. Some grande design is at work in which  the portal for beauty has a part to play.

In a previous article I mentioned that Professor Mazlow did  a simple low-tech experiment with beauty. He created 3 rooms, one was designed to express beauty, another ugliness, the third was plain. He recorded the impact of each room for the visitors and site supervisors, who viewed  the same picture  in each room. When they colated the results it was found that in the beautiful room the participants   were relaxed, whereas in the ugly  room  they were irritable. It has since been found that our experience of ugliness can fire up our motor neurons, our system is preparing to leave. In Mazlow’s ugly room the participants  may have fired up these same neurons,  and in not immediately leaving, their nervous system responded with irritability, releasing stress hormones.

So what happens for us if our room is ugly, perhaps filled with clutter, something many of us suffer with. If  we don’t clear it, will we fire up stress hormones? Some of us conceal our clutter in cupboards or in a spare room, and  assume that if  we can’t see it, it won’t  bother us; the same if we store excess in a lock up around the corner. Sorry to disappoint, but out of sight is not out of mind, that ‘stuff’ is held as a reference in our brain.

Ever noticed that if one moves the toaster, the kettle or some other daily item,  we still go back to where they used to be – again and again. The old location is ingrained in our neural theatre. Just as that toaster and its location has a reference  in our brain, so does our clutter. You see we have a neural process that helps us identify the location of our body in space; and this process is also involved in the location of objects, including the toaster and our clutter. Objects located in space and the stuff in our cupboards or stored around the corner, develop  a place of reference in our brain.

So, heading into 2017,  instead of – ‘out with the old and in with the new’; how about we hold to the things that speak of beauty within and good feelings, and let the rest go.



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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