In the last few years, neuroscientists have come to a remarkable conclusion: the quantity and quality of open space around us—whether it’s rows of cubicles in a an open floor matrix, four walls in a classroom with a view of the next building, or a windowless treatment area—is responsible for increasing the cognitive load on our analytical and affective faculties.
In other words, the nature of our thinking, whether it is reflective, creative, emotional, rational or intuitive, is deeply influenced by our spatial environment. Space, it turns out, impacts higher cognitive functions in ways we’re just beginning to grasp.
Even more astonishing, because of the way our brains are wired, when we are relaxed, our sense of self literally incorporates and absorbs our immediate surroundings into an extended sense of self called the body schema. Neuroscience calls this embrace of objects or the immediate space around our physical body, the “body schema” referring to an integrated neural representation of the body.
The body schema and nature in the space
Our cognitive experience of body becomes one with the place we’re in, which can, in turn, further extend our sense of self into the environment at large. Because this neurobiology of sensory stimuli and cognitive perception gives rise to our sense of self and environment, such an extension of “self” is not a virtual simulation. It’s a shifting neural assessment of who we are.
This insight also reveals the hitherto hidden dynamics that formulate our experience of “self” in space, based on contextual or structural cues embedded in the places we inhabit.
Neuroscientists refer to this fluid cognitive process as embodied perception. We spread out into our immediate surroundings, or recoil from them, by recalling and matching past spatial experiences that occurred under similar conditions. If our spatial memory in such spaces is pleasant, our sensory-motor cerebral regions incorporate these attributes as belonging to our body proper.
Architectural scholars like Sarah Robinson have noted that this integrated neural representation of the body—our body schema—is plastic, amenable to constant revision, and extends well beyond the envelope of the skin. In fact, researchers concede that the border separating the body schema, peripersonal space (the space immediately surrounding our bodies), and extrapersonal space (the space outside the reach of an individual) is indeed arbitrary.
When nature is present in our environment, we can, and do, relax and literally become one with our immediate space. But when the environment is disconnected from nature, we become tense, anxious, and feel distinctly disconnected from the world around us.
Designing for perceived open space
The far-reaching implications for how our brain perceives, interprets, and modulates the environment has forced academics and practitioners alike to take a serious look at our prevailing assumptions about biophilia and the application of biophilic design principles to architectural design.
Read the entire research report, Total Recall: Cognitive Biophilia & The Restorative Impact of Perceived Open Space, to learn the ways in which architects and designers can create a more visceral visual connection to nature within the built environment.