curves

Curved path in Central Park, New York City / Wikipedia

Why do images of nature have such a positive impact on us? Is it the colors? The patterns? Or the shapes? At the Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA) conference in New Orleans, Hessam Ghamari, a graduate student in environmental design at Texas Tech University, is trying to figure out the impact of contours on our brain behavior. Ghamari and his colleagues have explored the reaction to both sharp and curved as they relate to objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. As part of the experiment, they also tested to see whether prepping people to think they were in a hospital had an any impact on their response to the shapes.

Ghamari said Texas Tech won a grant to review all the neuroscience literature related to nature. They were particularly interested in one study from Harvard University researchers, who showed different behavioral responses to sharp and curved objects. They found that “sharp objects created a feeling of threat. People disliked them on a primal level.” Ghamari said, “that was a big a-ha moment, but they were only looking at objects. What about three-dimensional environments?”

Texas Tech put 36 adults in an fMRI machine to test their “behavioral responses and neural activations” to sharp, balanced, and curved objects, architectural interiors and exteriors, and landscapes. There were three sets of participants: one group was in their 20s, another in their 40s, and the last in their 60s. Stock images were selected if they were extreme representations of sharp or curved or a mix. Participants were shown multiple versions of tons of image, in black and white, high frequency, low frequency, or as a sketch. Each participant got to see each image for just 2 seconds. They were given two clickers — one to indicate like and one to express dislike.

Participants were then put through a pre-screening anxiety test. In the priming session, they listened to “hospital sounds” and were shown images of a hospital.

Ghamari said when asked — so when they provided voluntary responses — people preferred curved in all categories. For landscape, a whopping 80 percent pressed the like button. “Curves are just more pleasing.” (That’s something Frederick Law Olmsted and other landscape architects figured out ages ago).

At the same time, the researchers created a brain map that was an average for each category. They looked for any change in activation in the amygdala, which handles emotions and fear. The found that with objects and landscapes, the response of people’s amygdalas were consistent with the Harvard University findings: sharp objects create a sense of danger. However, with interior and exterior architecture, the amygdala was activated more when there were images of contours. This was a strange inconsistency, at least when dealing with architecture as participants were thinking about a hospital.

In a follow-up survey done without the priming, there was a “significant difference in participants’ judgements.” As Ghamari explained, “the expectation of what a hospital should look like created a different response. Context makes a difference.” More research is coming on what shapes people prefer in different contexts, which seems important.

In another presentation, we learned from Cherif Amor, chair of interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar, that in learning environments, “warm color light is least satisfactory for those with ADHD.” Students with attention deficit issues preferred cool whites or natural daylight. He and his colleagues determined this because “cognitive areas were most activated with cool white light.”

Amor said “neuroscience is a beautiful field. How we behave is an environmental paradigm. Why we behave is a neuroscientific paradigm.” One doubtful audience member said, “the only thing this study proves is that people have brains.”