Neuroscience and what it means for Interior Design

Nikki Hunt, Principal of Design Intervention tells us why neuroscience is a most exciting topic for discussion and how she integrates it into her interior projects.

  • Neuroscience and what it means for Interior Design

Interview by Janice Seow

Over the years, scientific data has emerged time and again to deliver compelling evidence on the powerful ways in which our environment affects us on a physiological level. Colour, lighting, and even texture and sound have an impact on brain activity and consequently our bodily functions, and how we feel and behave – and it can be measured.

Nikki Hunt, Principal of award-winning firm Design Intervention tells us why the subject of Neuroscience is important to the field of interior design, and the ways in which she applies its findings to her projects.

Nikki Hunt
Nikki Hunt, Principal, Design Intervention

You have a deep interest in the relationship between neuroscience and interior design. Can you explain why you feel it’s important? 

We humans are affected by the environment both mentally and physically. We experience our environment through our senses, so by stimulating the senses we can influence how we are impacted by the world around us. Changes in light, space, geometry, scents, colour, texture and sound impact us in real physiological ways. Advances in neuroscience have enabled scientists to measure brain activity, and metabolic and hormonal reactions to our habitat, proving that design choices impact our health, behaviour, our moods and even how we interact with others. Simply put, targeted changes we make to our homes can affect us in real and measurable ways.

Bedrooms that encourage sleep will boost our immunity. Dining spaces that foster interaction will bring us closer to loved ones. Spa bathrooms that promote relaxation will help alleviate stress. Targeted design choices can improve concentration, make us more creative or more friendly. Of course, design cannot cure us of disease, raise our IQ or change our base nature. But it can soothe us, lower blood pressure and improve our mood. The right design choices can help protect us and can help make the most of who we are enabling us to be the best version of ourselves.

The topic of biophilic design has gained renewed interest in recent years. Studies have shown that incorporating natural elements into the built environment can have a calming and soothing effect

Key methods that neuroscientists use to measure how changes in our environment can affect our brains and, consequently, our behaviour and well-being.

  • Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI): This technique measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. When a brain area is more active, it consumes more oxygen and to meet this increased demand, blood flow increases to the active area. fMRI can be used to identify which parts of the brain are working during a task or respond to certain environmental changes.
  • Electroencephalography (EEG): This method involves recording electrical activity of the brain using electrodes placed on the scalp. It’s particularly useful for measuring real-time brain activity, and can be used to study how the brain responds to different environmental stimuli.
  • Hormonal Measurements: Neuroscientists can also measure changes in hormone levels to understand how our bodies respond to different environments. For example, cortisol, a hormone linked to stress, can be measured in saliva, urine, or blood. If an environmental change leads to increased stress, this might be reflected in higher cortisol levels.
  • Behavioural Studies: Sometimes, the effects of environmental changes are measured through changes in behaviour. For example, researchers might track changes in sleep patterns, mood, or cognitive performance in response to changes in lighting or noise levels.
  • Eye Tracking: This technique measures where and what people look at in their environment, and how their pupils respond to different stimuli. This can provide insights into what people find interesting or engaging in their environment.

These advances in neuroscience have led to a totally new approach to design and given rise to new fields of study – neuroarchitecture, neuro aesthetics and persuasive design –  where buildings are designed not only for ergonomics and environmental comfort, but also for emotion, happiness and well-being.

Studies have shown that colour can impact us profoundly. Pink is found to have a calming affect and can even soothe aggressive behaviour

How do you engage neuroscience in your projects?

At Design Intervention, our approach to each project is rooted in a deep understanding of human needs. We prioritise not just aesthetics but the emotional impact of a room to create environments that foster happiness, comfort, and conviviality, while also serving as a canvas for life’s beautiful moments.

Our design process is a multisensory journey. We understand how to provoke the senses and combine that with our experience of construction and materials to craft spaces that soothe the body and feed the soul and elicit emotional reactions to a room, to literally craft happiness.

While we don’t connect our clients to MRI machines to gauge their responses, we do draw upon the wealth of knowledge provided by neuroscience. We incorporate these scientific insights into our designs, mindful of the fact that each individual’s response to stimuli is also shaped by their unique cultural and personal experiences. So, our design process isn’t an exact science, but rather a harmonious blend of psychology, neuroscience, and art.

neuroscience florals
Our connection to flowers is innate, imprinted into our DNA to guide our ancestors to the most fertile soil. Even today, the sight and scent of flowers can activate the pleasure centres of our brain

What are some interesting examples of how the way something is designed affects us on a neuro level? 

In recent years, there is much talk about biophilic design and incorporating natural elements into the built environment to create spaces that calm and soothe. Neuroscience reveals why: it requires more energy (requires more blood flow to the brain) to process man-made shapes than natural ones and that is why we find it more relaxing to look at a natural view than a city skyline – it literally takes less energy. Now that we understand how the brain processes what we see, we can use wallpapers and murals with nature scenes, even where we don’t have a real view – to help create calming spaces.

Seeing images of loved ones is known to stimulate the release of feel good hormones

Neuroscience also reveals that the pleasure centres of our brains can be stimulated by photos of people we love, or times of special memories. Looking upon such photos stimulates the release of feel good hormones that can give us a mood boost. We can utilise this knowledge to create oases of joy. I often include a gallery wall of a homeowner’s family photos in an entry hall to create an arrival experience that welcomes them home, encouraging them to forget the cares of the day.

At the Design Intervention studio, the high ceiling in the material library is meant to bolster creativity

High ceilings have been shown to stimulate the area of the brain that encourages creative thought. So in our Design Intervention studio, we situated our material library in an area with the highest ceilings. Lower ceilings help the brain to focus, so in our meeting room, where we want our clients to make decisions, we have lowered the ceiling.

The lower ceiling in Design Intervention’s meeting room is meant to encourage more focus thinking

One of the most underrated design elements is texture. We are tactile beings and we can incorporate textural elements into our designs that promote the release of the hormone oxytocin – a feel good hormone.

texture and neuroscience
According to neuroscience, adding textured designs to your space can help promote the release of the feel good hormone oxytocin

Lighting and colours are also key aspects of interior design. What do we need to understand about them, from the point of view of science?

Different colours of light affect us in different ways. Once we understand that, we can utilise different types of light to influence how we feel in a room.

Exposure to short-wavelength (blue) light in the morning can help maintain the circadian rhythm by suppressing the production of the hormone melatonin and increasing cortisol levels, which helps us wake up and be alert during the day. Conversely, light with softer, more yellow light, promotes the release of hormones that encourages us to relax, unwind and even feel more friendly.

colour and neuroscience
Green is the easiest colour in the spectrum for our brains to process, which is why it is soothing to look at

Colour is another powerful tool and to fully understand how to use it, we have to understand exactly what colour is. Colour is energy, and I mean that literally. Colour is light energy, and each different colour is a different wavelength of energy and the different wavelengths stimulate the release of different hormones that affect our mood, our respiratory rate, our heart rate and how we feel. Anyone who thinks picking colours is just an arty thing, think again – it is completely science. What’s so exciting is we can use that information to craft environments that affect our mood and make us feel better.

Design Intervention

Images courtesy of Design Intervention

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