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The Great Divide

The Cartesian split of mind and matter has hampered our thinking about architecture for too long, but that could all be about to change

For centuries we have been held back by an outdated scientific paradigm that places the mind above and beyond both the body and the material world. Not only is this view ingrained in our architectural practice and theory, it also defines the very culture in which we live. However, recent scientific research has started to re-centre our environment, our architecture and the inanimate objects around us as formative elements of our cognition.

This is far from new: such beliefs have been at the root of oriental philosophy for millennia. Likewise, over a century ago the phenomenologists made similar philosophical assertions; and, in the late 1960s, the cybernetician Gregory Bateson researched the relationship between cognition and environment and coined the phrase ‘the extended mind’. But, despite a wealth of supporting scientific literature being published since then, the mind/body dualism remains dominant.

Contemporary scientists, philosophers and artists loyal to the cause argue that this bias is not only grossly outdated, but that its effects on normative thought are to the detriment of humanity itself. In order to respond to this, the Academyof Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was set up to promote and advance knowledge that links neuroscience research to a growing understanding of human responses to the extended environment. Set up 10 years ago at the Salk Institute in California, John Eberhard, its founding president, insists that only by referring to the sciences and the humanities side by side have we finally begun to understand the effects that the latter have on our neurological composition.

Over the last decade, ANFA has organised a series of collaborations and events with departments of architecture, the latest of which, Minding Design: Neuroscience, Design Education and the Imagination, took place in November 2012. Hosted at Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture’s Arizona campus, the two-day event saw speakers Michael Arbib, Iain McGilchrist, Jeanne Gang and Juhani Pallasmaa come together to discuss recent findings in neuroscience and bring them to the fore of architectural discussion.

Descartes Human Brain

The human brain by Descartes

Something that has been asserted by numerous artists and scientists, and which went on to form the core of the symposium, is that we urgently need to overcome the alienating and reductive Cartesian division between body and mind. Without acknowledging it, the majority of us still adhere to the idea of the mind residing somewhere in the brain, perhaps detached from the body altogether. This has led us to disregard the significance of the body and favour the brain (and with it the rationalising intellect), as the most important aspects of humanity.

The speakers agreed that this is simply not true. ‘Our brains don’t experience things − we experience them. We are not brains in a vat, we are embodied beings,’ said McGilchrist. Having studied both the sciences and the humanities, and now practising as a psychiatrist, he insists that artists and designers should once again refer to phenomenology (and in particular Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the chiasmatic bind) as an appropriate companion to contemporary findings in neuroscience. Both tell us that the world and the self do not constitute a polarity of distinct elements, but rather a continuum of interpenetration.

Elaborating on these issues, Michael Arbib said that just as the mind has been theoretically confined to the brain, so too has the body been isolated from its environment and context. This is another long-standing remnant of Linnaean taxonomy − the tradition of isolating and classifying organisms for scientific categorisation. Today’s scientists now agree that, while serving as a useful tool, this reductive perspective ignores the complex formative influence that surroundings have on cognition, development and evolution.

One manner in which we might overcome this, Arbib suggests, is by exploring the notion of the ‘extended phenotype’. Much like Jakob von Uexküll’s celebrated theory of the ‘milieu’ or Head and Holmes’ ‘body schema’ − both of which are now almost a century old − the extended phenotype calls for us to include anything that creates or is created by the organism into its phenotype. Opera might be included in the human phenotype as much as a damn and hydrological systems might be in a beaver’s phenotype. Given such a definition, architecture clearly becomes an incredibly influential agent in the formation of the human organism.

‘Architecture is born of the body,’ Pallasmaa said, ‘and as it is experienced it returns back to the body.’ During her presentation Jeanne Gang offered just one example of this relationship in the form of the Malian Togu Na, or men’s meeting-house. As an instrument of civil action these public buildings reportedly have low ceilings so that one cannot stand and shout. Thus architecture comes to inform both bodily action and culture and vice versa until they form an indistinguishable whole.

Furthermore, recent experiments with chimpanzees showed that the area of the brain associated with touch and action activated differently when a tool was seen within reach. When a tool became commonly used, the neural connections of the brain would reform. So for humans, we begin to understand the manner in which the tools we use − whether a pen, a chisel or a computer − actually restructure the neural network. They are no longer objects at a distance, but become part of our schema.

These findings coincide with the research of Bernard Stiegler and Lambros Malafouris, whose theories of epiphylogeneticsand cognitive archaeology respectively hold that human intelligence itself evolved as a direct result of somatic interaction with external artefacts. Simply put, the brain was born of the body.

Expanding the discussion further still, McGilchrist continued to outline how scientists and philosophers now believe the physical construction of the brain might affect the formation of culture itself. The title of his book The Divided Brain: The Master and His Emissary draws on Nietzsche’s famous parable to illustrate how the left hemisphere of the brain, once subservient to the right, has been privileged and cultivated throughout modernity. The result of this is a culture of brains that prioritise rationalisation and categorisation above all else. ‘Our art, aesthetics, philosophy, technologies, even our legal systems and bureaucracies show these stifling effects, and new kinds of mental illnesses have emerged,’ stated McGilchrist.

The recent reviews in UK educational funding that have seen an outright prioritisation of the sciences only serve to enforce such assertions. Pallasmaa and others are in accordance with such viewpoints, insisting that the mainstream curriculum and its associated teaching methods, even including those relating to the humanities, are becoming increasingly rationalised. This, McGilchrist claimed, is ‘death to the mind, to the imagination, in fact to our civilisation.’

The widespread publication of such findings is, however, beginning to have an impact on the education system. More progressive schools are looking to developmental psychologists such as Howard Gardner, whose research suggests that while the Western education system has evolved to cater to one dominant mode of learning there are in fact multiple categories of intelligence that we should acknowledge.

‘The existence of our ethical sensibility alone calls for imaginative skills’, said Pallasmaa, referring to what we might commonly call empathy. This is not to negate the importance of logic altogether, but rather to re-centre the significance of the embodied and emotive elements of the mind as equally vital elements of our culture that should be formally acknowledged. When the architect anticipates an inhabitant’s emotional and functional needs, they are engaged in an empathetic act. They are designing a body schema of the other.

The repercussions of such findings on both architectural practice and normative culture in general are profound. From how we regard our bodies and the significance of somatic experience, to how we comprehend the agency of the structures, environment and objects that surround us, we are finding that we are not isolated entities but rather the result of
an infinitely complex series of embodied encounters.

In light of such findings discussions about politics, design and sustainability could and should take completely new trajectories. However, the traces of obsolete scientific models still persist within the cultural mindset, and it is therefore imperative for the research of organisations such as ANFA to permeate mainstream education and practice.

At a time when the British government is pitting the sciences and humanities against one another in an unintelligible contest of favouritism, we would be better served by promoting the interrelation of the two disciplines. Architecture, it would seem, stands quite perfectly between the two, existing as what Pallasmaa calls ‘a logically impure discipline; fusing irreconcilable ingredients; facts and beliefs, means and goals, quantities and qualities.’

Architects could readily position themselves at the forefront of such a movement. As professor of neuroaesthetics Semir Zeki insists, ‘Most painters are also neurologists.’ And if that is the case, then perhaps scientists may one day reciprocate and learn to practise as artists. Such an alliance might prove nothing less than the next stage in our cultural evolution.

Readers' comments (3)

  • fascinating article. well bowled.

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  • If one wishes to find scientists practising as artists, then I believe at the moment the best place to look is in theoretical physics. Much of the work of the more cutting edge physicists (Michio Kaku being the obvious example) seems to involve huge conceptual leaps which are then tested afterwards. This has the effect of intertwining Pallasmaa's categories of "facts and beliefs, means and goals".

    Of course the aim is to get this approach to permeate all of science (particularly those aspects which affect our everyday interactions more than string theory etc - no disrespect to physicists); it would be good if these physicists could encourage a new understanding of science from their side of the chasm.

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  • Interesting and enjoyable piece. Some of the 'neuroaesthetics' work sounds a bit too brain-focussed - especially McGilchrist - trying to explain everything by what goes on in the brain, rather than the nexus of brain-body-world as you point out at the beginning. Harry Mallgrave is also very good on this, especially his recent book 'Architecture and Embodiment'. I've also written a bit on this myself, including a blog-site

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