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Humans process architecture and faces with same part of the brain: U of T study

A composite image of New York and a woman's face over the buildings

The researchers found that areas of the brain associated with processing scenes and faces encode architectural styles in similar ways. ©iStock.com | Alija.

In a first-of-its-kind study, a University of Toronto-led team has identified the ways our minds perceive architecture and discovered that an unexpected area of our brains is involved.

In the study, the team used functional MRI scans to characterize the neural mechanisms for encoding the style and structure of built spaces into the perceptions stored in our brains.

“We have previously been able to see how specific areas of our brains decode big scenes,” said team leader U of T neuroscientist Dirk Bernhardt-Walther. “But this is the first study to focus specifically on buildings.”

After exposing study participants to different architectural and other views, the researchers found that areas of the brain associated with processing scenes and faces encode architectural styles in similar ways.

Close-up photo of Dirk Bernhardt-Walther

U of T neuroscientist Dirk Bernhardt-Walther.

“That was a real surprise for us,” said Bernhardt-Walther, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the Faculty of Arts & Science. “We assumed it was somewhere in the visual system but no one had been able to tease it out before.”

Seeing versus perceiving

To conduct the study, Bernhardt-Walther and team used fMRI technology to record the brain activity of 23 students (approximately half of which were architecture students) as they viewed blocks of images in a variety of categories:

  • representative buildings of four architectural styles (Byzantine, Renaissance, Modern, and Deconstructive)
  • representative buildings designed by four famous architects of Modern and Deconstructive styles (Le Corbusier, Antoni Gaudi, Frank Gehry, and Frank Lloyd-Wright)
  • four scene categories (mountains, pastures, highways, and playgrounds)
  • photographs of faces of four different non-famous men

Using machine learning techniques, Bernhardt-Walther and team decoded from patterns of brain activity of participants the style and the architect of the building that they were viewing while positioned inside the fMRI scanner.

During the study, participants’ brains registered activity in the parahippocampal place area (PPA) previously thought to be involved mostly with perceiving views of houses and scenes. But the team found that it also encodes the visual details of different architectural styles.

Reading the ‘faces’ of buildings

In addition to the PPA, other visually active brain areas participated in the encoding of architecture. The fusiform face area (FFA), an area known to relate to face perception and visual expertise, also participated when discriminating architectural styles.

“The FFA normally doesn’t care at all about images of places, including buildings,” said Bernhardt-Walther. “For instance, our experiments also contained a condition in which we decoded from brain activity whether participants looked at images of mountains versus pastures versus highways versus playgrounds. The FFA did not activate much for these images, and the FFA did not participate in the network of brain regions involved in this discrimination,” he says.

“However, we found that the FFA gets tightly integrated into a network of place-related brain regions for discrimination among architectural styles. This may have to do with its role in discriminating fine configural details and visual expertise.”

We all have a brain for architecture

Another unexpected result of the study was that experts and non-experts seem to see architecture the same way. Despite the architecture students having vastly more knowledge of the topic than the rest of study participants, the other students fared the same.

Bernhardt-Walther and team believe this might mean such expertise is likely to come into play more in the interpretation and evaluation of visual perceptions of architecture.

In the future, Bernhardt-Walther and his team at U of T together with colleagues at Technion Israel Institute of Technology and at the University of Frankfurt in Germany are aiming to develop methods of measuring people’s appreciation of different kinds of architecture.

“Architecture doesn’t just include famous buildings that we visit while on vacation in Europe or New York City or Chicago…It determines the spaces that we live and work in every day,” said Bernhardt-Walther. “As such, architecture can affect people’s productivity, mood, and even overall quality of life.”