Light, Perception, and Architecture: How Your Environment Can Make You Feel Better

By Maggie Chen

Light and visual perception in our environment can influence human health. (Public domain image by George Chen via Flickr.)

Walking into the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is a feast for the senses. Through the graceful curve of the cavernous ceilings, the gentle diffusion of light permeating the floor and the grandness of an echoing space, the nearly 800-year-old iconic house of worship serves as an example of how our built environment influences the human sensory experience.

In recent studies, researchers have discovered that carefully designed architecture can not only be spiritually uplifting for the eyes and brain, but can also have beneficial effects on human health. During a Feb. 11, 2021, presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, three experts on the interaction of sight and structure discussed how our cognitive responses to light and sensory perception can be used to make homes, workplaces and other parts of our built environment more in sync with our well-being.

Mariana Figueiro, Ph.D., a senior researcher in population health science and policy at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, has conducted extensive studies on the effects of lighting in controlled environments. For example, her team found that in a population of Alzheimer’s patients, exposure to blue light for the entire day reduced the number of sleep disturbances experienced and relieved depression. More recently, Figueiro and her colleagues surveyed several hundred adults confined to their homes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and found that those who received more light during the day reported positive health impacts, such as better sleep quality.

“The dimmer the environment and the less amount of light outdoors, the worse were the sleep, anxiety and depression,” says Figueiro. “If we are going to really have work-from-home as something permanent, big windows and better lighting could be something to seriously consider.”

The neuroscience behind light — and more broadly, behind visual perception — Figueiro adds, remains an exciting frontier with much to discover.

Additionally, there is enormous complexity in the natural world, says Thomas Albright, director of the Vision Center Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, who studies perceptual improvisation. According to Albright, perceptual improvisation is “the cognitive effort of rifling through memories to determine the purpose of a formerly unknown object as a necessary part of the sensory experience.”

Amid the chaos, humans have developed key processing abilities to help them make sense of the new and unknown, says Albright.

“The balance between a sense of order and perceptual improvisation is critical,” Albright adds. “There are certain principles for designing an environment with this sense of order, a sort of ease with the visual environment, as opposed to constant demands of perceptual improvisation — which, in moderation, can be very satisfying.”

Previously, Albright teamed up with an architect in Baltimore to implement these concepts in the classroom. They found that by redesigning the classroom to better balance order and perceptual improvisation, academic performance improved and stress levels went down in comparison to a control group of students in the same grade. This, Albright says, serves as evidence for how thoughtfully designed environments can impact human behavior.

Douglas Nitz, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California, San Diego, agrees with Albright, stating the importance of recognizing the interplay between complex and simple components in the environment.

During the AAAS presentation, Nitz pointed to a Jackson Pollock painting in the room to explain this concept. “What is almost random in the complexity is actually not,” he says, recalling the artwork. “It’s the little bit of structure in the otherwise randomness that makes it so interesting, and a pleasant piece of art in this case. I think that this applies equally well to architecture.”

By better understanding the impact of light and perception on our daily lives, the three researchers feel that there are transforming ways for such research to be architecturally integrated into the environment. One strategy, says Figueiro, would be to incorporate more light exposure into our daily schedules and capitalize on the natural cycles of day and night. Another method, say Albright and Nitz, would be to blend order and chaos into a comfortable, yet stimulating visual experience.

The researchers believe that it will be some time before we see these perceptual principles integrated within the architecture surrounding us. Because the brain is a mysterious entity, they explain, there is still much to learn about the ways we process what we see and experience. Until that future of bold new architecture arrives, Figueiro suggests we rely on the implicit grandeur of the natural environment whenever possible.

“Do something outside, take a break outdoors or go for a walk in the middle of the day,” she says with a smile.

Maggie Chen studies developmental biology and the history of science at Harvard College. She is a freelance science writer with contributions to BioSpace, The New York Times, and Lady Science. As an undergraduate research fellow at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Maggie works on finding ways to mend broken hearts. She can be found on Twitter @chenmaggiesy.

This story was edited by NASW member Michael Newman, who served as Chen's mentor during the NASW-AAAS Spring Virtual Mentoring Program.

Mar. 16, 2021

Hybrid 2022 AAAS Annual Meeting