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Brain research – how this influences our interior spaces

by Ofentse Sefolo
Brain research – how this influences our interior spaces

By Dorothy Van’t Riet

Extensive research is being done throughout the world by neuroscientists on the brain and human behaviour. What we need to gather from this, is how it will influence the decision-making by developers, architects and designers in their respective fields. Dorothy Van’t Riet takes us through all the details regarding this subject matter and feasible solutions that can be practically implemented.

Dorothy is the founder and Principle Designer of Dorothy Van’t Riet Design & Décor Consultants.

Research results

Internationally strides are taking place with neuroscience and the brain’s responses to work environments and our living spaces. How does this research on the human brain impact on architecture and design?

“Are we as designers keeping up with this human-centered research and developing, building and designing spaces in a way that positively impacts the world we are in, or are past beliefs and traditions keeping us back from moving into this dynamic fast-changing way of working and living?,” questions Dorothy van’t Riet.

“We carve spaces out of space, and further design spaces by dividing these spaces using geometry, colours and shapes. Beautiful buildings and interior spaces are created.
We can leverage this brain research to give a cutting edge on delivering projects that are not only functional and beautiful, but also contain the human element, giving our projects life and energy. We will then design above the average.”

So what do the latest neuroscience studies reveal & how do they affect us as designers & architects?

Is the next building or development being built to satisfy human need or human greed? Are the buildings human-centric or ego-centric? Are we creating human-centred spaces amid rapid change? So, then what are the latest neuroscience studies revealing and how do they affect designers and architects?

Why we are so distracted

• 3 minutes – frequency the average office worker is interrupted or distracted.
• 23 minutes – time it takes to return to a task after being interrupted.
• 204 – million emails sent per minute.
• 30 – average number of times per hour an office worker checks his or her email inbox.
• 8 – the average number of windows open on a worker’s computer at the same time.
Ref. University of California, Irvine.

Using science to compose buildings

“Researchers have gained new insights into how our brains shape thoughts, emotions and behaviour and how this new science can be used by us to create buildings and interior spaces that can reflect the research relating to human behaviour in homes, workspace environment, schools and hospitals,” says van’t Riet.

“Research has shown the negative effect of “always on”, both at work and at home. How do we use this information to create buildings and spaces that are human-centred? We have seen that design has become more about creating an experience; spaces are not extravagant and impressive, but rather relaxed, intimate yet energised.

Research has shown the negative effect of “ALWAYS ON”, both at work and at home. Through extensive research there is hard evidence about what attention is, and the destructiveness of continual distractions of the brain, how it works and how to attain it and to use it productively.”

Three findings from neuroscience

According to Dorothy Van’t Riet, there are three key findings from neuroscience that have important implications for how we perform at work and as designers and architects.By knowing these findings, we can create environments and spaces to be more in flow with this research.

1. Brains get tired

“Traditionally organisations operate on the assumption that focus is the pathway to productivity and the goal is to keep people as focused as possible for at least eight hours a day, the more the better,” explains van’t Riet”.

Neuroscientists tell us that focus is a limited resource. Our brains consume energy.

Did you know?

– The brain comprises merely 2% of the body’s weight but consumes more than 20% of the daily caloric intake of energy – more than any other organ in the human body.

“As energy supplies dwindle, brains get tired,” says Dorothy van’t Riet. “As the brain becomes taxed, we become distracted. Distraction is the brain’s energy-saving mechanism. Our alertness fluctuates when we are tired and lethargic and its then difficult to control our attention. If we try to stay focused when our brains are tired, distractions abound.

“We then start to avoid difficult tasks; we remember less and make mistakes. Stress mounts, fight or flight syndrome kicks in, the nervous system is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. Instead of doing productive work, stressed people become consumed by irritation, pessimism and guilt.”

Overloading the brain’s circuits is the primary reason that smart people are underperforming at work. We are expecting more of our brains than they have the energy to handle. Our brains work in cycles of peak activity and downtime, moving between rhythms of energy expenditure and regeneration.

“Our brains and bodies are designed to move through these rhythms and to stay alert, so we can respond to environmental cues,” continues Dorothy van’t Riet.

2. Multitasking attention is inefficient

Scientists have proven that when we are multitasking, we are really switching our attention rapidly between things.

“Continued partial attention puts us in a constant state of crisis, making us feel overwhelmed, unfulfilled and powerless to do anything about it,” says van’t Riet. “By trying to stay connected to everything, we fail to connect to anything in a meaningful way.”

People today aren’t aware of how much they are degrading their mental processes as they attempt to multitask during the day.

Many activities compete for our attention, demanding “airtime” on channels in our brains.
Scientists have likened people’s distraction behaviours of today to smoking cigarettes decades ago, before we knew what it was doing to our lungs.

In contrast to multitasking scientists have termed the word “FLOW”. “This is a state of being completely immersed in a challenge or task over time,” says Dorothy van’t Riet. “During flow we are absorbed and engaged in what we are wanting to accomplish. It is considered to be our most productive state. Unlike stress, which releases chemicals associated with fear, flow is a highly pleasurable and high state of arousal in the brain. It is what many employees and employers crave more and more in the marketplace.”

3. Mindfulness trains the brain

One of the most remarkable discoveries from neuroscientists’ research is neuroplasticity. This is the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.

“Neuroplasticity is at work throughout our life,” highlights Dorothy van’t Riet. “With every repetition of a thought or an emotion, we re-enforce a neural pathway and with each new thought, we begin to create a new way of being. Neuroplasticity is the muscle-building part of the brain. The things we do often, we become stronger at. This is the physical bases of why repeating a thought or action over and over again increases its power.

Over time it becomes automatic; a part of us. We literally become what we think & do.

The old saying was “PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT”, “USE IT OR LOSE IT.”
The 21st century neuroscience version is “NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER, WIRE TOGETHER; NEURONS THAT FIRE APART, WIRE APART!”
The brain’s structure & function can be changed by our activity.”

Understand the intricacies of workspaces

According to van’t Riet, most workplaces lack adequate support to regenerate activities.
Researchers have concluded that the way to increase productivity and creativity is about always trying to do more focused work or putting in more hours.

It is about getting smarter about the brain, learning its limitations as well as how to leverage it to full capacity to direct our attention and inspire and challenge people in different ways throughout their workday.

Researchers and designers have carefully delved into the findings of neuroscientists.
“These findings have inspired new perspectives and new ideas for how environments, when thoughtfully designed, can be an effective way to help people better manage their attention,” says Dorothy van’t Riet. “This has numerous competitive advantages for companies, improved worker engagement and wellbeing, more creativity and innovation and better business results overall.”

What can we do with all this new science to help people think better at work?

Taking time out from very focused work, we need REGENERATION, INSPIRATION and PHYSICAL MOVEMENT for OPTIMAL brain performance.

“We can design spaces that help manage attention in brain-friendly ways, recognising the range of peaks and valleys in mental performance that people experience throughout the day,” emphasises Dorothy van’t Riet.

“Researchers have identified three brain modes that each requires distinct behaviours and interior spaces:

1. Focus.


2. Regenerate and inspire.


3. Activate.

“By understanding the rhythms of the human brain, as designers it will enable us to design spaces that will work with this flow.”

Dorothy van’t Riet identifies the following:

1. Focus

• A space where we need to be deeply focused.
• A space where our focus will not be highjacked.

2. Regenerate and inspire

A space of inspiration and regeneration; a space to daydream.

Neuroscience helps us to understand that often the best way to solve a problem is to walk away from it and let your brain do the work subconsciously.

3. Activate

Moving our bodies as opposed to a static sitting is important. Static sitting sabotages our ability to concentrate. Movement enhances cognition; more attentiveness and better memory.

Spatial planning

There is an overabundance of space dedicated to open plan and far less on spaces designed to support focus work. How can we design spaces in the work environment to support and enhance people’s brain functions instead of impacting them?

“I believe that it’s essential to design spaces that offer choices in the workplace,” says Dorothy van’t Riet. “We can design workspaces as an ecosystem of differentiated zones and settings. People can then select spaces that match their brain nodes and activates as they move through their day.”

She says that no day is consistent or predictable; the workday journey includes a range of activities, tasks and brain modules.

“As designers and architects, besides doing just great designs, we can look into all this research and implement these findings and design with knowledge and insight in workplaces, educational facilities, hospitals and homes,” she says. “This will take us to a new higher dimension in our designs and will set us apart as we design with purpose, knowledge and insight. It gives us a competitive edge over our competitors.”

Learning has a natural rhythm

As designers, are we supporting the rhythm of learning?

It is vital to create a range of spaces that are flexible and offer choices, from individual focus to informal collaboration and from instructor led to social learning spaces.

“When we design spaces for education, it is important to take both the brain and the body into consideration in order to get and hold attention,” explains Dorothy van’t Riet. “Designing an active learning ecosystem environment that is a flexible learning space allows instructions and students to quickly adjust their learning space to the work at hand.”

Movement is empowerment. Designers and architects, need spaces that were created to support both focus thinking and diffuse thinking.

The future

“In another ten years, the integration of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and human analytics will make your current office seem as quaint as the phone on the wall in the kitchen,” highlights Dorothy van’t Riet. “As designers and architects, are we analysing the signals of change that surround us today? In the near future, artificial intelligence, smart data and the gig economy will transform the future of work.

“In the future you may walk around an office of computers, different to how we know it, with chic VR headsets. Rooms and finishings will feel different, more intuitive and comfortable, designed to accommodate diverse networks of writers, programmers, designers and scientists all coming together to solve difficult problems.”

It is van’t Riet’s opinion that the most noticeable change will be that the lines between technology and spaces will blur.

She says that embedded with smart sensors and speech recognition software, the workplace will take care of much of the administrative transcribing day-to-day chores, meeting notes, scheduling conference calls and being a dutiful member of your team.

“Your office will feel more like a person, colleague or a life coach who guides you to a better self,” she enthuses and identifies the following scenarios:”

• Imagine awaking early one morning, getting smartly dressed, slipping on a mixed-reality headset to present a detailed project pitch to a potential client in London. Their hologram-like image appears as if by magic in a virtual boardroom.

• Imagine a future in which you can turn around in a circle and engage with only the data you need, reach out and touch it across three dimensions.

• Digital spatial co-ordinates will map where content is placed in the virtual world.

• Flat screens and browser windows will become obsolete.

• Chairs and other furnishings will operate like joysticks, leveraging our actual body motions to change our physical orientation in virtual space.

• You will be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with colleagues from London, New York and Mumbai, at an augmented-reality white board, moving about and speaking to each other as though they were in your office.

The edges of the future are visible today

“Design and architecture are a vibrant and ever-changing profession,” Dorothy van’t Riet concludes. “I believe that as designers and architects, if we continually keep up to date with what is happening internationally, we will sense a feeling of purpose and passion as we push ourselves from the known and tried into the new research happening. It will not just be one project after the next project – a mundaneness that we can easily slip into.” By staying abreast of INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH, it will SPARK that CREATIVITY once again and give us a sense of PURPOSE.

Our designs will start getting back the SOUL, SPARK & CREATIVITY, which attracted us into our noble profession in the first place.

Dorothy van’t Riet Interior Design Consultants
I.F.I. Executive Board Member (co-opted)
Tel: 011 783 6000
Email: dorothy@dvr.co.za; bernard@dvr.co.za
Website: www.dvr.co.za
Acknowledgement: Steelcase Inc. & 360 Magazine

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