A New Humanism: Part 22

Our senses connect us to information, to everything we know and feel

We live immersed in waves of energy and motion that are filled with information. Sensing them is the beginning of everything we know and feel about the world outside our skin. And the linkages that connect what the physical senses receive and how the rest of a body responds has had a productive literature.

Studies of ear and eye structure, visual perception and the connections between colors and moods – both as physiology and as cultural symbols – are part of the design professions’ valued conventional wisdom.  In addition to the scientific studies, about twenty years ago, much of the accumulated science current at the time, was assembled by Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, and presented in ways that are both appealingly poetic and directly applicable to designs that stir human emotions.  More recently Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee have summarized the cutting edge work of another generation of scientists around a different perspective, The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, and neuroscientist Eric Kandel has done the same in The Age of Insight, focusing in detail on the fine arts. Now, as neurological research keeps expanding, other interpretations of findings useful for design are expanding, as well, and here I have drawn on insights in the science they cite, applying it to the places we build.

Sensory Systems

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The evolution of the senses has built eyes, ears, and other receptors that have – within their very limited ranges – extraordinary abilities to detect nuanced differences, relationships and especially subtle changes in whatever they encounter.  They send received energy patterns into and through dedicated circuits in the brain where they are translated into the chemical-electrical languages that control a mind and body.  The sensations, conscious or unconscious, and their interpretations seem simultaneous, and some link directly to instinctive reflex movements.  But then they go on to bring into play other layers of information already stored in a brain – personal memories, cross-indexed learning, beliefs and motivations and their associated emotions. That’s when the raw sensations become the subjective perceptions that we call experience, and a lot can happen in a second.

Perception and responses in the sensory systems necessarily differ for every person and at any moment, and the variations can be enormous.  In the short term they are primed – alerted, expectant or exhausted – by a changing body state.  Longer term – in addition to the natural range of genetic differences – divergent paths of learning and intensive training will have re-structured “customized” brain networks. We’ve all seen how continuing practice can elevate individual sensitivity and expertise to extraordinary levels in the arts and professions or Olympic sports. And the meanings assigned to color illustrate what can happen over time and distance.  In some cultures white, and in others, black or purple have been associated with death. And at times, blues such as ultramarine, or “royal” purple, have been the colors of honor and prestige, primarily because of the rarity and price of the dyes and pigments.

In practice, though, underlying those diverse personal or cultural elaborations is a basic, evolved human biological package – whole-body networks of collaborating receptors and the brain structures that receive their messages. They’re not “identical” of course, but enough alike to create styles and design vocabularies valued and repeated across centuries and continents.

In any case, the mixed sensations are spliced together – unconsciously or consciously – in our “working memory,” where we sort out the Gestalt, the “wholes,” and make congruent mental maps – representations – of the spaces, sounds, or scents in our surroundings. And we covet information. To the extent the aggressive senses are left hungry, a mind will fill the void with inferences and illusions to complete a pattern or a story – things we “see” or “hear” that weren’t coming in through the eyes or ears.

Our subjective experience – what feels like “reality” – takes shape in the reciprocating interacting sensory systems – another reason why there’s no substitute for face-to-face contact or first-hand experience of a built environment.  Still, because the key types of physical receptors are separated, for my purposes here, they are explored separately. And to start, it’s useful to think of them in two categories: in the first are vision, hearing, smell and taste, that have compact areas of specialized receptors; in the second, usually called “somatic,” or sometimes “haptic,” the sense receptors are spread throughout the skin, organs, muscles, and joints, plus a small concentration in the inner ear, and the resulting sensations are experienced as touch, pain, temperature, and as “proprioception” – the term that describes the sense of a body’s position, balance and motion in space.  Then the perceptions we work with emerge out of their cumulative impacts as they interweave through a mind and body.

Because the visual system is so dominant in that mix, I’ve explored it first.

What the eyes see

By far, most of the perceptions that add up to experience in a built environment originate in the dense concentration of receptors in the eyes.  Naturally the messages received are profoundly shaped by that physiology, and for that reason many of the basic facts about vision systems that are widely known and applied in practice are reviewed only briefly here.

The structure of eyes selects and codes the information that’s been designed into places we build.

An eye’s structure includes: the iris and pupil that adjust, within narrow limits, the amount of light entering the eyes at any time; an adjustable lens that focuses images onto the retina at the back of the eyes where light is transformed into electrical impulses, the information that moves through the body. “Rod” cells, sensing mostly light and dark are toward the periphery, and “cone” cells, sensing mostly colors, are toward the center.  And right at the center, with a densely packed concentration of cones, is the “fovea” that enables precise focusing on a chosen sector of incoming light energy.

In the experience of, and response to a built environment, these characteristics determine how the eyes work:

Narrow limits on the range of usable light levels and focal distance – frustrating, but a stimulus for the optical engineering that has produced an enormous diversity of artificial lighting and lenses

A narrow field of focused vision – about 2º, defined by the fovea, that we can shift effortlessly to select and frame images for concentrated attention and measurement

A broad peripheral vision – often greater than 180º but with lower resolution, that keeps us aware of a wider setting. An in-born survival “skill,” it’s always “on” and as alert as focused vision.

Stereoscopic depth perception – capable of zooming in and out, instantly detecting minute differences in arc, depth and movement – the basis for evaluating distance or speed, sensing the perspective and parallax that help us see things “whole.”

Almost infinite differentiation, within its range – of light levels, colors, distances, and shapes – that underlies the nuanced discrimination of differences in faces and body language, or the perception of motion that are part of our survival equipment.

Rapid, repeated, darting eye movements and adjustments that can be arrested by a surprise, complexity or a familiar sight.  They enable multiple-point-of-view seeing, like a “cubism” in the visual system.  And there is a brief, three to five second lingering in a sensory memory that enables the fragmented micro-second images to be sensed as a coherent whole.

An acute sensitivity to movement – both in focus and on the visual periphery – triggering instant responses, adjusting the visual axis, pupil and lens to bring the focusing fovea into play.  The detection of motion or signs of life – like a new sound, scent or touch, always a potential threat or opportunity – seems to be able to dominate perception and, especially when combined with light patterns, can block the other sensations that may have been in intended or expected.

A priority to attend to brighter light levels and sharp contrasts – where more new information is likely to be found quickly – but with more sensitivity to edges and changes than to absolute brightness.

Limits on the speed and range of all adjustments in the darting eyes and therefore our “working” perception– resulting in overloads and both disorienting or captivating sensations: confusion or dazzle or shadowy “mystery.”

Straight line vision, limited focal field, and a straight-ahead orientation – that seem to have led us toward organizing – giving visual order to – built environments with axial lines, paths and edges, and, in combination with body coordinates, balance.

A spectrum of visible colors – created out of the continuum of light energy’s wavelengths; within the limited visual spectrum, differentiation, although not necessarily accurate color memory, seems unlimited – and also subject to exhaustion.  And the visual system, like hearing, recognizes harmonies, complements and transitions within the spectrum – favored because they are recalled from interaction with the natural world, experience and possibly prepared patterns in the brain – a subject for a new humanism to explore.

Finally, raw light energy is perceived only in relationships – like words, in contexts.  Sensations of colors and light are altered by their surroundings – adjoining colors, relative intensities, and changing light levels; color itself fades away at dusk when the dispersed “rod” cells, dominating the outer reaches of the retina, can sense only the remaining light, leaving us with peripheral, but colorless night vision – and the internal body-states we bring to a place.  In other words, perception of light and color only starts with patterns on the retina. “Seeing” happens in the complexity of the brain – in a sense, in the “mind’s eye.”

With many variations from person to person, naturally, each one of these evolved capabilities of visual systems are, in a sense, instruments we exploit in both design and responses, as they configure the images that are sent racing through the brain.  In one sense, the artistry in design is in the orchestration of the content, pace, and sequences of those rapid searching glances.

The Alhambra’s Court of Lions – again, every capability of the eyes brought into play


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The next post continues to explore the visual system, focusing on responses to light and color.

This is the tweny second in a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called A New Humanism: in architecture, landscapes, and urban design. They’re about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Albrecht Pichler, who drew the sketches, is a practicing architect and a principal in Hart Howerton’s New York office.

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