Ana Antico, expert in neuroarchitecture: “If we make small changes in the spaces we inhabit, we will improve our well-being and mental health”

When she was a child, the architect Ana Antico, had to move from the apartment where she lived with her family to a house. The decision was for the best: there would be more square meters to share. But for some reason, the effect was the opposite. Her mother was diagnosed with depression and Ana always heard her say that the house was very cold and dark, that there was no light. And apparently that remained in her unconscious. “I am super sensitive to noise, light, I have hypersensitivity and I need warmer and more welcoming environments to feel good. Maybe this comes from that experience in my childhood,” she says.

She studied architecture because it is a career that she is passionate about, but also because in some part of her brain (or her heart) her mother’s words were engraved. “I thought that precisely by working with the spaces I could improve people’s quality of life, heal them. And it is that women have the ability to develop our professional lives, not like men who say “business is business”, but we can also do business with our soul and with purpose”, she says.

Thus he arrived at neuroarchitecture. “Actually it is neuroscience applied to architecture, because what we do is base ourselves on neuroscience to show certain impacts that the spaces we inhabit can have on people’s well-being.”

It is not something new. The doctor and researcher Jonas Salk during the development of his research, in the early fifties, realized the importance that space had for the creative process and for the flow of ideas, inspiration and knowledge. With this conviction, he commissioned the architect Louis Kahn, in 1966, the design and construction of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego (California). A building that is a magnificent architectural reference and the first example of the relationship between neuroscience and architecture since it was designed to promote the best conditions of intellectual and physical comfort, taking into account how the human brain works.

“One of the basic pillars of the relationship between Architecture and Neuroscience arose 25 years ago, when it was discovered that the human brain is plastic. Until then, it was believed that the adult brain lost neurons as it aged and that the body, unlike skin cells, was incapable of replacing them. At the end of the 1990s, several investigations such as the one led by neurobiologist Fred Gage demonstrated that neurons are born throughout human existence, especially in the hippocampus, the region of the brain dedicated to processing new information and storing memory. And memories. In 2003, the American neurobiologist presented his discovery at a congress of the American Institute of Architecture, enunciating a key idea: changes in the environment change the human brain and, therefore, also modify its behavior.

From here, Neuroarchitecture began to develop as an autonomous discipline at the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) in San Diego. Its objective is to understand how the habitat in which human beings carry out their daily life activities affects their physical and mental health, their state of mind and their behaviour. “It investigates how the different aspects of an architectural environment can influence certain brain processes, among which are stress, emotion, memory or learning. Well, it influences the amount of serotonin and endorphin, happiness hormones, which can increase depending on the spaces we inhabit”, says Ana. After ANFA, an Institute of architecture based on neuroscience was created in Mexico, Brazil and in 2019 it was founded the first in Chile.

Is this important, especially post-pandemic when we spend much more time at home?

90% of the time that people spend awake is spent inside a building or in a closed environment. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that 30% of current buildings are sick buildings that do not help the human body maintain a balance with which, consequently, some diseases appear and other latent ones worsen.

It sounds a bit unrealistic to talk about architecture for well-being in a country like Chile where the quality of housing is most of the time poor, many people live in very few square meters.

Clearly in this there is, as in many other things, a variable that is resources. There are people who access more square meters, more luminous spaces from the architecture itself. But in any case, you can always improve the spaces in which people live, beyond the square meters. My experience as a child was an example; we moved to a bigger house and it was worse. That is why, even in small spaces, we can make some decisions that improve our quality of life by reducing stress.

What can we do?

I speak of “hacking the brain”, when we do not have enough resources. For example, one of the first changes has to be in the light. Ideally you have to have natural light because it increases vitamin D, decreases the levels of sadness and tiredness. When there are few windows, artificial light can be used, but it must be warm light: between 2,700 and 3,000 Kelvin degrees (2,700 K – 3,000 K). Cold light has been shown to be useful for people who want to stay awake for long hours, as it disrupts the circadian rhythm and melatonin output.

Are the materials also important?

The recommendation is to use wood or more natural textures. In fact, studies have been done with older people in homes where glass or metal tables were used in the dining rooms. They ate and went to bed, while if they ate at wooden tables they stayed after the meal. Wood has the feeling of comfort, of permanence. So many times one has inadequate materials, you feel restless in certain spaces. And just as the materials also influence the color of the walls, there are some that generate anxiety, that activate you, even that generate more hunger; the height of the heavens, which influences concentration; whether or not we put plants, as it has been shown that they reduce anxiety by 37% and clean the air; what ornaments or pictures do we prefer…

Even the type of paintings?

The decorations and the pictures. There are some ornaments that have pointed shapes that are perceived in the brain as a threat, and that generates hostility; on the other hand, the more curved forms generate the sensation of containment. And regarding the paintings, in the pandemic, especially people, we spend a lot of time in front of a computer and only a wall in the background. For vision to work well, it has to focus and blur, it is an exercise, a muscle that is worked; therefore what we recommend is to put the desktop in front of a window to see different backgrounds. And if that is not possible, paintings are also an option, fractal images, which are patterns that are repeated in nature and that the brain recognizes and generates well-being. In the end everything influences, not only the square meters as we spoke at the beginning. And the important thing is that all this is measured, therefore there is a scientific foundation that allows us to make our work more valuable, not only from an aesthetic point of view, but also from a well-being point of view.

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