At the University of Waterloo in Canada, scientists are studying how we humans interact with our man-made environments and what effects these interactions have on our brains. They’re trying to figure out why some spaces attract us, and other spaces don’t. The insights from Waterloo and other studies could one day inform the way we build our cities, our schools, and our workspaces, but the idea is hardly new.

William Whyte, a pioneer in urban planning, conducted an exhaustive study of the public spaces of New York City in 1969. In his book The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, Whyte shared his discoveries, including the insight that people tend to gather in smaller, more intimate spaces. Whyte’s influence can be seen in the sub-structure of New York’s Central Park, the downtown areas of San Antonio and other cities, and workspaces such as Google, Steelcase, and these innovative sites. What makes Whyte’s accomplishments all the more remarkable is that he had no access to neuroscience data to lead him to his conclusions. He relied on disciplined fact-gathering and relentless observation to tell him how people in large groups interact with their environments. Now, thanks to neuroscience, we also know why.

Measuring brain waves to understand our reaction to space

In the Waterloo study, scientists built several different types of urban spaces, from extremely orderly to what they describe as “chaotic,” and then measured their subjects’ brain responses as they explored the spaces. Here is what they discovered:

Logical, orderly layouts were far less engaging than other models.

People tended to spend less time in these models, and their brains showed lower levels of arousal and excitement. In contrast, when the underlying structure of the space wasn’t readily apparent, subjects responded with greater interest and put more effort into exploring the space. Their brains indicated a higher level of overall engagement and attention.

The ability to see a green space affects subjects emotionally and physically.

Subjects who had a view of an area with green plants reported happier moods than subjects without this view, and their brains showed higher levels of relaxation.

Building the brain-friendly workspace

We’ve noted the application of neuroscience to human capital management in a variety of ways. Now we are starting to see the application of brain science to the design of office buildings and workspaces. The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture professes to be “the only organization in the world devoted to the goal of building intellectual bridges between neuroscience and architecture.” Their goal is to re-educate the architectural profession, but the organization’s site is certainly worth a visit for anyone involved in human capital management.

If those materials provide a little bit more information than you’re looking for, try this slide show of tips to build offices that foster creativity.

What does the future hold?

I’m convinced that we will continue to find more ways to apply our understanding of the brain to the way we manage our world, and I’m certainly not alone in that opinion. In 2010, U.S. News & World Report envisioned future workspaces with more gathering spaces, fewer cubes, on-site lounges, standing meetings, and other ideas that have their roots in discoveries from neuroscience. Where we end up is up to us—and our incredible brains.