I’ve written previously about the influence of other disciplines on the science of learning, such as looking at desire paths, an architectural concept, to help design effective informal learning experiences. Now I’m returning to architecture again, to share how ceiling height can affect the way your brain processes information.

The Influence of Ceiling Height

In 2007, Joan Meyers-Levy and Rui (Juliet) Zhu set out to study how ceiling height changes the way your brain processes information, a pattern that had been observed anecdotally, but never held up to the scrutiny of the scientific method before their experiment. Neuroscience was a very new concept at the time, so it is no surprise that this enlightening paper mentions “processing” and “stimuli” at least 73 times each but never once mentions the brain or neural connections. So, while technically this is a psychological study, the primary focus was understanding how the brain reacts to the same stimuli under different conditions. (You say tomato; I say neuroscience.)

In a series of experiments, they put subjects in rooms with noticeably different ceiling heights and asked them to evaluate a new product. The people in the rooms with higher ceilings demonstrated what they called “relational processing,” which tended to be more creative, emotional and inspiring. When this group evaluated a new coffee table, for example, they tended to imagine the wonderful conversations they would have around the table with their friends.

On the other hand, the subject in the room with a lower ceiling used a different type of processing. They tended to focus on “item-specific” thinking that was more fact-based and practical. They wanted to know if the coffee table would fit in their living room and whether it was strong enough to hold the heavy coffee table book they just purchased. They also tended to stay on task and exhibited better focus than the more expansive-thinking group.

The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use

The behavior the researchers recognized is called “priming.” It means that we can use the brain’s predictive ability to lead it expect a particular result. If we give you a list of colors and then ask you to fill in the blanks for “g r _ _ _,” most people will say “green.” However, if we give you a list of fruits first, you will probably say “grape.” In this case the researchers concluded, subjects were primed for either relational or item-specific thinking by the way the room was configured. Like many things we’re now learning about the brain, this result was no surprise. Builders of cathedrals, theaters and railway stations have been using dramatically tall ceilings to create special spaces for centuries. What this study did was validate the anecdotal evidence with proof through experimentation. Instructional designers and trainers do it, too, whether we realize it or not. Our anecdotal evidence has told us that it works.

Applying the Ceiling Effect to Learning

So why do we care about ceiling height? As a learning professional, you can incorporate the ceiling effect into your practice, enhancing (priming) the type of thinking that is required for the task. Consider the location of your next face-to-face workshop carefully. Will you want high ceilings to generate brainstorming and creativity or lower ceilings to encourage focus and fact-based thinking? But I suggest there is an even more powerful use of the ceiling effort for all of us.

Prime Your Own Brain for the Type of Thinking Required

Most of us need to be very focused and fact-based in some parts of our work and very creative in others. So why not choose your work location based on how it will affect your brain processing tendency? I generally work in my home office, a spare bedroom with a reasonable – but not particularly high – ceiling.

When I’m really struggling with a problem, I open the sliding doors and walk out to my patio, where I can look up at the clear Arizona sky. Now I know why this works so well – I’m stepping away from the focus of my room to be inspired by the cathedral of nature. Try it – you may be able to feel your brain switching gears as you change your surroundings.