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Research indicates that scenic, natural environments positively impact human health and mental well-being [1][2]. But what about the impact of man-made architecture and various architectural styles on human cognition and well-being - has any empirical research investigated this? Are there any arguments in cognitive science that support the claim that we respond differently to different architectural surroundings? Moreover, is there anything known about the validity of the concept of universal/objective aesthetics in architecture, grounded on neurobiology?

Specifically, I'm interested in comparing the impact of various architectural styles and their inherent philosophies on our cognition (health, creativity, pro-social behavior ...). Personally, I noticed that I feel much more calm, focused and creative in cities with classical architecture and its many derivatives, e.g. historical Vienna or Venice - the architecture itself seems to impact my perception of the world. In contrast, more contemporary architecture that represents, roughly, primarily pragmatism - think megalopolis like NYC or industrial Chicago - invokes in me much more negative feelings of alienation and nihilism, to put it shortly. I wonder how common this is, and to what extent it could be explained with nature rather than nurture.

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    $\begingroup$ I've read that humans naturally prefer environments that are more suited for survival. People like green grass and trees, as opposed to arid desert and dry clay. Megacities could feel more like a desert with their lack of greenery and "life". Classical architecture uses a lot more golden ratios, which humans perceive as beautiful. $\endgroup$ – Alex Stone May 10 '16 at 18:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexStone I would hypothesize along the same lines, i.e. a part of it indeed seems to be nature rather than nurture. It's weird that this subject doesn't appear to have been studied more extensively, especially given the potential impact it could have. I guess this is where e.g. virtual reality + fMRI and similar techniques could be used to establish more empirical conclusions. $\endgroup$ – w128 May 10 '16 at 19:32
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Although this paper is not grounded in neurobiology "Up speeds you down. Awe-evoking monumental buildings trigger behavioral and perceived freezing" by Joey et al. should be a good starting point for further research into the domain of environmental psychology with a focus on human-made environments.

In the paper, subjects are shown to have slower reaction times when faced with larger buildings, which they relate to behavioural freezing.

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I managed to find some newspaper articles and research that touch this topic, claiming that indeed more traditional architecture has positive influences on health and well-being, although these statements would likely require a more careful evaluation for the sake of rigor.

Sources:

  1. Beautiful urban architecture boosts health as much as green spaces
  2. Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?
  3. Quantifying the Impact of Scenic Environments on Health

Some key points:

We find that inhabitants of more scenic environments report better health, across urban, suburban and rural areas, even when taking core socioeconomic indicators of deprivation into account, such as income, employment and access to services.

There is a fair amount of research suggesting that traditional architecture, such as Georgian and Victorian terraces and mansion blocks, contributes to our wellbeing. Beauty makes people happy.

A brisk walk in the countryside or a stroll along the beach is a well-known mood booster and health experts have long recommended getting out of the city improve physical and mental wellbeing. But a new study suggests that beautiful urban architecture, the sweep of docklands, or a gritty suburban river bank can have just as much impact on health and happiness levels. The findings imply that it is the overall cohesion of architecture and design which boosts people’s health and happiness, not just the number of parks and trees.

Crucially, the researchers found that areas rated as most scenic and uplifting were often not green areas.

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