The Intersection of Design and Mental Health

It isn't me, Frank Gehry. It's you.

Ironically, my brain hurts when I look at Frank Gehry’s Lou Rovo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas (pictured). If I’m honest, my brain hurts when I look at almost anything designed by Frank Gehry. Now I know why—and I’m not alone.

It’s all in the fractals.

Listen up, Frank!  

A study published this month in Urban Science Journal makes the case that traditional architecture is actually good for our mental health.

According to the study, traditional architectural styles typically comprise multiple fractal patterns—patterns that are self-repeating—which is like savory chicken soup for the human brain. Fluent in multiple fractal interpretations, our brains process patterns in the built environment in much the same way we process patterns in nature: trees, water, mountain, clouds, etc. Because these patterns are familiar, their presence facilitates object recognition and navigation, say the scientists, and they give us an “overall experience of beauty that promotes well-being.” Comfort food.

Conversely, the absence of such patterns significantly increases stress and mental fatigue in the observer. Apparently, modern architecture simply does not provide the recommended daily dose of fractals to keep our brains happy.

It’s like being lost

In 1991, when my daughter was just an infant, we moved to Philadelphia, a city with which I was wholly unfamiliar. One day, soon after we arrived—not knowing any better—I took my sweet babe-in-arms to the nearest health department outpost for routine vaccinations. Although the health department was really just blocks away from where we lived, it was in an area of the city that was at that time known (to everyone but me, apparently) for drugs and violent crime. (This was the early 90s, mind you—the height of the crack epidemic. Even on our street, which was considered sort of a buffer zone, crack vials littered the sidewalk, crunching under the wheels of my stroller.)

As I drove my little Honda Civic through the blighted tangle of streets, I realized my (paper) map was utterly useless. All the street signs had been torn down. Nothing was familiar. I had no idea where I was and no idea how to get out. No GPS in those days, kiddos. I was in a complete panic when, miraculously, I stumbled onto my destination. I cried later, when I pulled up in front of our house at 1912 Spring Garden Street, the only street in the whole city that was even vaguely familiar to me.

Overall, not an “experience of beauty that promoted well-being.” Not by a long shot.

The troubled modern brain

When our environment lacks the requisite fractals to grab onto for object recognition and navigation, the brain finds itself in uncharted territory with no street signs, no familiar landmarks. The authors of the study say the absence of said fractals in Modernist buildings and spaces “renders them ‘incoherent’ to the human brain—causing stress in the human experiencing them.”

Again, Frank Gehry. It’s you.

By contrast, in a traditional environment, the brain undergoes a “stress-reducing, positively reinforced fractal aesthetic experience.”

The bottom line

The researchers’ conclusion is this: “The neurobiology of visual processing show that visually coherent, approachable, and beautiful traditional architecture is optimal for human well-being.”

This is a very science-y way of saying what most of us know in our bones to be true. We (our brains) love beauty and order and symmetry. We love the old, the historic, the traditional. It’s understandable and it’s human and it makes us feel good—and probably helps us be good.

Forgive the long quote, but I couldn’t begin to say this better than Brianna Rennix and Nathan J. Robinson, authors of “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture,” published in Architecture & Design in 2017:

“One of the elements that makes a place truly beautiful is a careful balance of complexity and simplicity. Contemporary architecture frequently just goes for the simplicity and forgets the complexity, or it makes up for the simplicity of its appearance with complexity in the technical processes necessary to build it. But the old buildings that please us most are frequently simple at the larger level and complex at the micro-level. For example: the buildings in New Orleans’ French Quarter are not actually elaborate. Most of them are simple, rectangular structures in a straight line along the street. But they are given pleasant colors, and adorned with colorful shutters and intricate iron galleries, and decorated with flowers and tropical plants. And it’s those complex elements that give the place life. The harmonious balance of simplicity and complexity, the complexity of a floral arrangement combined with the simplicity of a plain building painted well, make a place a delight to stroll through.”

And all the traditionalists said, “Amen.”

Andrea Lee is Marketing & Business Development Manager and Blogger-in-Chief at JLA, an architecture firm located in Northern Michigan. Before joining JLA, she was Associate Editor at a publishing house, where she wrote copy for dozens of custom publications and contributed regularly to Great Lakes/Seaway Review and Great Laker magazines.