Mind and Space in Flux | Designing a physical interaction in a space with memory of the users’ experiences through time
During an architectural experience, the architectural space and the human mind infinitely interact. Spatial experience is a non-ending interactive loop where the perceptual space changes by the mind, and the human mind changes during the current experience. The thesis aims to illuminate the brain processes that occur during an interaction between a user and an architectural space. The question of ‘how could we design a physical interaction where space has memories of all the individual experiences through time’ underpins the investigation.
Perceptual space is a product of our consciousness, a subjective representation of what an architectural user experiences; it is the outcome of a process of thought (Damasio, 2010). The experienced physical space is subjectively perceived as a unique model of the created mental space. When subjected to a perceptual process, an architectural space is constantly understood in a unique and different way. Chapter two explains the perceptual process of an architectural space that leads to the creation of a subjective inner reality. In addition to this, the role of memory and consciousness in this process is also described.
Neuroscientific studies have justified that the human mind changes during an architectural experience. The entity of mind, thoughts, the sense of self and the personality are shaped through life experiences (Begley, 2009). In the third chapter, the research focuses on the way that experience affects and changes the human brain.
The theoretical investigation led to the design of the project ‘íchni’ which is illustrated in the fourth chapter of the thesis.
Experiencing an architectural space is an endless interactive relationship between the architectural user and the designed space. Individuals are in constant negotiation with the surrounding environment. The negotiation happens through their bodies, since the body is their interface with the outer world. During the interaction, the human brain constantly tries to understand what the body is being involved in. According to the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, the external world is ‘mapped in the brain and mind’ (Damasio, 2010, p. 91) through the interaction between the body and the environment. In this continuity of space-body-mind, unique mental representations are created in the user’s mind, which constitute the result of a spatial experience (Neisser, 1967).
This paper seeks to outline the interaction between an architectural environment and its user. More specifically, the main research objectives of this investigation were the brain processes that occur during a spatial experience and which eventually result in the creation of inner mental representations. The question that drove this investigation was how we could design a physical interaction where space has memories of all the individual experiences through time.
An architectural environment is not interpreted by the users in a general and objective way. On the contrary, the architectural debate, that our interaction is, happens from a relative and not fixed point of view, given the fact that humans, as subjective beings, are specified by their personal emotions, thoughts and life experiences (Kosslyn, 2005). The process of perception is described in the first part of the paper in order to highlight how the subjective inner reality is created during a spatial experience.
Following that, the role of memory during the perceptual processes is analysed. During perception, mental representations will be created so that what the user perceives can be understood. At the same time, those images will be recorded through memory in the brain and they will influence future interactions/ perceptions. In addition to that, memory also filters information that will be restored and used during a perceptual process (Blakemore, 2018). For this reason, a description of memory types is made in this part of the thesis. Memory types will be analysed in three different categories. First, types of memory according to the amount of time they keep the data stored. Secondly, types of different consciousness range during data storage. Thirdly, a description of different memory types during recall information will be made.
Subsequently, consciousness’ contribution to making us aware of a perceptual process is explained. Space is a product of thought produced by the user’s subjective self (Damasio, 2010); the notion of self that is introduced by the concept of consciousness is going to be presented. The extent and scope of consciousness will be described as well. This scope refers to the ability of consciousness to make us aware of both present and past perceptions. Additionally, its role in the body-mind continuity will be illustrated.
This paper also refers to neuroscientific theories which have justified that brain and accordingly the mind change through our life experiences (Begley, 2009). The user’s experiences shape the entity of mind, thoughts, the sense of self and the personality. Therefore, the conductor of the inner reality, which the human brain is, is affected by experiences. By introducing modern neuroscience concepts, the case of generating a personal view and a subjective reality as a high-level and complex human brain process is described. So that these ideas can be communicated, the manner of brain function and information transmission are explained in this part as well.
Eventually, according to the philosophical, cognitive and neuroscientific research, the design project ‘Choreographed Traces’ which is currently in progress, is described. This project aims to create a virtual environment which is constantly being sculpted by the subjective and different way in which every visitor understands and interacts with the physical designed space. Its purpose is to visualize something intangible, but real; to highlight this sense of flux between the user and space. Not only that, but the suggested environment has memory, and captures every user’s experiences. This environment will constitute a collective library shaped by users’ experience traces.
2. BACKGROUND | PERCEPTION OF SPACE
2.1.1 The perception Cycle
The perceptual process defines the relationship between the user and the physical space. During perceptual experience, the human mind constantly processes information that it receives from the environmental stimuli in order to understand and interpret where the body is being involved (Neisser, 1967). Every stimulus -whether visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory or tactile – undergoes a brain process in order to create internal representations of the environment. This train of information processes is continually never-ending and ongoing; indeed it ‘is a cyclic interaction with the world’ (Neisser, 1978, p. 104).
At the same time, the way that we perceive our surrounding environment is selective, thus subjective (Gibson, 1950). The user of an architectural space is characterised by unique emotions, thoughts, memories, and personality traits. Moreover, our life experiences shape our different view of the world. It would be therefore impossible to assume that different people would share the same perception of a space. Even if the architectural space is the same, the process of perception is always different.
As a result, in addition to the existing physical space, another one, a unique one, is formed in our minds. The information that is collected by our sensory system, as well as the unique perception that every individual creates, determines the inner space that is formed. Given that information processing is different for every person, this it leads to unique mental models for every individual.
2.1.2 The visual buffer
The human body is the interface with the outer world. Environmental stimuli are captured by different bodily devices, for example, the eyes, the ears, the skin, etc. Those signals of received information will then be transmitted and processed in the brain. Brain processes will try to make sense of what the body is experiencing, by creating and storing information in the form of the inner representations.
As vision is the greatest channel of stimuli and information to the mind, visual perception is one of the basic functions of the human brain (Gibson, 1950). Without any doubt, visual perception is a fundamental brain function occurring when we are experiencing an architectural space. According to neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn (2005) visual perception is divided into two systems: the “bottom-up” system, which operates with real-time received information, and the “top-down” system (fig. 1). The top-down system, in contrast with the bottom-up one, is driven from stored information which is obtained by our memory, our knowledge, our thoughts, etc. Accordingly, our perceptual outcome, the imageries, is never based solely upon the real time incoming signals.
The fundamental organ of vision is the eye, one of our perception devices. The human eye has the capability to convert light energy (the incoming image) into a form of electrical signals which can be recognised by neural cells. According to Kosslyn’s bottom-up system, the incoming signals, after their recognition from neuron cells they are transmitted to the groups of neurons which form the visual pathway. The incoming images are deconstructed into different qualities that define form, movement, colour and are then advanced to different neural processing sets (Kosslyn and Osherson, 1995).
The aforementioned groups of nerve cells opt for the visual information they are interested in, while completely ignoring others. This function is what Kosslyn defined as the ‘attention window’ (Kosslyn, 2005). Attention window is the selective process of specific information from our ‘visual buffer’ (Kosslyn, 2005), i.e. all the available visual information. The selected information will subsequently be thoroughly processed. Perception, therefore, is governed by expediency and selectivity and vision is a key feature of active selectivity. The active and discriminative nature of the visual process contributes to the subjective understanding of an experience.
All the stimuli that come into mind contain a wealth of information that the brain requires to process, understand, classify and store in its different memory areas. In order for the users to comprehend and interpret a visual image, they must also compare the visual impressions that are perceived each time with previous, stored ones. According to Kosslyn’s top-down system (Kosslyn, 2005), incoming information is associatively connected with existing brain information. If incoming information was solely picked up and not processed by the brain, as for example Gibson suggests (Gibson, 1950), it would be useless.
Fig. 1. Diagram of the perception cycle (2018)
2.1.3 The Minds’ Eye | Information processing in the brain
Perceiving is a ‘constructive’ process rather than a passive one. Ulrich Neisser explains through his model of ‘mental imagery and perception cycle’ (Neisser, 1978) that perception is a continuous process between the perceiver and the architectural space. An architectural user is constantly processing incoming information, and his perceptions are in constant interaction with the environment. Internal information structures are constantly created, and the repetitive nature of perception makes him foresee more information from the surrounding space. Neisser, with his model of perception cycle, wanted to highlight the perceiver’s contribution to this process.
According to Neisser (1978), the process of visual perception must include along with collection, the prediction of stimuli as well. ‘Anticipatory schemata’ (Neisser, 1978), a term that he defined, are internal structures helping the brain to anticipate information. Schemata operate as 2d plans constituted of real-time and recorded information. Schemata are not percepts themselves, neither are capable of producing one. They are a phase of the perception cycle occurring when a user interacts with an environment.
The role of schemata is to obtain more information, and along with pre-existing brain information determine which information is going to be collected and which will be foreseen (fig. 1). Therefore, they determine the perceptual observations of a user, and they will influence what will be seen, as well. The user constantly anticipates specific information becoming available and collecting it. When the user collects them, the schema is going to transform and then he/she will anticipate more information. Hence, the perception becomes a creative process of constructing plans where the perceiver’s contribution becomes crucial. In fact, the importance of perceiver’s contribution enhances the concept that subjectivity governs the perceptual process.
According to Neisser, a schema is an inner structure that ‘changes by experience, and in a way by the “object” of observation’ (Neisser,1978). The ‘schemata’ are not passive. They direct the movements, they receive information when it is available, and they release information which will be subsequently processed. Not only that, but schemata operate on pre-existing schemata. Therefore, past experiences will determine the process of the present ones, since users acquire information according to past schemata.
During the construction of schemata, chunks of information are being processed. As claimed by the parallel processing model (Neisser, 1967), the human brain can process multiple information at the same time. Information from different sources is subject to simultaneous processing by being distributed in different brain areas.
In general, the perception cycle is an interactive process; an interaction between ‘schemata and available information’ (Neisser, 1978). At a specific point of time information will create a schema; then this schema will become available and it will become part of a bigger schema in order to anticipate information. The anticipation will change it, since the world itself changes, and it will lead the user to acquire more information.
2.1.4 Mental imagery
The last stage of the perception cycle is the creation of mental imagery. Mental images refer to visual mental representations, namely the mental images of visual information. They contain information from stimuli that are not available at that time, but they are stored in our memory. Mental imagery does not constitute a new influx of information but the “perception” of stored information (Kosslyn and Osherson, 1995).
Mental images are nothing more than representations of what is occurring in our minds; a projection of the human mind that tries to understand the outer world. “A mental image is not an accurate representation of the world, but a map from which the subject receives information, which is not yet recognized and analysed. It is the inner side of spatial prediction “ (Neisser,1978). Imagery constitutes a larger and more complex schema (fig. 1).
Under those circumstances, in every spatial interaction a unique representation is created in the user’s mind and stored in memory for future use and reference. Identical stimuli, identical spaces, always result in unique representations in human’s minds.
Owing to the fact that mental images are created by the current stimuli and the memories of an individual, they are a reflection of the individual’s self. They enclose all the physical, emotional and cognitive attributes of a human being acquired in their life until their current experiences.
2.1.5 Mental Space
As mentioned earlier, perception is not a passive representation of the experienced environment. On the contrary, it is a creative process of an inner mental space. Additionally, it determines the predictions that make us capable of receiving any kind of information, when they become available. As Ulrich Neisser claimed, our eyes see what the mind has predicted (Neisser, 1967).
The mental space is defined as the specific space that does not contain faithful representations of the real world but is formed through the idealized cognitive models of the subject. These cognitive models are a way of representing knowledge in a semantic frame. The mental space is built through the representations of the mind and the knowledge of the subject (fig. 1). Therefore, it does not rely on the reality of the external environment in which the individuals reside, but rather in the attempt to rewrite it through the processes that occur in the individuals’ brain.
John Locke gives another name for the mental world. It defines it as: “a pure space, that is, as an objective reality that corresponds equally to a universal representation of intellect. It is a simple idea of the mind, completely distinct from the idea of solidity that accompanies the physicality of the bodies” (Terzoglou, 2009).
Despite not being a real representation of the outer world, mental space is a real world itself. As Henry Bergson stated (Bergson, 2016) the imagery that we create during a perceptual process is nothing more than reality. Anything that appears in our consciousness is nothing more than reality.
2.1.6 The Element of Time
As discussed in the previous chapters, perception is a constant creative process. Three-dimensional structures are created and continuously modified by experience. The critical element that defines the creative aspect of perception, is time. The user of an architectural space perceives an environment constantly in subsequent time contours (Neisser, 1978). Space perception is a chronology of events and time is consecutive and progressive. As a result, nothing can be stable and fixed under its realm.
From one time section to its subsequent, mental models and the mental space created by the user during a spatial experience are altered. In addition, from one fixation to another, the information that is going to be processed by the schemata has been updated. Even the more solid environment, the same architectural space, changes from one time section to another according to the different fixations. Countless images are created for the same environment.
As a consequence, we never perceive the same space, particularly in different time sections. Our mental space, as a result, is in constant negotiation between the interactive process of perception and the surrounding space.
2.2.1 From Representations to Memory
Through the individual’s perceptual abilities, internal mental images are composed in (architectural) users’ brains. An entity that reflects reality is created. These reconstituted images are the users’ attempt to understand reality. Human minds are instantly creating images of anything that happens inside and around them, in order to make sense of it.
The construction of those images requires the processing of information; incoming and new, as well as preexisting ones. Not only that, but the incoming information interacts with stored ones, during the imagery process. Eventually, the images will be stored in the brain for future use. Consequently, memory plays a crucial role during the perceptual process. Henry Bergson mentions in his book ‘Mind Energy’ that ‘on the side of perception there is always memory’ (Bergson, 2016).
Additionally, every individual has different memories obtained from personal life experiences. The ways that memory will select how to store and/or recall information vary between users under the same circumstances. The result will be the enhancement of the subjective understanding of an architectural space.
2.2.2 Encoding and Storing | Memory Function Models
‘During the formation of mental imagery, the brain is encoding, recording and storing the respective patterns and must retain a path to retrieve the patterns for the attempted reproduction to work’ (Damasio, 2010, p. 131). Neuropsychology develops various evolutionary memory function models, categorizing them according to their function and time duration of storing data that they hold.
The Atkinson and Shiffrin (Sternberg, 2011) model represents memory as a repository and storage space for information and events. The aforementioned model essentially categorizes memory structure. Their proposal separates memory into three memory systems of information restraint: sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.
Sensory memory is considered the first storage space for a large amount of information, which will then be gradually transferred to the short and long-term memory.
Several researchers talk about the existence of a virtual memory (Sternberg, 2011), namely the existence of a distinct optical stimuli recording stage, which is thought to hold information in image formats. So, visual information is advanced to memory via virtual memory which holds them for a very short period of time. Under normal conditions, this information will be forwarded to next mnemonic systems or will be erased forever if they are overwritten by new ones. This results in the subject having little or no access to the sensory memory content
Consequently, some information moves to the next memory system that is short-term memory (fig. 2). This system not only holds the information, but also contains some control procedures which are responsible for the flow of information to and from the long-term memory system. The information remains in the short-term memory for about 30 seconds, unless the subject uses internal repetition to hold it longer (Blakemore, 2018). According to George Miller (Sternberg, 2011) the system, at any given time and with a wide variety of information, can hold seven elements with deviation ±2.
The last storage system is the long-term memory. Its function is to store information for a long time, perhaps forever. Its limits are inconspicuous, as there is no fixed number of information it can contain, nor a specific amount of time that keeps the data stored. In accordance with Stephen Kosslyn (2005), long-term memory representation is multimodal, because it can encode a vast amount of information, deriving from different stimuli. In general, long-term memory is a womb of long-durative information which helps to identify an input during an encoding process.
Fig. 2. Diagram of memory types (2018)
However, the classical memory structure model of Atkinson and Shiffrin has been characterized by many researchers as passive. Because researchers highlight the need for greater complexity in explaining memory function, alternative memory models have been developed. Models that do not describe memory function under the realm of time are implicit, explicit and working memory (Blakemore, 2018) (fig. 2). Implicit memory refers to the unconscious storage of information. On the contrary, explicit memory defines conscious recording of incoming information. Working memory introduces the general ability of the human brain to possess information consciously.
There is a vast incoming flow of information to the human brain. Storing all this amount of data in their original layout would be impossible for memory. For this reason, working memory borrows the disposition strategy (Damasio, 2010). That is the ability to store a chunk of information in a restricted space. Information is not saved in the original format but in a ‘lighter’ one, in a dispositional form, to be easily recovered when needed. Overall, dispositions save important storage space, and they ‘can be used to reconstruct the maps in early sensory cortices, in the format in which they were first experienced’ (Damasio, 2010).
2.2.3 Memory Recalls
Apart from encoding, recording and storing real-time selected data to create the perceptualmental images, a substantial process of the mind is to ‘reconstitute images from memory’ (Damasio, 2010, p. 73), namely the process of recall (Damasio, 2010) (fig. 2). In this case, past recorded images can be replayed in future time with the same quality, like the one they had when recorded. Human minds are defined by a constant fluctuated flow of actual- time and recalled images.
A number of different memory types have been developed to describe processes of stored information retrieval. The differences between them relate to the ‘complexity of recollection process’ (Damasio, 2010, 136). The amount and diversity of recollected information specify the process’ complexity. Besides this, the layers of nonunique to unique data recall require different memory complexity. In the case of unique retrieved data, high- complexity memory type is needed (Damasio, 2010).
Long-term memory is divided into two major categories, non-declarative and declarative (Blakemore, 2018). On the one hand, non-declarative memory is used during learning processes, and on the other hand, declarative memory is consciously recalled. Subsequently, declarative memory is divided into two different types in order to describe the aforementioned complexity and nonunique or unique recollected data. Semantic memory refers to general knowledge whereas episodic refers to unique and personal information and images (Blakemore, 2018). Hence, episodic memory introduces personal re-experiences whereas semantic introduces general and objective facts. Personal re-experiences recalled from episodic memory, and general and objective images from semantic memory are afterwards forwarded to procedural memory, a part of working memory, so as to be compared and evaluated.
2.2.4 Biased Memory
Our individual life experience is a collection of memories, and every fragment of memory is connected with a perception of its surrounding environment. The memories that a user is real-time creating are governed by similar past experiences. What we perceive thus as reality is prejudiced by our past.
According to Bergson (2016), memories are fragmented, and they usually maintain only some aspects of the original perception. At the same time, mental images that a user creates during his current spatial interaction alter the recorded memories. The retrieval of information from long-term memory highlights both the regenerative and creative role of memory. The recall of information and experience is not made as a coherent and actual event, which is not subject to mutations from the viewpoint of the subject. Instead, it is directly affected by the coding and recall mode as well as by the person’s personal view.
2.3 ABOUT CONSCIOUSNESS
Space is a product of consciousness (De Kerckhove, 2001)
2.3.1 Defining Consciousness
During a perceptual process, an architectural space user collects information gathered from the existing stimuli. Provided that the user is aware of this, he/she is also able to collect it and create constructions of knowledge, i.e. personal mental representations. Knowledge is achieved through the experience (Κant, 2006). Besides that, it could be described as the information stored in the brain memory, and it is the result of cognition. Kant enriches the definition by describing knowledge as a set of representations, which are born within the consciousness, and which are compared and connected to each other (Κant, 2006). These representations convey/carry the characteristics of the objects of the outside world with the help of consciousness. As Bergson claims, consciousness refers first of all to memory (Bergson, 2016). Consciousness makes us able to be aware of the surrounding reality by creating a conscious model as a low dimensional projection (Metzinger, 2009). Knowledge, then, can be defined as the entity of the information from the external world acquired by the subject through the tools of consciousness.
Consciousness describes our ability to notice (Bergson, 2016); to be aware of one’s existence, an experience and the surrounding environment (Damasio, 2010). According to Antonio Damasio, consciousness has a range (fig. 3). Core or primary consciousness (Damasio, 2010) is the one aspect of the immediate perceptions; the ‘sense of the here and now,’ (Damasio, 2010, p. 171). Core consciousness is related to the consciousness of the sensory stimulus. It is specifically related to the subject’s perceptual abilities and to all the stimuli it receives through the senses. Extended, secondary or autobiographical consciousness, the other aspect, describes a wider scope where a person is thinking and is being aware of his perceptions as a combination of the lived past events and the future anticipations. Extended consciousness ‘is about both personhood and identity’ (Damasio, 2010, p. 171).
According to Aristotle (Aristotle, 1912) stimuli that activate the senses are a process that occurs within the consciousness. Stimuli are constantly altering the substance of our consciousness. Also, since consciousness is a characteristic of the human soul, it changes the perception of one’s self by producing an image within it. This image is related to the past experiences and replaces the sensory stimuli through the process of memorisation. Therefore, consciousness contributes to the creation of the mental representation of the current experience (Kouvelas, I. and Papadopoulos, G 2011).
Fig. 3. Diagram of consciousness range (2018)
2.3.2 Body, Mind and the ‘Self’
As the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio suggested (Damasio, 2010), consciousness introduces the idea of a mind and a ‘self’. According to Bergson (2016), the self seems to overflow the body to which it belongs and overdraw it not only in space but also in time. Firstly, in space, because every individual’s body is defined by its exact outline, while a subject’s ability to perceive, and in particular the ability to see, extends beyond the body. Secondly, in time, because the human body is matter and matter exists only in the present whereas the past leaves traces in the present. Traces of the past are destined for a consciousness that perceives and interprets them under the light of recalls.
Although someone could argue that consciousness constitutes a characteristic of the soul and the mind -which is not related to the body-, our minds never act without the body (Bergson, 2016). They are an entity. We perceive through the incoming stimuli to our bodies; we remember because our bodies have imprinted traces of our past experiences. Henry Bergson (2016), in his book ‘Mind-Energy’, claims that since consciousness is happening in the brain, and the brain is placed in our bodies, the brain is the ‘machine’ that connects us with reality. ‘Body and brain bond’ (Damasio, 2010, p.21). The role of consciousness is to contain the past and to prepare us for the future. In order for the mind to operate as well as for our consciousness to create inner views, the body is always needed.
2.3.3 The Subjectivity Spectrum
Being conscious unquestionably means having a ‘mind endowed with subjectivity’ (Damasio, 2010, p.3) (fig. 4). The concept of a self introduces the aspect of subjectivity. The sense of a self that the mind has, is the one that – as time progresses – inspects the inner and surrounding environment. Self, and by all means consciousness, is a constant relationship between the user’s present state and the environment’s current state. Besides that, the subject’s self actively selects and filters the influx of information that eventually will be processed. The outcome of this ongoing process of being conscious and having a self is the acquisition of different ‘value-stamped collections’ (Damasio, 2010, p.8) of incoming information.
Fig. 4. Diagram of consciousness and subjectivity relation (2018)
2.3.4 The Architectural Process | A Changing Space
Experiencing and perceiving an architectural space is an ongoing process, unfolding under the realm of time. Every part of the interaction between a space and a user needs to be conscious, in order to be perceived. The outcome of this interaction is that in every time section a subjective experience is composed.
Contemporary philosopher Thomas Metzinger in his book ‘Being No One’ (2009), presented a model on the interaction and understanding of a surrounding environment by a conscious user. According to him, ‘in a conscious experience there is a world, there is a self, and there is a relation between both – because in an interesting sense this world appears to the experiencing self’ (Metzinger, 2009, p.5). His ‘self-model theory of Subjectivity’ (Metzinger, 2009) consists of three elements: the globally available model of the world, the virtual window of presence and the transparency (fig. 5).
The globally available model of the world is all the available information that humans obtained through evolution and personal life experiences. The virtual window is the reality that appears to the user, i.e. what is present at a specific time of the interaction. Transparency operates as the subjective filter through which a user perceives the given reality (Metzinger, 2009). Experience becomes an individual subjective phenomenon which is constantly changing. In Kosslyn’s opinion, the overall model is a structure of understanding, and it describes the relationship between the human (user) and the environment (architecture) as ‘a reflexive circulation’ (Kosslyn, 2005). This circulation is characterised by simultaneous and successive perceptions that will lead to the acquisition of knowledge.
When we try to understand through the perceptual process the reality space, a hypothetically common ground, a unique mental space is created. During a perceptual process, under the eye of consciousness, we build a mental structure of the physical one. Our perceptions, as was previously analyzed, are unique, even when perceived by the same person. As Walter Gropius said: ‘we understand space through the simultaneous action of soul, mind, and body. A corresponding concentration of all forces is necessary to form it’ (Terzoglou, 2009, p. 10). Every time that we will experience the same space, our perceived model will always be different, since the combination of knowledge, memories and current stimuli can never be precisely the same. It is the space of the new subjective reality. Consequently, space in our eyes is utterly malleable by our experience.
Fig. 5. Diagram of conscious user’s architectural experience (2018)
3. BACKGROUND | COGNITION
3.1 From experience to malleable minds
Until the end of the 1990s, the human brain was considered as something fixed and unchangeable. However, contemporary neuroscience has proved that experience can change the human brain. In 1890 William James, an experimental psychologist, introduced the term brain ‘plasticity’ (Begley, 2009). He argued that the ‘organic matter, especially nervous tissue, seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity’ (Begley, 2009). With this term, he managed to introduce his idea that the brain can be influenced and can be changed by experience. Moreover, his theory enhances the idea that the living body is shaping the brain (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015). Until then the neural paths of an adult brain were considered as something fixed. Neuroscience introduced the idea that experience leaves a memory trace to the neural network. Beyond what there is in the first place due to our gene composition, what is obtained by experience leaves a trace modifying everything that previously existed (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015).
The idea that the environment can change our brains and can uniquely affect every person, began with the movement maps. In the early 20th century, neuroanatomists discovered the movement maps (Begley, 2009). Those were brain maps of the motor cortex drawing the part of the body that the specific area of the cortex could move. By running numbers of experiments, scientists realised that every movement map varied from one another. They proved that life experience is differently encoded in the brain. Neuroscientist Charles Sherrington gave a poetic definition of the human brain. According to him ‘brain is an enchanted loom, where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern, though never an abiding one’ (Begley, 2009).
3.2 Neurons, Brains’ Bricks
In order to understand how the human brain could change it is important to explain how the human brain functions and transmits information. First and most important of all, every human brain is unique. What makes them unique is their principal special cell, the neuron. The brain has about 1011 billion neurons (Damasio, 2010), which contribute to different functions but have the same structure and way of operating. Neurons are constantly receiving signals from the outer world and sending signals to the rest of our bodies. Mental activity is the result of neurons’ activity through signals transmission. Neurons create a massive network inside the brain with trillions of interconnections, through which information is transmitted (fig. 6). The network consists of circuits that vary in size, from microscopic to large. Nonetheless, not every neuron is connected to every other one. Their connections are selective (Damasio, 2010).
Fig. 6. Diagram of neural network (2018)
A neuron consists of three anatomical elements: the cell body, the dendrites, and the axon (fig. 7). The cell body is the area in which the information is integrated and is where the cell nucleus exists. The axon, neuron’s output fiber, is the part from which signals are transmitted to the other axes. Axons are those fibers that create the brain’s characteristic interconnected network. The dendrite is the neuron’s receiving element, which receives the information from another neuron. The area where the connection between neurons occurs, through electrochemical releases, is called synapse (fig. 8). Each neuron forms about 10,000 synapses with other neurons (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015).
Fig. 7. Diagram of neuron (2018)
Fig. 8. Diagram of neural synapse (2018)
The ability of neurons to transmit signals through synapses establishes a ‘functional difference’ (Damasio, 2010) in relation with every other cell. Those signals can activate other cells and, in this way, determine their behaviour; this is a neuron’s unique capacity. Activated neurons are considered to be firing (or on). Damasio mentions in his book ‘Self Comes to Mind’ that ‘changing the state of other cells is the very source of the activity that constitutes and regulates behaviour’ (Damasio, 2010). Neurons’ activity results in the creation of mental images, the core of mental activity. Such an important role do synapses have.
3.3 Memory Trace | The Concept of Neuroplasticity
Life experiences can change the human mind. Neuroscientific researches have proven that our experiences, like learning or memory processes in adults, can change the brain in physical ways. Through many experiments, it was proved that when the adult brain learns new skills, or even during a thought process, the brain areas can change. Different brain areas can grow or shrink because of the activity of the neural circuits, according to our experiences, by synaptic pruning (Begley, 2009). Synaptic pruning describes the concept of getting neurons pruned from their corresponding circuit if they are not frequently used.
Apart from pruning, the term ‘plasticity’ defines a more drastic interactive relation between human experiences and human’s surrounding environment, and how this interaction affects the human brain. As Ramon y Cajal first suggested (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015), neural connections are not definitive and irreversible. On the contrary, temporary connections are created between neurons which eventually will get maintained or destroyed under undefined conditions. Neuron extensions are characterised by great mobility. Plasticity is based on how neurons are going to get firing according to one’s experience. Not to mention that neurons’ firing will be imprinted in their body. It is proven that synapses involved in the information transfer process, are always subject to modification depending on personal experience (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015).
The presynaptic and postsynaptic part of the synapse determines the intensity and stimulation of the neuron, which respectively determines the transfer of the information. The presynaptic and postsynaptic are consequently the area where plasticity occurs. Plasticity mechanisms modify the intensity of information transmission between neurons at the synapses, contributing to the creation of a trace (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015). Some stimuli from the outside world leave a trace on the neural network in the form of synaptic efficiency modification. There are two different types of modification (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015). The first one is the temporal summation where a significant electrochemical release is occurring. Spatial summation, the second type of plasticity, happens when many synapses are being created at the same time. According to Donald O. Hebb (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015), ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. Coincidence in the activity of firing will cause the synapses to have a stronger response.
Trace is dynamic. Its imprinting mechanisms give the neural network great plasticity. The neural network is constantly altered by experience and changes are equally structural and functional. The plasticity mechanism reshapes neural circuits in such a way that the same stimulus can lead to a variety of responses (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015). Events and the dynamics of experience can adjust the neural network. Therefore, the brain should be considered as a highly dynamic organ, which is in permanent relation to both its environment and the subject’s mental events or actions. As Robert Turner, an English neurologist, claimed: ‘We never use the same brain twice’ (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015, p.174).
Overall, a subject’s experience leaves behind a tangible material trace. An event that is experienced at a given time gets imprinted at that moment and does not disappear over time. The event leaves a trace and at the same time, the time is incarnated. However, the trace can be re-processed or re-operate in a different way, related to other traces (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015).
3.4 The Mental Trace
The process of experiencing and perceiving an architectural environment changes the user’s brain structure and causes neural network reshaping. The synaptic plasticity mechanisms allow the creation of a trace in the neural network based on the perception of the outside world. Through them an inner reality is formed; a reality that we are aware of or that can emerge into consciousness through revocation. However, the recall of information and experience is subject to mutations from the subject’s point of view, thus is not a coherent process. Instead, it is directly affected by the way of coding and recalling, but also by the subject’s personal view (Begley, 2009).
The synaptic traces of an experience can be associated with other traces, produced by other experiences. From this association new mental images, which have no longer anything to do with the experiences originally imprinted, will be created. Those new mental images also belong to the individual’s inner reality (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015). The continuous perception of external stimuli constantly affects the inner reality that is under permanent construction. Primary traces are correlated with each other to form the inner reality, and the diachronic dimension, represented by the correlation of these new traces over time, leads to constructions that are impossible to predict (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015).
Neuroplasticity and memory traces suggest that our minds should be considered as something malleable. The human mind, as a system, is reorganized from one stimulus to another, resulting over time in the fact that the same stimulus will lead to different responses depending on the state of the system. The mind is never fixed and static. Consequently, the relationship between the subject and the architectural space always change. They are both engaged in a non-ending loop of mutual influence. A material reality is transformed into a mental one and vice versa (Ansermet and Magistretti, 2015) (fig. 9). Nonetheless, the created unique inner reality is always different from the physical and biological external reality.
Fig. 9. Diagram of mind and space in flux (2018)
4. DESIGN THESIS | ‘ICHNI’
In the currently in progress design project ‘íchni’ (which is being developed by Isabella Ong, Marianna Chrapana and the author) the aforementioned ideas underpin the design process.
In our proposed mixed reality installation íchni (meaning ‘traces’ in Greek), visitors’ movements and engagement with the designed physical space produces a three-dimensional vector field of forces in the designed virtual space which continually changes according to the spatial experience. Our aim is to create a space with the collective memory of all the individual experiences.
The design proposal consists of two parts, a physical and a virtual. The physical experimental space, the ‘choreographic devices’, consists of three devices. Namely, a mobile frame that moves on a circular path, a semi-circular surface which operates as a seesaw and a metal cylinder with a field of vertical elastic strings (fig. 10).
Fig. 10. Íchni, The ‘Choreographic Devices’ (2018)
The visitors engage in a bodily manner with the physical devices by (1) changing the configuration of the frame, (2) oscillating on the see-saw and (3) by walking inside the field by pushing the ropes. Every movement, or more specifically every force produced by the body-device interaction, is captured from changes on the devices’ states (like movement, rotation, vibration) through sensors (piezo, light resistors, etc.) that are embedded in them (fig. 11).
Fig. 11. Íchni, Diagram of interaction (September 2018)
The virtual part, the ‘trace library’, is a 360o space superimposed on and surrounding the physical sculpture (fig. 12). The visitors are able to see only fragments of the virtual space and as they navigate and experience the physical space, all the different sections of the trace library are presented to them.
Fig. 12. Íchni, Plan view of physical and virtual space (September 2018)
The virtual elements are transformed in real-time by the recorded movements of the user. Particularly, every movement produced by the interaction with the devices is translated into a digital force on the line field and consequently will sculpture the virtual environment (fig. 11).
Through engagement, different physical transformations are allowed and by the motions generated by the users, the totality of the virtual space subsequently changes accordingly. The virtual space is projected back to the physical environment, creating thus an endless interactive loop.
The three-dimensional space evolves with time, as ripples on water surface do; every concentric circle signifies a past time section, where the centre of the circle is the present (fig. 13). At specific time intervals, the created virtual model is shifted on the time axis, in order for new motions to get imprinted. In this way not only is the experience stored but it also leaves a trace in the virtual environment. The past line configurations are affected by the new applied forces. Depending on the intensity of the forces and on the pre-existing elements, parts of the field remain the same for a longer time, new lines are created, and some become weaker, or they even disappear.
Fig. 13. Íchni, Diagram of virtual space’s time axis (September 2018)
Our goal is to create a space with memory; a ‘trace library’ of experiences that has been modified by the minds of the users and which is able to be explored. In this way, we are to introduce new users to spaces that have previously been imagined by others.
Moreover, the project’s objective communicates to the visitors the concept that the interaction between a user and a designed space is a continuous process of internal model making; it is an information process that will be visualized in the virtual space. Since our minds are changing from current experience, the mental space -poetically interpreted in the virtual environment- is constantly changing on the axis of time; the present models are affected by the past ones and will alter the future ones.
Interpreting the perceptive process, the design of the virtual space is based upon the analysis made in the previous chapters. As presented in chapters 2.1 & 2.2, during a spatial experience, mental structures are created and stored in memory for future use. Accordingly, forces generate new structures in the virtual space, and a collection of the different experiences is stored in it. Current experiences, as it was noted, are affected by past ones. Likewise, what is created at the current time of interaction, is affected by past structures.
The movements of the user while interacting with those devices are assumed to represent the way that users perceive space. As it was previously described, the users consciously decide actions during the process of perception of the physical space. In chapter 2.1 it was explained that through information foraging while creating internal structures, the body will foresee more stimuli and information. In our proposal, bodily engagement provides new information for the perceptual process and changes the created constructions.
Since we introduce a highly stimulating and challenging physical environment, this causes neuroplasticity to the human brain. An assumption can be made that as visitors engage with the devices, they learn new skills, and synaptic changes will occur. This concept is based on the description made in chapter 3.0 on how the human brain is affected by experience. As a result, the same visitor perceives the designed space every time from a slightly shifted perspective. Therefore, every new movement produces new forces and will change the virtual sculpture in unpredicted ways.
The notion of subjectivity is illustrated in our project. As it was discussed in chapter 2.3, perception and space awareness are a conscious process, and consciousness introduces the idea of a self. At the same time consciousness, as Damasio (2010), contributes to body and mind connections. In our proposal, the fact that the user is continually aware of his movement as part of the perceptual process and the occurring of an inner immaterial process, which is revealed to him through the projection. The projection operates as the personal window to our ‘inner space’. Every user can notice how his/her perception constantly changes the overall experience. The window is making visible this intangible flux that exists while perceiving and interacting with a designed space. As it follows, the projection informs the visitor about the process that occurs in the human mind.
Overall, in the virtual realm, an environment is continuously being sculpted by the subjective and unique way that every visitor understands and interacts with the physical designed space. As the human mind continually processes real-time incoming data alongside with saved data, and the inner structures are constantly being reformed, the virtual space correspondingly changes. Finally, our ‘trace library’ is constructed, constituted out of the collection of each visitor’s experience through time.
To sum up, the interaction between an architectural user and space is indeed a creative process. Space, body, and mind are in constant interaction. Flux of information continually occurs, and the product of this interaction is the formation of internal structures (Neisser, 1978).
The human brain creates information structures. Informational sculptures are initially created by simple two-dimensional plans, i.e. internal images and then by complex three-dimensional sculptures, in order to comprehend what the interaction is about. In other words, the brain creates complicated structures in order to inform itself.
Those models are created, as it was described, from real-time incoming information, along with stored information (Blakemore, 2018). This fact leads us to the argument that past life experiences are imprinted in our minds, and they leave a trace which will determine our future observation and eventually our space interpretation.
Moreover, the information process that occurs in our brains not only determines what we perceive as reality but also changes our brain (Begley, 2009). Therefore, apart from the continuity of this process, the conductor of this process, namely our brain, is proven to be affected by experience and changes. The mental representations that are created can vary over time. At the same time, the same space can be re-experienced.
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List of Figures
Fig. 1. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of the perception cycle, Personal archive.
Fig. 2. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of memory types, Personal archive.
Fig. 3. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of consciousness range, Personal archive.
Fig. 4. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of consciousness and subjectivity relation, Personal archive.
Fig. 5. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of conscious user’s architectural experience, Personal archive.
Fig. 6. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of neural network, Personal archive.
Fig. 7. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of neuron, Personal archive.
Fig. 8. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram on neural synapse, Personal archive.
Fig. 9. Niaka, A. (2018) Diagram of mind and space in flux, Personal archive.
Fig. 10. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong, I. (September 2018) Íchni, The ‘Choreographic Devices’, Personal archive.
Fig. 11. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong, I. (September 2018) Íchni, Diagram of interaction, Personal archive.
Fig. 12. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong, I. (September 2018) Íchni, Plan view of physical and virtual space, Personal archive.
Fig. 13. Chrapana, M., Niaka, A. and Ong, I. (September 2018) Íchni, Diagram of virtual space’s time axis, Personal archive.