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Spatial Relations to The Mind

Spatial Relations to The Mind

“The extended mind” claims that our environment is a part of mind, supposes a dynamic interaction system between individuals and environment (Clark and Chalmers, 1998). It is a common belief now that the mind is the activity of the brain. Knowledge of the neural signals generated by brain (EEG) helps us understand the mind, also make it possible to communicate with external environment in physic ways. As an integrated discipline, architecture has long been attracted by advanced research in different fields. The EEG potentially provides architects another type of influence over environment. This literature review starts with comparing different theories of the mind, followed by demonstration of the EEG technology that is related to “the extended mind”, including in which ways it could be applied into architecture.


1.The Extended Mind Thesis (EMT)

Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” Clark and Chalmers (1998) put forward the question in “The Extended Mind” more than a decade ago. Before that, some believe the boundary of mind and body is “skin and skull,” which separates the human organism and other environmental elements totally. Others hold the view relate to “content externalism” (Rowlands,
2003); however, it fail to explain the influence of external environment on cognitive processes and consider to be a “passive externalism” (Clark and Chalmers, 1998). In this case, Clark and Chalmers (1998) bring forward a third position–“the Extended Mind Thesis (EMT)” to challenge traditional hypothesises, in which they claim thatthe cognition not only exist in the brain, and in some cases, the mind can go beyond the body.


René Descartes’ illustration of mind/body dualism

The mind/body problem is a central concern of philosophy. Commonly, it focuses on how mind and body interact (McLeod, 2007). The dualism explains mind and body both exist as separate entities, while the monism holds the mind is the function of the brain / the body is the perception of mind (McLeod, 2007). The traditional dualism considers the mind as a non-physic element. Descartes claimed that there is causality between the non-physic mind and the physic body. However, the dualism did not fully explain the interaction between them (Chrruthers, 2004). Nowadays medical science proves some mental states relate to brain functions. Therefore, the functionalism theory is widely accepted (Clark, 2001). The EMT turns to functionalism that su
pports the mental state is produced by specific brain neural process. Based on monism, functionalism brings forward that mental states are physic states instead of internal constitution (Rowlands, 2003). The EMT expands it, proposes the brain is not the only field present the mental states (Clark and Chalmers, 1998). For instance, when the author is writing, the EMT believes not only author’s brain, but also his pen and paper play roles in realizing the writing process. According to functionalism, the pen and the paper are parts of the mind, because they have attended the mental state that realised the loop, the mind is extended.

Another cornerstone of the EMT is the mind “embodied, embedded and enacted” (Kiverstein and Clark, 2009). The EMT considers the two-way loop between human organisms and external context as the field of the mind. The embodiment emphasises the importance of organism, while the embedment and the enactment explain the interaction between individuals and environment. A good example for this is the relation between the blind person and the crutch. A blind person perceives his position by knocking the ground with his crutch (Clark, 2001). The crutch and the blind person consist of a cognition process and the environment plays an active role in it. This supports the EMT in another way.

Clark-Chalmers’ model defines the mind as the result of the organism-environment interaction, suggests mind can be extended. However, certain research such as niche construction model argues that the EMT is limited since it only proves few selected cases and merely explains human action (Sterelny 2010). The EMT insists human cognition contains external context; by contrast, “The scaffolded mind” claims human cognition is based on and influenced by external environment (Sterelny, 2010). Nevertheless, Sterenly (2010) mentions that both hypothesises acknowledge the essential of environmental resources in enhancing human cognitive capacity, which still tightly couples the mind and its environment. Apart from this, Adams and Aizawa (2009) also points out conditions of the EMT are over strict (Greenwood, 2013). It can be seen that the EMT provides us a specific explanation of the mind, but it is not completely acceptable. Potentially, the premise of the EMT that individuals and environment consist of a dynamic interaction system is the most valuable part. It may make a remarkable difference to science as it enlightens new investigations.

2. Electroencephalogram (EEG) and Brain Computer Interface (BCIs)

The author of the EMT Chalmers (2014) suggests a science of consciousness that explains the mind in purely physical terms In order to find fundamental laws connecting consciousness to physical processing and potentially transfigures our relationship to nature. It is not possible so far to define mind like other fundamental physic elements such as space and mass (Chalmers, 2014). Fortunately, knowledge of the neural signals helps us understand the mind and make it feasible to interact with environment in physic ways.

The electrical activities of the brain (electroencephalogram or EEG) have been studied for more than one century. “The EEG consists of the summed electrical activities of populations of neurons, with a modest contribution from glial cells. The neurons are excitable cells with characteristic intrinsic electrical properties, and their activity produces electrical and magnetic fields” (Silva, 2010). It records the electrical fields at the surface of the scalp, which are produced by “the joint contribution of several neuron’s populations with similar spatial orientation” (Silva, 2010). Generally, the EEG measures dynamical assemblies of neurons and provides neural signals information. In this way, the mental state of the user is algorithmically deduced. Knowledge of EEG is especially relevant when human initiate to understand “higher-order brain functions such as perception, memory trace formation and action programming” since these functions are coordinated by constantly neural assembles (Silva, 2010). However, EEG signals cannot reconstruct the behavior of the neuron precisely for technical challenges (Silva, 2010). Nevertheless, it reflects brain activity to some extent and has the possibility to make us communicate with external environment by measuring brain activities and applying brain data to specific devices.

Fig 1. Electroencephalogram

Modern science in different fields has fantasied to create devices that allow the mind directly interact and communicate with environment. “The Brain Computer Interfaces (BCIs) are an emerging and converging technology that translates the brain activity of its user into command signals for external devices, ranging from motorized wheelchairs, robotic hands, environmental control systems, and computer applications” (Heersmink, 2011). By using neural signals generated from EEG, The BCIs allows control be realised only by brainwaves, with on movement required. Theoretically anything can be controlled by computer could be controlled by BCIs (Tan and Nijholt, 2010). Since mind content determined by mental state and EEG helps to understand mental state, the BCIs technology has the potential to become cognitive and organismal extension and expands the mind/body concern into mind/environment field. It challenges researchers to explain brain states and feed them into computing systems (Tan and Nijholt, 2010). The EEG simply detects brain activities but cannot send commands back to brain; however, as a two-way loop, when users see or feel environment change, their mental states are simultaneously influenced, which means the interaction between the mind and environment already happened.

Until now, we have EEG-based hardware and applications for controlling software and machines with neural signals, which seems extends minds into environment like invisible hands. For example, by picking up relevant EEG signals and applying them we can switch light or even guide a robotic arm. It is worth mention that this kind of “mind-control” is similar to traditional cybernetics but in a different way; however, as a brain correlative control, it can do more. We may think about what mind is. Perhaps the most direct answer is because human have thought, belief, emotion, feeling, perception and so on (McLeod, 2007). If EEG and BCIs can read human mental states one day in the future, the interaction between human and environment would not stay at controlling level. Tan Le is the co-founder of an EEG headsets company – the Emotiv. Le (2010) states human communication with machines is limited to direct forms like turning on the light with switch. However, communication among human is more complicated as there are interactions among us. For instance, when people talk with each other, they may intuit feelings and emotions from the conversation. Therefore, Le (2010) supports controlling in a way that computer can understand and respond to human emotional experiences. It seems interpreting brain signals potentially can achieve this goal. In this case, control and interaction is not only hand-free, but also responsive and adaptive. 

 3. Soft Architecture

Fig 2. Neuroflower

Architects and neurologists have long been attracted by each other. The advanced knowledge in neuroscience research helps grow understanding of human responses to the built environment (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2013). EEG and BCIs traditionally are used in medical science since them have great value in treating brain-based diseases (Tan and Nijholt, 2010). Recently, with the development of low-cost and easy-to-use EEG devices such as Emotiv and Neurosky Mindwave set, EEG and BCIs moved to the consumer market, making people who have little neuroscience knowledge like architects get the chance to experience brainwave control and interaction. Thus, designers with minimal experience in either field can be involved in the intersection of brains and buildings (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2013).

EEG and BCIs help explain how architecture directly influences the brain. Architects potentially read the mental states of people in the buildings, determine whether the designed space is suitable and then improve it. Vice versa, EEG and BCIs may allow brainwave to affect the building. At the first level, users probably control housing like locking the door and ruffling the curtain with EEG-based set; at the second level, the building might be able to perceive human mental states with higher BCIs technology, implement the building self-regulation according to human emotions or feelings.

Architects nowadays are seeking for buildings that are both adaptive and responsive. Compared with traditional architecture, buildings with brain sensors involved might meet this demand of building better. If the brain signals obtained by EEG can be applied into architecture, both architects and users might benefit. On one hand, architects potentially gain another type of constructing on space, not only in the feedback phase mentioned before but also in designing phase. For instance, the brain activities data that is tangible but unpredictable can be applied in parametric design. On the other hand, it provides users a new experience of building environment. Imaging a room can adjust the inner temperature according to users’ body temperature perception or a wall can change its background base on users’ mood, in this case, the building communicates with users to some extend.

Fig 3. Neuroflower

There are few examples on an architectural scale implicated has been done because of the technical limitation; however, some installation artists stepped into this area first. Neuroflower is a public sculpture designed by Ashley Newton (2015) that can directly respond to brain activities. It is covered with a rainbow of colors and controlled by an EEG-based headset. The headset transmits neural signals to the flower. If the viewers focus on the task, the petals will brighten up and open. Also, the color of the petals will change when the flower receive different signals from the EEG (Brick, 2015). The purpose of this installation is to express the internal process externally. It demonstrates that human interact with the context only by mental states is not novel.

4. Application

Architecture has its specific points. Turn back to the EMT, there are several conditions are mentioned that if the external be part of the mind, it should be 1) constant in life; 2) directly available without difficulty; 3) endorsement (Clark and Chalmers, 1998). It seems that most of buildings surround us meet the criteria, which makes them surly have relation with the mind and probably be the extension of mind. The EMT supposes a dynamic interaction system between individuals and environment (Clark and Chalmers, 1998). In the age of computing, people gradually gets used to things around them can adapt to the presence of human. We are looking forward a surrounding includes buildings that can adjust self-capacity to respond human organism and realise the interaction.

无标题Fig 4. The “Transparent”

In this case, smart architecture would be a trend in the coming century. For instansce, Ducao, Tseng and Kapri (n.d.) develop a project named “Transparent” to apply BCIs into social architecture. The “transparent” is an office window that can change its opacity according to user’s concentration. The user’s attention level is measured through EEG. By varying transparency, the window blocks environmental distractions (Ducao, Tseng and Kapri, n.d.). In this propose, the brainwave signals detected by EEG are algorithmically processed to distinguish the user’s focus level. Then, the level is transmitted to the controller of glass tile to determine the window opacity (Ducao, Tseng and Kapri, n.d.). As the user concentrates, the window would become opaque to block outside distractions, which also allows user be more focus. Otherwise the window would increase transparency (Ducao, Tseng and Kapri, n.d.). “Transparent” is a two-way interaction as mental statesand environment affect each other at the same time. It explores possibilities to combine BCIs with smart architecture to improve space quality.

Fig 5. Cerebral Hut

Beyond that, new forms of architecture are also continually magnetic to architects. “Cerebral Hut” is an installation made by architect Guvenc Ozel (2013). The hut is consisted of ten red hexagonal panels. Ozel wrote a script that turns brain activities into panel motions (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2013). Visitors can control the size and the deformation of the panel-made wall simply by concentrating and blinking through an EEG headset. Ozek supposes a kinetic architecture that directly connects to the thoughts of users and reconfigures its physical boundaries (Campbell-Dollaghan, 2013).

Either case provides a good instance that EEG and BICs can be well applied into architecture. It is not novel to link the mind to environment. Although EEG still has drawbacks like noisy signals, uncomfortable wearing experience and unreliable results until now. It is worth invested for its immense potential in architecture.


The EMT regards environment as part of human mind. Based on that, architects obtain a new understanding of space that the external environment can relate to the mind. The EEG technology, on the other side, provides architects and users a different way to influence and experience space by using the neural signals. Philosophy gives architects new insight into architecture, technology provides new ways to realise it. With more and more architects put attentions on emerging fields, architecture might be totally different in the following decades.



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