The architecture of human brain is complex. Our memory helps us form recognition, definition and accessibility of information, among many other things, about really anything in this world like an object, words, music or any other external "event". The memory process contains of three main steps: encoding, storage and recalling. In this article we will cover how encoding happens, the process and how the phenomena of human brain and its complexity can play a major role in design and interior. As we cover some of the fundamental concepts of human brain structure and process, keep in mind that there are different opinions and points of view on most discoveries and definitions on human brain and overall the human anatomy and psychology. We tried to keep a neutral tone throughout the article while also encourage you to interpret and form your own opinion and point of view.
The Process of Encoding
Encoding allows us to construct new memories. To really simplify it, let's start with an example of encoding a red apple as a memory. The encoding process registers that an apple is a fruit, it's red, it's round and the sound "apple" is for the fruit apple and the letters are "apple". All these together are registered in different parts of our brain but through a complex system we can recall these details as one experience all at once to define what an apple is and means next time we see an apple.
The biological process of encoding starts first with our attention to an external event, the external stimuli. The perceived sensations and all the pieces of information collected from the external stimuli are processed and constructed in different areas of Cortex and altogether an experience is created. The analyzing and processing function of the brain Hippocampus (let's call it Hippo) is constantly storing, associating and comparing all the pieces of information received from a new event against the previously registered memories. The Hippo then assists in sorting out the information and along with a lot of other complex steps, a memory is encoded and can get committed to a long-term memory. As mentioned different parts of an experience are stored in different parts of the brain. This is extremely important because later on (below) we will see how encoding and consolidation play together and each memory can have many connections to other registered or yet-to-happen memories and how one connection can be involved in multiple memories. This complexity gives designers a very powerful tool when designing or remodeling a space.
Our brain is constantly processing information. There are different types of encoding processes for audio, vision, touch, taste-smell and meaningful and contextual inputs (emotions). The interesting thing about encoding process and whether an experience or a piece of information is stored in our short term memory or long term memory (or stored at all) relies on the senses that are involved and triggered when a construct is introduced. Studies show the more we have meaningful context and emotional components involved, the more connection and vibration the construct will have in our brain and as the result there is a higher chance of long-term memory formation and stronger recalling later on.
These studies have shown that the emotional events are registered and stay longer with us with higher chance of memory recalling. Events that register higher emotional response in our brain tend to create a narrowed vision for us as they raise our emotional awareness and shorten our focus span. Once encoded, the emotional response can be recalled through contact with similar events or totally unrelated events that trigger certain associations as the Hippo processes and connects these to the initial event. Sometimes, you may not remember the exact words, the details or much about the original emotional event but you will remember certain parts that evoked an emotional reaction and the emotion itself and you will recall the same feelings as you encounter a new event when there's an association between the new stimuli and the past ones. Our "island and ocean cells" help us connect the two events and navigating us through new events based on previously stored information. There is a lot to cover in this area but to keep it short, the only thing to emphasize here is the connections of events and the emotional components and association exchanged among the events.
The connection of events enables us to develop unique emotional responses with our surroundings based on our unique perspective, past experiences and the senses involved in developing an experience. Even if we all learn what an apple is in a similar environment, our emotional reaction and senses involved create a unique pathway in our brain with unique associations and storing of information. AT this stage, it's no longer about whether a wall is white or pink or the space is open concept or not or if the apple is round and red; it's now at a deeper and an emotional level and that's exactly what we as designers would want to build. Not just a space but an experience.
We see with our eyes but our brain memory, process and mindset strongly impact what we see and how we interpret things we see. We get exposed to many things in life every day but what we see is the events that develop a sense of attention in us. From early ages, we teach our kids how to learn a language, what each color is or what an apple looks like, in whatever language these might be. The basis of this teaching is to encode and store information through understanding object's physical appearance, sound, smell and touch. While we all can point to an orange when we are asked what an orange looks like, other elements and features present during shaping these experiences of constructing memories impact our brain associations with objects and events beyond their exterior characteristics. The smell, the sound, the scene, the presence of other people around you and sometimes even the time of the day, the season and a lot more all come together to define one unified experience, as we discussed above. When we recall an object by seeing it again, we don't just remember its shape, color, name and what our eyes saw on the day of the first contact- we get all the senses that are registered in Hippo from the current event and the past event(s). Through this process and comparison, something amazing happens and that is awakening of our senses, some consciously and some subconsciously. You may not even realize your brain is recalling and evoking the gathered perspective, emotions and all the non-tangibles aspects of the external stimuli when you see an abstract representation of an apple. Sometimes even seeing a certain color or shape in a painting can make you feel strongly about that whole piece of art. You might find yourself loving it for no apparent reason or "hating" it without maybe even knowing why but it's all because of the signaled conscious and subconscious associations in our brain.
I studied Marketing and Advertising for my first bachelor's degree and my absolute favorite classes were human behavior, colors and human eyes and human psychology. Marketers use association as their best tactic in advertising campaigns and commercials. Starting a commercial with a woman waking up drinking coffee, showing her enjoying the aroma of the coffee and the steam from the hot cup of coffee on a cold day stimulate our senses and trigger our brain to start producing higher neurons and as the result the process of encoding, analyzing and association is triggered. Not only are we going to have higher chance of remembering and recalling this brand later on because of the emotional vibration that we discussed but all of a sudden we will remember all the good things about smelling coffee and subconscious recalling of the same emotions you received from other positive memories in your brain involving coffee or not and we will develop a deeper connection and positive emotions towards this new stimuli- the commercial and whatever they are selling. I remember we studied a big focus group test on people who performed different purchasing behavior of a yogurt brand with just a packaging color change as they thought one was healthier than the other, all other things the same.
Realtors do the same with candles, cookies and art when touring houses. Stores do it by placing bakery and flower shops closer to the door to awaken your sense of smell as you enter and create a positive mood but also encourage appetite (we will get to that in future articles). Fast food restaurants do it by using red color and other lighting effects to encourage fast eating and fast in-and-out flow so they can serve more customers in a day and eat faster/more per bite. Fancy restaurants do the same thing with lighting but this time dimmer lighting as we tend to drink more and eat more under candle lighting. On the opposite side, health conscious restaurants are always bright and focused on nature connection. Green products use bottles and packaging that resemble healthier body shape and nature (earth tones, bottle shapes and proportion) and words like "skinny" or green colors. Brain association is a big topic and we will cover it in several separate articles later on.
Design & Memory Shaping
Some designs make us feel like home even if we have just visited the space for the first time. It's the shapes, forms, colors or a certain smell or maybe nothing specifically tangible or visible that can make a new space feel like home and connected to a positive registered memory or memories because of the power of the brain and the process of Synaptic Plasticity. The beautiful thing about brain's complexity is its power in manipulating our perception of what we see and how we see a place according to our past registered memories and the connections in each memory. With each memory containing connections from multiple sources and each connection involved in multiple different memories, a single memory can activate multiple neurons in completely different parts of the brain.
Design can become very powerful if we are able to build new spaces that create new experiences but also trigger and activate connections in our brain to the previously registered feelings, context and memories.
It's the job of the designer to understand the marriage of all the elements of design, touch, vision, smell, proportions and shape to not only create a final physical appearance but to dig deeper in their own feelings and connections, and the client's background, culture, family and connections to awaken certain memories in the client and create a home for them. We had a sour orange tree (bahar narenj in Persian) in our backyard when growing up and every time I smell this fruit and even other blossoms, I am reminded of that time and all the amazing memories.
Information that is difficult to understand can't get as much association in our brain while being processed so we will have a harder time connecting, encoding and even recalling the information or it becomes distorted. Every piece of furniture, a color, how a wall separates a room into two spaces and anything else tangible or visually available to us is a piece of information that is exposed to us and may grab enough attention to trigger the process of encoding. Our eyes, our brain, associations (island and ocean cells) and other senses come to our help to give us a sense of the new experience and this new space that we just entered. Understanding how to simplify information, the balance of height to horizontal (floor) levels, the quantity of new information and the elements our eyes see at first impressions can help make the new experience digestible to our eye, to our physical limitations and our brain. To make a place comfortable we must avoid clutter or chaos and balance the positive and negative shapes in the space- a very well-known Japanese design concept Notan where the empty space is balanced by the occupied space and vice versa and all elements including the empty space work together to create balance and harmony. The space as the result feels warm, calm, serene and comfortable.
Designs that feel comfortable to our eyes and processed easily in our brain make us feel comfortable and at home, no matter if that is the first time we visit the space or if it's a restaurant, coffee shop or a new home. As we said in the beginning of the article, brain is complex but its complexity is what makes human so powerful. If we learn to build designs that built on and emphasize these powerful elements, we can remind each person of their strength and uniqueness and inspire them to use the strength and power for good in this world rather than many bad things we see and hear every day. This is how a real design can impact the world by first impacting the person using it.
article by bluebeige designs- all rights reserved
curated by Aidin Belganeh