August 5, 2004
Neuroscience and Religious Architecture
Arthur E. Farnsley II
In late April, the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) held a workshop entitled "Experiencing Sacred Spaces." The workshop was held in Columbus, Indiana and showcased the city's fine modern architecture including churches by Eliel Saarinen, Eero Saarinen, and Gunnar Birkerts, an I.M. Pei library, and a Henry Moore archway.
I know nothing about either neuroscience or architecture, but I was invited to the workshop because I live in Columbus and know something about religion. I am also a sporadic attender at North Christian Church, the younger Saarinen's final effort and arguably the world's finest example of modern church architecture on a modest scale.
The scientists and architects gathered not to offer answers, but to formulate questions. The group's president, John Eberhard, believes that "being transformed by space is a powerful experience, especially when it is sacred space." Most of the participants, even those who were not spiritually inclined, seemed to agree. Their goal was to develop research questions that might lend themselves to eventual empirical inquiry.
ANFA was founded on the premise that neuroscience has reached a point where it can measure human's cognitive and emotional experiences. Given this, it is now possible to ask empirical questions about what kinds of spaces inspire awe, surprise, mystery, anxiety, or comfort. At least in principle, as the neuroscientists tell it, a congregation could decide what sense of the sacred it wants its worship space to invoke and then test potential designs on real people to see if cause produces effect.
This raises a multitude of questions. Can sacred experiences truly be measured? Even if they could, what happens if subsequent generations wish their worship space to evoke different reactions? Will a single design elicit the same response from young and old, men and women, rich and poor, eastern and western? Might there be some insidious element in using neurological experiments to shape human experience? Is this a little too high-tech and Brave New World for most churchgoers? Finally, is this emerging field just a playground for intellectuals with nothing better to do?
I cannot answer all of those questions (and I doubt the folks at ANFA can answer them yet either), but Robert Schuller, of Crystal Cathedral fame, attended the conference and his active participation suggests that these ideas are being taken seriously. Dr. Schuller spoke to a public gathering at Birkert's St. Peter's Lutheran Church, attended some of the workshops, and referred to the subject in his next Sunday's televised sermon.
Sacred spaces are not the only item on ANFA's agenda. They are also looking into ways that neuroscience can inform the spatial design of healthcare facilities, elementary schools, and human habitats. But religious spaces figure prominently in this research and are a topic of continuing interest elsewhere. The June 15, 2004, edition of Christian Century carried a review of four new books on the subject. The recent video series Faith and Community: the Public Role of Religion includes “Sacred Spaces” among its 11 modules.
I have visited St. Paul's in London at least a dozen times and have been overcome by awe and wonder in every instance. I have no doubt that Sir Christopher Wren used the understanding of human psyche available to him to create certain visual, and ultimately emotional, effects, and that Eero Saarinen did the same centuries later when he created North Christian.
The contemporary faith community frequently interprets that "psyche" -- from rationality to emotions -- in psychological terms. It is important to recognize that neuroscience is becoming an increasingly important tool for explaining not only how we experience external stimuli, but even for how we experience God.
Arthur Farnsley is co-author of the forthcoming Sacred Circles, Public Squares: The Multicentering of American Religion (Indiana University Press, fall 2004).