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Alone in a Cold World

This is meant to be a school! Click here to see the poor boy.

Non-fractal structure suppresses the human scale. Image: Salingaros

"A scientific breakthrough came in the 1960s when M. Rosenzweig and his research group established beyond any doubt that enrichment of the environment leads to structural changes in the brain of animals. It seems that humans, and other animals before us, evolved what we now call “intelligence” as a tool to interpret the complexity — incoming information — of the natural environment. We eventually began to shape our own environment, and projected a similar complexity onto it — outgoing information — in the form of mural paintings, color, ornamentation, and fractal shapes.

Since the beginning of our evolution into humans, characterized by our urge to build and to create art, we have been involved in a two-way mutual reinforcement of environmental complexity of a very particular kind. Damaging any piece of this interchange mechanism damages the entire system. But what does this mean, in human terms? Countless studies have established that the rearing environment dramatically impacts brain growth in children. In 1994 the Carnegie Task Force issued a report warning that children raised in experientially poor environments suffer permanent setbacks as compared to those raised in richer, more enhanced environments. This was in line with the Head Start program begun several decades earlier in the US.

Turning to philosophy and robotics gives us a new insight into what might be going on. In 1998, A. Clark and D. Chalmers proposed the “extended mind” concept, where the workings of our mind actually extend beyond the brain and into our surroundings. An interplay takes place between our thoughts and internal memories, and knowledge and information stored outside yet within ready reach. Mobile robots do, in fact, use their environment as their memory — they have no stored internal memory, and thus save enormous computational overhead. Rodney Brooks’ Mars Explorer works in precisely this way. Its ability to navigate its environment comes from an “intelligence” that links internal processors with external information. This implies that the environment is crucial to the development of our brain: our mind is an integral part of our environment, and if we wish it to engage our intelligence, the environment should embody the same degree of organized complexity as our neurological processes themselves.

Two possible connective scenarios are thus strikingly contrasted. 1. In an information-sparse, minimalist environment, our mind stops at the skull’s interior. 2. In a coherently complex environment, our mind can extend into and interact with the visual information stored outside. In the latter case, we are situated in a vastly richer information field that drives our brain’s growth in order to process and interpret this information.

Our brains’ connections change — even in adults, but especially so in the forming child brain — in response to coherent complex inputs. Although data for the influence of architectural environments on humans is sketchy, it has been established that an activity certainly alters the brain’s connectivity. Actively playing music or performing a sport, for example, reinforces the wiring of the neurons responsible for that physical activity. Parents the world over encourage their children to take music lessons, if they are in a position to do so, not to make them into professional musicians, but because the ordered informational complexity of classical music is believed to help students perform better in school.

Granted, it’s a leap from talking about mice and trout to suggesting that our everyday environment requires ordered complexity, and that this is not — as usually assumed — a simple matter of individual taste. If future experiments reveal influences on human beings, we expect to find that environmental factors do indeed shape our own intelligence. Most importantly, their effect on the developing intelligence of our children is bound to be even greater than on adults with fully-formed brains.

So what are the lessons for designers of the human environment? The information content of our creations has a profound effect upon human life, and potentially, human wellbeing. We may decide to create minimalist environments because somebody finds them ideologically exciting, arresting, or fitting expressions of industrial technology. That’s essentially what the early Modernist architects did — and we’re slowly beginning to recognize the profoundly damaging consequences of that fateful approach. Or we may decide to impart other kinds of information — the dramatic expressions of new avant-garde art, the eye-catching advertising of products, or the packaging of exciting industrial forms — or perhaps some mesmerizing combination of these. But to the extent this information disrupts and displaces other kinds of information to which we are biologically attuned, the evidence suggests, it can do great harm. So it seems that if we truly want the wellbeing of our users — if we see ourselves as honored design professionals, with a duty of care — then we must work to imbue our environments with the kind of information richness that human beings actually need. This is a different way of looking at design, but perhaps a vitally needed one." - Mehaffy & Salingaros

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