The space of relationships - EEG measurments in VR

The space of relationships

Codifying others and architectural space

We have always guessed it, and now we know it. The dynamic experience of physical space influences the cerebral mechanisms that underlie the understanding of others’ bodily expressions: this is the result of a study by the CNR-In (Centro Nazionale delle Ricerche – Istituto di Neuroscienze, Parma branch) in collaboration with Lombardini22.

How many times have we said ‘The first impression is the one that counts’? We are convinced that the first impression is reliable and almost revealing of the person in front of us. But what if our first impression is not just the result of our intuition, but is instead influenced by the space in which we are immersed?

Experiments carried out by the CNR-In in collaboration with Lombardini22, based on a dynamic architectural experience recreated in a virtual environment, have shown that space imprints an effect on neuronal processes approximately 250 milliseconds before the cognitive processes triggered by the postural characteristics of another person begin.

The space of relationships - Figure1 Large
Img.1 Images of the stages of the journey through the different virtual environments until the final encounter with the avatar. (B) Virtual environments with low/high arousal shapes, in warm and cold tones. (C) Example of avatar with body posture at low, medium, and high excitation.

Therefore, it can be concluded that the conformation of the space in which a person moves influences one’s perception of others, and thus the possibility of forming relationships. The more the space we move through puts us in a state of tranquillity and relaxation, the greater will be the cognitive resources we are able to put in place when observing others. Conversely, the more the space puts us in a state of tension, the fewer resources we will have available to assess the other’s bodily characteristics. Since both neural processes that depend on spatial characteristics and those related to the other’s postural characteristics depend on the activation of the motor system, these results confirm that this system therefore plays a fundamental role in the processing of both bodily and spatial information.

The space of relationships - Figure 2
Img.2 Topographic activations and brain responses (measured by electroencephalogram) correlated with avatar architecture and postural characteristics.

For a long time, on the other hand, it was thought that social and spatial relationships depended on two independent neural coding processes. Experiments conducted in the CNR-In laboratories have instead highlighted the intrinsic relationship between space and body in that our brain’s ability to encode others depends on our experience with the surrounding space. These two experiences of space and body not only have points of contact, but are even interdependent.

The space of relationships - Figure3
Img.3 Active brain maps in the presence of an avatar with certain postural characteristics in different virtual environments.

We have called this discovery the ‘Double Relation Effect‘ because it expresses a cyclic continuum of influence, which is constantly renewed, between the experience of space and the relationship we form with other people. The study opens up new research possibilities on the neuroscience front. It will therefore be crucial to fully understand how the design of the spaces we live in, for example, the place we work or the neighbourhood we live in, affects the brain mechanisms underlying emotions, and consequently the relationships between individuals.

The extraordinary result was achieved by the research team composed of neuroscientists Paolo Presti, Gaia Maria Galasso, Rita Rossi, Pietro Avanzini, and Fausto Caruana, coordinated by Giovanni Vecchiato and with the authoritative contribution of Giacomo Rizzolatti, together with architect Davide Ruzzon and our designers Ashwanth Ramkumar and Federica Sanchez. The setting is that of NuArch, the extensive research project active since 2019, the result of the collaboration between Lombardini22 and the Parma branch of the CNR Institute of Neuroscience, whose aim is to investigate the impact of architectural space on the psychophysiological state of the individual.

The space of relationships - Figure 4
Img.4 Increased FTs to body postures after the dynamic experience of low-arousing architecture.

The discovery of the Double Relationship Effect adds a fundamental piece to NuArch: after demonstrating how architectural space influences those who live in it[1], we can now say that space also influences the way people meet each other.

The study was published in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the official organ of the United States National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious international scientific journals: Architectural experience influences the processing of others’ body expressions.

[1] The first results (link to article) of the NuArch research project were published in 2022 in Scientific Reports, a journal published by Springer Nature, in which the effects of spatial conformation on humans from an affective point of view are demonstrated.