How does the shape of architecture affect emotions?


The space of relationships: architecture influences the brain reactions that are triggered when we first meet a person.


We have always guessed it, now we know it. The dynamic experience of physical space influences the brain mechanisms that underlie our understanding of the bodily expressions of others.

This is the result of a study by the CNR-In (Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche – Istituto di Neuroscienze, Parma) in collaboration with Lombardini22.

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the official organ of the United States National Academy of Sciences, one of the most prestigious international scientific journals. Read it on Architectural experience influences the processing of others’ body expressions


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 revelatory 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.

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.




For a long time, it was believed that social relationships and those established with space depended on two independent neural coding processes. The 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 the experience we have with the surrounding space. These two experiences of space and body not only have points of contact but are even interdependent.

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.

This 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 framework is that of NuArch, the extensive research project active since 2019, the result of a collaboration between Lombardini22 and the Parma branch of the CNR Institute of Neuroscience, whose objective is to investigate the impact of architectural space on the psychophysiological state of the individual.

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

The first results of the research were presented in 2021 in Lombardini22 by Prof. Rizzolatti: look it here.

In 2022, papers were published in Scientific Reports, a journal published by Springer Nature, demonstrating the effects that spatial conformation has on humans from an affective point of view.

Read the paper Measuring arousal and valence generated by the dynamic experience of architectural forms in virtual environments.



Research team

Giacomo Rizzolatti, MD

Institute of Neuroscience, National Research Council of Italy, Parma Department of Medicine and Surgery, University of Parma


Prof. Giacomo Rizzolatti is Emeritus Professor of Human Physiology at the Università degli studi di Parma, and fellow of the Institute of Neuroscience of the National Research Council of Italy. He has been visiting professor at the Department of Anatomy of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and a ‘Sage professor’ at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He started his career as a visual neurophysiologist investigating the neuronal properties of the lateral geniculate body and superior colliculus of the cat. Subsequently, he became interested in visuomotor integration and in the organization of motor areas in monkeys and humans. During these studies he discovered ‘mirror neurons’, whose mechanism is fundamental in social interaction. He has received honorary degrees from the University Claude Bernard of Lyon, University of St. Petersburg, and Catholic University of Leuven. He is a member of Accademia dei Lincei, of Academia Europaea, of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and Foreign Member National Academy of Sciences. His major awards are the Golgi Prize for Physiology, the Herlitzka Prize for Physiology awarded by the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, the Brain Prize from the Lundbeck Foundation.

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Giovanni Vecchiato, PhD

Institute of Neuroscience, National Research Council of Italy, Parma


Dr. Giovanni Vecchiato is Senior Post Doc Researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience of the National Research Council of Italy in Parma. His current activity is to investigate the role that the motor system has in cognitive tasks by means of recording and analysis of high density electroencephalographic (EEG) data during the execution and the observation of tasks in real and virtual settings. Dr. Vecchiato has been awarded by national and international committee such as the Neuroaesthetic Award received from the Italian Society of Psychophysiology for his work titled “Electroencephalographic signatures of aesthetic experience during the perception of interior designs in a virtual reality CAVE system”. He was invited speaker at national and international conferences, such as “Festa dell’Architetto 2019” and “Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture 2018”. As Principal Investigator (PI), Dr. Vecchiato received grants from Province of Rome (Italy) and Sapienza University of Rome. Moreover, he is PI of the NuArch project co-funded by Lombardini22 (Milan, Italy). Dr. Vecchiato is Associate Editor of Frontiers in Neuroergonomics and member of the faculty board of the Master Course Neuroscience Applied to Architectural Design (NAAD) at the IUAV University, Venice.

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Paolo Presti, PhD Student

Institute of Neuroscience, National Research Council of Italy, Parma Department of Medicine and Surgery, University of Parma


Dr. Paolo Presti holds a Master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering achieved at Sapienza University of Rome. His Master thesis was carried out in collaboration with the Department of Data Analysis at the faculty of Psychological and Educational Science at the University of Ghent, place in which he has spent 5 months. The main goal of the thesis was to study how inverse approaches for extracting cortical waveforms from EEG scalp data and functional connectivity measures can be exploited to investigate the human brain circuits. During that period, he increased his knowledge related to EEG data processing, thus acquiring data analysis skills. To date, Dr. Presti is PhD student in Neuroscience at University of Parma. His scientific interests are related to the cerebral processes underlying action recognition within virtual reality environments. His expertise concerns the modelling of virtual scenarios and virtual avatars animated with real human bodily expressions.

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Fausto Caruana, PhD

Institute of Neuroscience, National Research Council of Italy, Parma


Dr. Fausto Caruana is Research Scientist at the Institute of Neuroscience of the Italian National Research Council (IN-CNR), in Parma. He is specialized in social, cognitive and affective neuroscience. He authored more than 60 papers on the neural and psychological mechanisms underlying emotions, empathy, mirror neurons and motor cognition. His research is conducted using a multidisciplinary approach, mainly centered on intracranial recordings and electrical stimulations. Trained as an electrophysiologist in non-human primates, he is now working in the field of human electrophysiology thanks to a collaboration established with the Claudio Munari Epilepsy Surgery Center at the Niguarda Hospital, Milan. Beside his neuroscientific interests, he is pursuing theoretical research concerning the relationship between neuroscience and humanities and, in particular, embodied and 4E cognition. He has been awarded with national awards and he has given invited talks at prestigious national and international institutes and meetings, on both neuroscientific and philosophical topics. He is the author of “Habits. Pragmatist Approaches from Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and Social Theory” (2020, with I. Testa, CUP), “Come Funzionano Le Emozioni. Da Darwin Alle Neuroscienze” (2018, with M. Viola, Il Mulino), “Il Cervello In Azione” (2016, with A. Borghi, Il Mulino) and “Il Cervello Empatico. Dalla Teoria della Mente al Meccanismo Mirror” (2019, Hachette).

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Pietro Avanzini, PhD

Institute of Neuroscience, National Research Council of Italy, Parma


Dr. Pietro Avanzini is a Researcher at the National Research Council of Italy, Institute of Neuroscience. His scientific studies are mainly related to the field of System and Computational Neuroscience, focusing on the characterization of cortical areas endowed with the human mirror mechanism. He acquired knowledge about neural signal recording and processing, especially with electroencephalography (EEG). He contributed papers relative to cortical motor rhythms’ reactivity and to motor system activation during action observation tasks. He is currently investigating how action observation can become an efficient tool in neurorehabilitation, conducting studies on clinical populations like people with cerebral palsy, perinatal stroke survivors and traumatological patients. Recently, thanks to a collaboration with the Epilepsy Surgery Center “Claudio Munari” in Milan, he started to face the characterization of the human mirror mechanism and the assessment of cortical rhythms’ generators by studying intracerebral EEG data. In particular, he currently aims at achieving an online functional characterization of the cortical regions explored in patients, and at identifying scalp EEG biomarkers that can reliably index the activity of specific cortical networks. To this aim, he contributed to establish a long-term collaboration with international companies to develop software based on machine learning and big data treatment.

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Conferences & Recognition

Presentation at conferences

P. Presti, D. Ruzzon, F. Caruana, G. Vecchiato. «Architectural forms impact on perceived valence and arousal of virtual environments». Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, September 16-18 2021, Salk Institute, San Diego, La Jolla.

P. Presti, D. Ruzzon, P. Avanzini, F. Caruana, G. Vecchiato. «Linking architecture and emotions by the recognition of virtual body expressions». 8th International Conference on Spatial Cognition, September 13-17, 2021, Rome.

G. Vecchiato, P. Presti, S. Lenzi, D. Ruzzon, P. Avanzini, F. Caruana. «An adaptation effect paradigm showing the relationship between architectural experience and the perception of body postures: a pilot study in virtual reality». 13th Annual Meeting of the Social & Affective Neuroscience Society, April 28 – May 2, 2021.

P. Presti, S. Lenzi, D. Ruzzon, P. Avanzini, F. Caruana, G. Vecchiato. «The experience of virtual environments affects the perception of emotional body postures: an adaptation after effect pilot study». 8th annual Society for Affective Science conference, April 13- 16 2021.

Recognition obtained

Paolo Presti. «Riconoscimento di azioni all’interno di ambienti architettonici, uno studio in realtà virtuale». Neurospritz, Musica e Cervello, vincitore del contest per giovani ricercatori, 30 Gennaio 2020, Roma.