As technology advances, we have access to insights on design that were previously unimaginable. Researchers now are able to study how we look at designs and therefore determine what are the most important aspects, leading to better designed cities.

Architects know best, as they often claim. With conviction, they’re sure certain details will make a space more hospitable, more beautiful, more preferable, and more enjoyable. There’s rarely any empirical evidence to back up those assertions. But an emerging field of research is now uncovering and quantifying our psychological response to buildings: cognitive architecture. The hope is that by better understanding through science what exactly it is people like or dislike about our built environment, designers can truly improve it.

Architect Ann Sussman and designer Janice M. Ward are two leading researchers studying how our brains see buildings. Their interest arose from their own observations and curiosity about how architects could create places that encouraged walkability and lingerability. “Both Janice and I were curious about why we felt immediately at home in two European capitols–Copenhagen and Paris–even though we didn’t live or grow up there,” Sussman tells Co.Design in an email. “How could we feel so at home in places we didn’t know? Without understanding human unconscious predispositions, we can’t understand or explain human behavior in the built environment.”

Recently the duo published the findings from four pilot studies, which use biometrics–eye tracking, specifically–to better understand human responses to architecture by uncovering how people literally see buildings. The results, published in Common Edge, a nonprofit publication that focuses on design in the service of people, are a fascinating glimpse into how our brains truly perceive architecture.

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