Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Neuroscience of Kitchen Cabinetry

Neurokitchen Design is the latest fad among the rich and famous, according to a poorly researched article in the Wall Street Journal:
A Kitchen to Comfort Your Soul

Combining psychology and neuroscience, Johnny Grey is an interior designer with a special recipe


'You can tell a lot about a person from their kitchen," says Johnny Grey, an award-winning interior designer specializing in "happy kitchens," a design philosophy that focuses on bringing emotional, physical and psychological well-being into kitchen planning.

. . .

Mr. Grey ... takes an unusual approach to interior design. He and his team spend up to 80 hours with clients, understanding what makes them tick, often going round for dinner and even staying over at their home. His aim? To create a domestic utopia tailored to their personality, using the principles of neuroscience, or the scientific study of the nervous system, to answer their emotional needs and subliminal desires, as well as building a seamlessly practical kitchen. It appears to work.
However, Mr. Grey does not have an EEG lab to record the brain waves of his clients, as depicted in the image above. Nor does he have access to an MRI scanner, to my knowledge. For Mr. Grey to actually use the principles of neuroscience to design customized kitchens for his clients, he would need a method that records brain activity, whether it's electrical (EEG) or hemodynamic (fMRI).

Is Neurokitchen Design the latest manifestation of explanatory neurophilia (Trout, 2008)?
Credibility is a cherished currency in science, but its cues can be counterfeit. A novel series of experiments by Weisberg and her colleagues [2008] show that non-expert consumers of behavioral explanations assign greater standing to explanations that contain neuroscientific details, even if these details provide no additional explanatory value. Here, we discuss the part that this ‘placebic’ information might play in producing a potentially misleading sense of intellectual fluency and, consequently, an unreliable sense of understanding.
Even though it's likely that Grey's [pseudo]neuroscientific analysis provides no additional explanatory value, clients will pay more for a "scientifically designed" kitchen.

A kitchen is a place where you prepare and clean up

But it's so more than that now...
"A kitchen is no longer just for cooking. Often, the only time a couple will spend together awake, is in the kitchen," says the British architect [Grey], whose clients include Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, British singer Sting and millionaire publisher Felix Dennis.
Isn't that nice! But as far as I can tell, the WSJ gets a number of details wrong in this paragraph, which nonetheless has the best quote of all:
John Ziesel [Zeisel], a San Diego-based neuroscientist [sociologist] at the Salk Institute [I could find no listing for him there], meanwhile, is researching what he refers to as measurement-based design, which shows how spaces can shape our behavior. He uses everything from hormone studies, brain scans and targeted psychological experiments to foster his research. "A kitchen is a space loaded with emotional and behavioral cues," he says. "Neuroscience can help us understand what goes on behind the shiny surfaces and layout of kitchen cabinetry."
Although they might seem to make strange bedfellows, the idea that neuroscience research can inform building design is not new. The Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) was founded in 2003.

The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, that architectural monument to science overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is indeed a focal point for ANFA. Jonas Salk himself enlisted architect Louis Kahn to design a research campus with lab space that would promote collaboration and creativity. The AFNA Board of Directors includes an impressive list of neuroscientists: Tom Albright, Michael Arbib, and Fred Gage to name but a few. Salk scientists Gage, Albright, and Terrence Sejnowski were on the original Advisory Board in 2003.

In April 2004 the Dana Foundation presented a manifesto of sorts from ANFA founding president John P. Eberhard and freelance writer Brenda Patoine:
Architecture with the Brain in Mind

A soaring cathedral, a brightly lit classroom, a dim maze of hospital corridors: Most of us associate certain emotions, energy levels, and even mental states with the various spaces in which we spend our lives. What underlies these responses? How important are they? Architects and neuroscientists now beginning to grapple with those questions are coming up with discoveries that have important implications for how we design spaces as diverse as neonatal care units, schools, and residences for people with Alzheimer’s disease. The benefits of collaboration between brain science and architecture are sure to increase, writes architect John Eberhard, founding president of the new Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Some research even suggests that certain designed environments encourage the proliferation of new brain cells.
Five years later, the Institution of Engineering and Technology was more circumspect in its analysis of the trend:
Architecture and neuroscience

Empirical evidence demonstrating how buildings affect the function and structure of our brains is still thin on the ground. Fred Gage, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, says that, while architects have plenty of intuitions, the key will be to construct experiments to test the influence of the spatial environment on the brain. Despite the founding of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) in San Diego in 2003 - of which Gage is a director and past-president - “we have not yet accomplished as much as we aspired to,” he says. However, neuroscience has taught us much about how our brains construct our sense of place and how certain environments might stimulate the growth of new neurons.

Fortunately, the Architects for Functional Neurogenesis special interest group seems to have escaped unscathed.

NEXT UP: How hippocampal place cells have influenced Frank Gehry.


Trout, J. (2008). Seduction without cause: uncovering explanatory neurophilia. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12 (8), 281-282 DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.05.004

WSJ link via @minikerri.

Credit also goes to the Human Pain Research Group for their lovely EEG figure.

You may be dreaming
You may be bleeding
You may be in this box

A kitchen is a place where you prepare
And clean up
Clean up
Clean up
Clean up

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At December 05, 2010 4:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another fine post about terrible science. I love it when "researchers" boast credentials that are nowhere to be seen. All this pseudo-neuroscience can truly take the wind out of a (real) neuroscientist's sails.

At December 05, 2010 9:08 PM, Blogger  said...

MaMater and moi call our kitchen Das Boot Galley, which contains
The Wall Of Corporate Art.

At December 07, 2010 3:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neuroreligion will be the next big fad. Discover which religion fits better the patterns of neural activity already present in your brain and convert accordingly without agonizing over things.

At December 11, 2010 12:40 PM, Anonymous knd said...

Much better science (and, incidently much greater architecture):
which "plans and designs school facilities for today and tomorrow with one primary goal in mind — to improve learning"


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