Parasympathetic Propensities


Fires, hurricanes, mass shootings, hostile politics and an ever more digitally connected population – this past year has seemed more stressful than ever before. Digital devices bombard us with the latest news and social media. Our urban environments and lifestyles are hectic and fast paced. Our collective anxiety is on the rise leading us to seek ways for restoring the health of our minds/bodies. Recent breakthroughs in the sciences show that the stimuli in our environments are restructuring and reengineering our physiological systems on a regular basis. Contemporary architectural design emphasizes the objectification of our built environment rather than the potential affects it may have on those who experience it. Can we design systems and spatial scenarios to mediate a person’s physiological processes in order to help restore our minds and bodies?

The basic premise of this project speculates that if architectural form can simulate breathing patterns, then various spatial conditions can influence a person’s emotional state/wellbeing.

Understanding the potential of this project relies on knowledge of physiological processes in our body and their connection to each other. Respiration was the chosen physiological process to investigate for its ability to be controlled both consciously and subconsciously. Respiration is controlled by the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which controls the body’s automatic bodily functions. The ANS is divided into two subsystems, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. The subsystems work in opposition of each other to maintain homeostasis (stability of body’s internal environment such as pH, temperature, metabolic chemical processes). The Sympathetic Nervous System works to speed up bodily functions such as heart rate, breathing, sweating. The Parasympathetic Nervous System works to slow the body systems down. When there is an imbalance of activity from either system, homeostasis becomes harder to maintain and can lead to physical and mental illness. 90 percent of adults breathe with a sympathetic emphasis as a result of lifestyle and our contemporary high stress environments that activate the sympathetic side of the ANS. More importantly though: the ANS and its subsystems are interesting because of their location within the brain called the Insular Cortex. This part of the brain controls the ANS. Science believes the Insular Cortex to be the “emotion center” of the brain. By collecting biometric data of ANS controlled functions we can link patterns in the data with emotional response.

Additionally, this project relies on our brain’s ability to simulate the world around us. This is known as Embodied Simulation made possible through specialty neurons in the brain called Mirror Neurons. When we see someone doing something, for example, playing the piano, mirror neurons activate and we imagine ourselves doing the same thing. If we see a “breathing” architecture with a biologically ideal breathing pattern, will our own breathing or mental state be positively influenced by it?

Four spatial interactions were developed related to a person’s breathing within an environment. Each interaction relies on the ability to collect biometric data of a person through wearable sensors and a feedback loop.
-Active Responsive, where a person can control architectural form in real-time with their conscious breathing.
-Active prescriptive, where the architecture actively prescribes its ideal form from logged user data and analysis.
-Active prescriptive for multiple users, where the most ideal spatial form is prescribed based on analyzed data from multiple users.
-Passive prescriptive, where predetermined formal patterns are prescribed from a database of options.

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