If you were the only person in the world, would you know you were a person?
This Chinese proverb suggests to us that you require at least one other person to identify with in order to gain perspective of your own existence. Similarly another Chinese proverb tells us that even when alone there is always a negotiation with oneself. As opposing warriors, we find an arena of thoughts when we manage several viewpoints of an idea. In China the word for “person” appears as two people leaning against one another and the word for “I” appears as two soldiers, swords drawn, facing each other in a fateful encounter. In each case the value is placed on relationships rather than singular identity.
Existence can be described as a world of relationships, whether these are emotional or physical. In this world of interactions there is an on-going activity of measurement helping us to keep up with changing relationships. There are so many measurements made by our body and mind in each moment that if we were to be conscious of them all we might not function comfortably.
Our unconscious manages much of the measure of existence. This is easy for most people to understand when we talk about involuntary life: the pulsating heart regulates blood flow, blinking eyes regulate sight. We accept that these events will occur without our permission. It is however less obvious that many of our interrogations and thoughts are also involuntary. It is easy to imagine that the brain and the mind are two separate things, one keeps us alive and one makes us intelligent. The reality is much shadier. The value of the unconscious is generally not recognized until the moment we realize we have been conned by a trickster.
If you do not think with your entire body, you are not thinking.
Our mind is not limited to our brain. The nervous system links our mind to the full extent of our body, making it clear that our body and mind are intimately connected. I imagine that when Prince Hamlet holds the jester’s skull and asks “To be, or not to be…” it is the body asking the mind this question as well as Shakespeare. The body and the mind rely on each other for coherence.
Beyond this more well-known brain and body relationship, there is another lesser known network of neural cells or “thinking cells” deep inside our torso, far away from our mind. This system, called the enteric nervous system, passes from our lips through the throat and throughout our entire digestive system. It is composed of autonomous sensory and motor neurons alongside neural cells similar to those of the brain making this “second brain” in our stomach as important as the first.
There are estimated to be a hundred million neural cells in our digestive system. Although this large number is only a fraction of what is found in the human brain today it was in the distant past one of our most important thinking mechanisms. It is little known that our digestive tract has as many neural cells as a dog has in its brain. It is common to say we have a gut feeling. This is more than instinct. Our stomachs actually think, often without permission. Since energy is a priority for the mind then the two brains must work together and with dutiful regularity. A suitably bombastic label for this way understanding the human condition would be pluralis maiestatis or the royal we.
So why is there is so much focus on one side of this equation, on the conscious world? Most of our attitudes toward intelligence are given over to our thinking mind. In each moment our bodies are regulating or managing temperature, light, sound, smell, taste, gravity, and so on, in a manner more baroque than our mind might consider. Yet we seem to move somewhat effortlessly through the world despite a purposeful ignorance of it.
Today most of the design world, that is the world dedicated to managing the environment around us, seems fixed primarily on conscious intelligence rather than inherent, feral or intuitive intelligence. Intuitive is a word mentioned discreetly in design discourse because it usually refers to some sort of personal or non-quantifiable thought. The world we domesticate with design is often a matter of categories, rules or adjustments rather than hints, nudges or embraces.
Humans are self-domesticating creatures.
While we have spent hundreds of thousands of years domesticating plants and animals, we have also been, sometimes unknowingly, domesticating ourselves. Perhaps to conquer the challenge of intense social interaction that humans depend upon, the need to systematize has grown.
All things acquire meaning and distinction. Typology, mapping and metrics are common terms in the design world these days seemingly linking thinking to deterministic proposals. Much of the world is increasingly more restricted or defined and the result is a deeper need for order amidst a widening definition of chaos.
At this point, if you are like me, you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with anything? That would be a good question…
It seems to me that if we are to make places to interact with and to allow us to interact with each other and the feral world we inhabit, then we must begin to consider the messy side of what our bodies are dealing with.
Placing the same care into understanding cognition as we put into volitional transformation allows us to be more thoughtful and compelling creatures.
When we as designers read a news headline of some horror, brutality or otherwise discouraging characteristic of society, we should not immediately blame politicians or the crazy, mixed-up world as the protagonists. We must also recognize that most of these sad events occur within the world we have designed. The design of our environment quite literally frames our lives and builds the character of our existence. If our choices ignore the rudimentary needs of our unconscious, then a great swath of our being is removed from our daily lives. We become display animals in a zoo of our own making.
Beyond this it should also be recognized that when our built world is oversaturated with philosophical dogma then the character of our physical health will likely deteriorate. It is almost certainly so that as our world caters more to our comfort or intelligence alone, then we lose the capacity to be active. Stairs are merely back-up solutions to inert elevators and escalators, automatic doors leave our arms dangling sadly at our sides, with the hope of speedily passing as many people as possible through a portal to money spending options, automated or permanent window shades keep us from the most minimal dance with the sun. Diabetes, heart disease and other physical disabilities are the natural consequence of these design demerits.
Here are three propositions, of many, to consider that may further enhance the value of architecture in our lives.
Light is a physical condition, as much as it is an ephemeral one. Its function is to change as much as it is to provide utility. We feel the light on our skin in a number of ways but there is little replacement for direct contact with the sun. Even sitting behind a clear window does not provide nearly the same amount of Vitamin D as the same time spent in the sun. When our bodies encounter light on one side or the other this is registered, unconsciously. Our bodies gauge the variations. Changing the body’s direction in relation to direct light provides a greater capacity to connect to a space. The elimination of any capacity to gauge changes in light negatively challenges our bodies and general well-being. The need to measure daylight is so important that it is true for the blind as well as the sighted.
Our psychological condition is often framed by the variation in sounds we encounter and the cultural framework that the sounds embellish. Sound from above is for example different than sound experienced from the side. Bass has a different effect on the body than treble. When we are inside the womb we have already begun to appreciate sound as the most primal sense. It is easier to hear in the womb than it is to see. This sensibility is so important that it is true for the deaf as well as for the hearing. Sound is not only a quality, it is also physical in that it is first understood through vibration. The deaf and otherwise hearing impaired sense vibration. The creation of space that enhances our connection to its natural, implied or created acoustics makes the architecture authentic and relevant even more so than any form we may consequently create.
We have a natural sense of time but it cannot be measured in a vacuum. The pace through which we experience a place helps us to connect to it in ways that are deeply engrained in our psyche. We must understand when we want things to flow effortlessly or when to allow experience to be broken into components. The elimination of elements that help measure time alienates us from our surroundings. Even if we wish to challenge time we must at some level acknowledge it. Time can seem as fluid or frozen but these temperaments are seen against the backdrop of a need to experience time. This is true for those who have memory disabilities as well as those who do not. Time is as emotional.
These few simple conditions help me better understand what it is that I am doing when I imagine making things for people. Lines on a page or blocks of material in a model also contain these less visible consequences in a final, made form. But the list goes on and there are so many great conditions that we live with that I am always discovering new approaches to design.
Now we can talk about the weather…