Imagine yourself in front of a shadowy Victorian villa. The wind whooshes in the trees and swings a loose shutter against the side of the house. It sounds like a child on a trampoline. You push the unlocked door, which opens with a creak, then slams shut behind you. Moonlight streams in through the gaps of the boarded-up windows. You step on to the old, dusty floorboards that have much too much give in them. Suddenly, a thread from torn upholstery touches your face. Then a cobweb. From another room comes the soft, tinkling sound of a pianola.
Add a fearful back-story, a half-remembered rumour, and you are set. How much more prompting do you think you need to see shadows transforming into more than they really are? To mistake clanging pipes for footsteps? To see a face out of the corner of your eye?
If you were to see a ghost, how would you know if it was haunting the house or if it’s the house that was haunting you?
I’m an architect and neuroscientist working at Psychological Design, an architecture practice based in Sydney, Australia. Over the past decade or so, I’ve been researching how psychologically manipulative environments can be. Design, at any scale — from cities to buildings to interiors, down to the objects in them — can suggest, motivate and support human behaviour, whether desirable or not.
We do it in our homes whenever we make an aesthetic choice — we might light a room dimly to create a romantic atmosphere, or drape a guest bathroom in Carrara marble, say, to impress and feel a cut above the rest. In short, we all know how to do this yet, bizarrely, we’re often surprised to discover how well it works.
In extreme cases, environments may trigger hallucinations, delusions and confusion. The effect can be even greater for people who are impressionable or vulnerable.
Architects and planners employ psychological aspects of design deliberately and instinctively, in the design of everything from shopping malls to hotels to Gothic churches. Design involves composing motifs and memes to make sense. The way we respond to the environment is mostly determined by the stories they suggest. But the effect is not always intentional. People can experience paranormal hallucinations without them being driven by learnt cultural memes and motifs. And in those cases, the themes of people’s hallucinations are more difficult to predict.
Alanbrooke Hall, a now-demolished student residence at Queen’s University Belfast, is about as far away from the “haunted house” meme as you can get: a nondescript 10-storey block built in 1968. And yet, in the 1980s, students claim they saw black apparitions in the dead of night and felt overwhelming feelings of dread and unease. They heard footsteps in empty corridors and violent banging on doors. Lights turned themselves on and cutlery flew out of drawers.
One student claims he nearly fell from an open top-floor window after mysteriously tripping on something that, once he had scrambled back into the room, was no longer there. The stories formed the basis of several episodes of Uncanny on BBC Radio 4 last year.
Without wishing to minimise the experiences of those involved — which sound incredibly frightening — the building was probably only haunted by bad design. The cables of poorly placed or maintained lifts can produce infrasonic vibrations — which can trigger seasickness and feelings of terror — and ultrasonic vibrations, like a giant bass guitar, which can even change the volume and channels of the remote TVs that were made until the late 1970s.
Harmonic vibrations from all sorts of mechanical objects can also potentially cause cutlery to rattle in their drawers and doors to shudder. As for cheap strip lights, they can affect the brain to the extent that they can even trigger epileptic seizures.
All in all, a few simple things combine to enter our dreams, disrupt sleep, make us feel uneasy and lead our imaginations to places we don’t want to go.
At the same time, the experiences at Alanbrooke Hall took place after the Steven Spielberg-produced hit, Poltergeist, a horror film series of the 1980s in which many of the horrors related to freaky electrical anomalies. So even here, Hollywood had set the stage.
Notwithstanding that some of Alanbrooke’s victims have become leading scientists, they were at the time young men of an impressionable age. Adolescence — especially when people leave home for the first time — is the most likely time of life that people experience psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, even if only briefly.
Put it all together and there’s your poltergeist.
The psychological power of buildings can be incredible. In his 2005 book The Edifice Complex, Deyan Sudjic describes how architecture can be used as a weapon of war. The fascistic, Neoclassical grandeur of Albert Speer’s New Reich Chancellery in Berlin was designed to intimidate and terrify visiting dignitaries, with its awe-inspiring scale, oversized bronze sculptures of armed warriors and the “blood-red” marble walls of Hitler’s study.
The walk from its door to Hitler’s desk, with its marquetry inlay showing Mars with his sword coming out of its scabbard, took a “nerve-racking full minute”, Sudjic writes.
Speer recorded Hitler’s reaction to the study: “Good, good . . . When [my opponents] see that, they’ll learn to shiver and shake.”
It worked. When Czech president Emil Hácha went in March 1939 to sign over control of his country, met with the terrifying power of Speer’s architecture — and the enormity of the humiliating task before him — he suffered a heart attack and collapsed.
Design feeds the imagination and guides it. Sometimes it’s used to belittle, terrify and confuse; and other times to relax, hurry or reassure. It also has the power to compel action. Countless retailers use aspects of design psychology to drive purchases — look no further than the cheap calories on offer beyond the checkouts at Costco or Ikea, just when you’re feeling exhausted from a bombardment of decisions.
Cognitive scientists, such as John Bargh and James Gibson, have proposed that perception and action are completely intertwined. Perception is not something we do passively; it is an active process involving engaging with objects, people and environments. We notice our surroundings inasmuch as we act on or ignore the things in them. We also naturally adapt to our environments and conditionally use what’s on offer: we might eat an apple from a bowl at home, but in a shop, something stops us — either way, it’s the temptation of the apple that motivates our behaviour.
The more arousing the environment, the stronger the impetus to act, feel or think (whether the actions or thoughts are desirable or not). In 1992, the psychiatrist Peter Chadwick described how, during a psychotic episode in his youth, the presence of a bus driving down New King’s Road in west London prompted him to leap out in front of it. He was injured but, thankfully, recovered.
The sudden impulse to jump from a high balcony — sometimes known as “the high place phenomenon” — or steer the car into oncoming traffic is a sensation many will have encountered, but not acted on. The French have a term for it: l’appel du vide, or “the call of the void” — impulses that are central to my neuroscience research.
Motivational power is especially present in designed environments, where in some way, the architect’s every decision is made to make us do or feel something. But to keep us safe and to protect us from diving into every opportunity we see, we’ve evolved massive cognitive breaks.
The human neocortex is a great blanket of largely inhibitory neural circuitry that’s unmatched in the animal kingdom in terms of relative size and complexity. So, for healthy people, most action is prevented somewhat. This inhibition diverts potential actions into feelings, memories and self-awareness, so when we walk to a cliff’s edge (or an open window) we don’t jump, even as many people still recognise the impulse.
Some people are particularly vulnerable to environmental suggestions and for them, the way the environment triggers actions, emotions and thoughts can be a problem.
In the 20th century, the French neurologist and neuropsychiatrist François Lhermitte found that, given a hypodermic needle, a patient with sufficient frontal cortex damage may jab someone; given a garden, roses will be plucked; items will be bought and guns fired — just because the opportunity to do so is apparent. In more recent decades, action impulses have often been misattributed as instructions from TV sets, ghosts or whatever else a subject is concerned by.
The emotional quality of a place also affects people. Vulnerable people often react far more when they experience bad circumstances than people who feel secure. But just as design can manipulate and disturb, good environments can work wonders — and be especially beneficial to vulnerable or non-neurotypical people.
At our architectural practice we conceptualise the problem as stage sets. We must understand the people involved and the circumstances they face and ask, “What set is needed here? What narrative do we want to establish in a space?”
We also devise opportunities to act, to be sure the inevitable actions convey an appropriate and supportive message. For example, in a dementia home mealtimes can be challenging, but when the dining hall is designed to look like a nice restaurant, residents choose from a menu and are far more likely to eat when the meal arrives.
At home, even the smallest changes can have impact. Removing the living room’s TV can trigger conversation, even for sullen teens — though that might provoke arguments! A guitar stand may encourage an interest in music. Similar tricks can be used to promote or inhibit just about any standing pattern of behaviour.
If we think about the environment as a series of stage sets for a grand play in which we are all the protagonists, we can make magic happen. We can even conjure ghosts.
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