Impact of Built Environment Design on Emotion Measured via Neurophysiological Correlates and Subjective Indicators: A Systematic Review

Researchers have long known that animals exposed to environmentally enriched settings—conditions that offer higher levels of sensory, cognitive, social, and motor stimulation—experience changes in behavior and in cellular and molecular activity. There has even been evidence of “disease offset” in some neurological conditions, leading scientists to believe that these enriched environments provide indications for positive effects on brain development and health. Higher brain activity, they have seen, changes neurol function and neuroplasticity at the molecular level. 

What Deakin University’s Peter Enticott, Richard Tucker, and Isabella Bower have done in publishing their literature review, “Impact of Built Environment Design on Emotion Measured Via Neurophysiological Correlates and Subjective Indicators: A Systematic Review,” is search for any published evidence that there is a similar impact on human emotion from the design of interior spaces. 

Enticott, a professor of cognitive neuroscience; Tucker, an associate professor of architecture; and Bower, a doctoral candidate in the College of Science, Engineering and Built Environment reviewed nearly 250 academic records with the frequently used terms “interior design” and “emotion” that were peer-reviewed, authored in English, and published between 2000 and July 2018. In the end, their search uncovered seven studies in eight papers between 2004 and 2017 eligible for their review criteria after independent, full-text screening. Those screenings included a review of the types of studies, participants, interventions, and outcome measures. 

What they hoped to find was some objective context for what researchers, architects, and other practitioners have been arguing, that the interior spaces humans inhabit, along with urban landscapes and natural environments, directly affect human behavior. For this review they focused on interior spaces to assess the effects of design characteristics on the emotions of those who inhabit them. “The review establishes if neurophysiological markers of emotion can be used to distinguish emotional states, and whether these markers align with consciously perceived self-reported responses resultant from exposure to controlled, enclosed interior building environments,” they noted.


Ultimately they and others propose that, if objective markers of emotion can be measured from exposure to interior spaces, then design standards and guidelines could be developed with public health in mind. “If the impact of design characteristics can be understood on a neurophysiological level, this opens the door to understanding if we can support mental health and wellbeing  (in both healthy and clinical populations) non-invasively through environmental exposure as a recognized form of therapy.” 

The authors noted there currently are no standard, accepted, cross-validated protocols or methodologies for evaluating how design of built environments affect neurophysiological correlates of emotion in humans. Those correlates include measurable activity in the occipital, parietal, and temporal regions of the brain while perceiving visual stimuli, and activity in the prefrontal cortex during the interpretation of stimuli. In the seven studies reviewed, researchers measured central nervous system activity using electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). EEG, which was used in three studies, observes electrical activity in the brain, while fMRI and fNIRS detect changes in in blood oxygenation, which indicates neuronal activity. The studies reviewed used a combination of brain and body responses, in addition to some self-reported measures, in a total of 122 people. 

The team did note a number of methodological limitations within the seven studies. Those limitations included no reporting of indoor environmental quality parameters, inconsistent reporting of participant characteristics, not disclosing the method and rationale for calculating sample size, presenting p values without effect size or correlation coefficients, and the use of different techniques, protocols, and programs for decoding objective data. 

Still, the studies did point to evidence that design characteristics of interior built environments did influence human emotion.

Results included: 

  • Decisions to exit and a lowered judgement of beauty were evidenced in enclosed rooms with lower ceilings. 
  • Decreased anterior cingulate cortex activity and lower self-evaluated ratings for pleasure and arousal were reported in rooms with more linear geometries. 
  • An association of curvilinear spaces as “beautiful” activated anterior cingulate cortex activity but did not alter exit decisions about the space. 
  • Furnished interior environments received higher self-reported ratings for emotion state dimensions of presence and arousal indistinctly of style of furniture, which resulted in increased heart rate and larger theta power across frontal sites for high presence. 
  • Using stereoscopy to enable the appearance of depth in virtual environments increased self-reported levels of presence in participants. n sing stereoscopy to enable the appearance of depth in virtual environments increased self-reported levels of presence in participants. 
  • n Wood texture in both virtual and physical spaces was able to reduce autonomic nervous system activity (heart rate and sweat response) without conscious perception in participants. 
  • Participants with design training showed deviation from non-design trained participants, suggesting that familiarity with design may not be enriching to
    stimulate the brain. 
“The body of evidence collected does not provide robust evidence for the neurophysiological effect in interior spaces to different visual properties of the built environment,” the team reported. “However, it  does suggest that emotional state is affected by visual properties that can be objectively measured, and which result in a range of neural and physiological activity. It is also important to note that brain and body activity in response to design characteristics can occur without conscious perception.” 


Bower, I., Tucker, R., & Enticott, P.G. (2019). Impact of Built Environment Design on Emotion Measured Via Neurophysiological Correlates and Subjective Indicators: A Systematic Review. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 66, 101344.  

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