“The effect that the built environment has on our brains is the subject of a growing field of study,” writes Mark Bessoudo for The Possible, “combining insights from disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, architecture and philosophy.” So why is this post marked as being about autism?
The relationship between humans and buildings is far more complex and deep-rooted than simply one of shelter, or even of home. In fact, some cognitive scientists have come to believe that the distinction between mind, body and environment is an arbitrary one. The philosophical concept of the “extended mind” holds that we recruit aspects of our environment to support cognitive function. Rather than our minds being limited to the boundaries of the individual person, they extend outwards to include manmade tools, technology, buildings, even entire cities — an idea that suggests that […] distractions could have wider implications than mere annoyance.
This entire article is endlessly fascinating on its own but what set off my autism alarm is the stuff about how urban architecture, especially how we build spaces to separate or keep apart, creates “a new layer of ‘cognitive machinery’ beyond the individual brain and body” and that “the degree to which we can see one another, and whether we’re constrained by whom we can see, has played a role in the evolution of empathy and imagination”.
It’s important here to point out that one little editorial decision I made in the longer except above, which in reality speaks specifically of visual distractions. I cut the word “visual” because, of course, our urban spaces—or, really, any constructed spaces, both interior and exterior—come with all sorts of things which could be considered distractions or, to an autistic brain, problematic stimuli.
My point is just this: that if they are beginning to study how our inner cognitive space is impacted by a sort of new cognitive context that was introduced by the development of cities and dense socialized activity, and both theorizing and finding that how our brains deal with things very much is impacted by such things, try also being neuroatypically-sensitive to stimuli.
(Imagine this research into how our architecture affects everyone having the effect of broadening some notion of “sensory rooms” or Snoezelen to become part of workaday urban planning.)
I’m also fascinated by what Bessoudo relates as architecture professor Alan Penn’s discussion of empathy.
“At its most fundamental level, empathy depends upon perception,” Penn argues in a 2018 paper. “We have to see, or possibly to hear, others in order to view things from their point of view. Building a wall constrains who can see whom, and so can constrain the potential for empathic relationships.”
What’s interesting here, is that what neurotypicals too often take for an autistic lack of empathy instead simply might be the inner cognitive architecture of the autistic brain building temporary walls against the stimulus onslaught from the outside world. Just as, in Penn’s construction (ha) the architectural barriers of our cities might reduce empathy, in the autistic brain it’s not that we are shut off from feeling empathy but that the barriers we toss up against stimuli have the effect of preventing the outside world from being able to see our empathy.
Mostly, I would just encourage academics and researchers such as those in Bessoudo’s article to consider not just the relationship between the outer “cognitive machinery” of architecture and the inner cognitive machinery of typical brains but between that outer machinery and the inner machinery of atypical brains, as well.
An appreciation for the cognitive barriers created by architecture on the typical mind might increase an appreciation for how much worse it can be for atypical ones.