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What is the Role of Human Memory in Architecture?

By Maria Lorena Lehman — Get more articles like this sent to your email HERE.

Image Credit: © Frenta | Dreamstime

This is a “loaded” question, but …

The beautiful thing about architecture is that it can “tap into” an occupant’s past meaningful experiences through their senses and their emotion. Architecture also has the power set the stage for occupants to create new meaningful experiences — and memory plays a key role in helping to make all of this possible.

INFLUENCING PERCEPTION AND DECISION-MAKING

Although the role of human memory in architecture is a big one, we can begin to scratch at its surface by understanding how built form engages humans — influencing both their perception and their decision making abilities.

Let’s begin by taking a closer look at this quote:

“Studies show that memory plays a critical role in perception and decision making; however, it may be less reliable and more suggestible than once believed.” (1)

So, what does this mean for architects?

MEANING, SENSE + EMOTION

From individual memory to collective memory, architecture can impact what and how we remember. An architect’s design might make the most of “suggestible” memories by creating built form that helps to “preserve” a memory— like a memorial, for instance. On the other hand, architecture can bring new meaning into our present as well.

So, how might this all work? Here’s another quote:

“We now know enough about how memories are stored and retrieved to demolish another long-standing myth: that memories are passive or literal recordings of reality…we do not store judgement-free snapshots of our past experiences but rather hold on to the meaning, sense, and emotions these experiences provided us.” 
– written by Harvard Professor Daniel L. Schacter (1)

Architecture uses human memory to help occupants both “do” and “learn”. (1) Yet, what occupants probably remember most are the meaning, sense and emotion that an environment helped provide. Perhaps it is out of these qualities that a truly great work of architecture can simply help someone make a decision or even impact a culture.

Reference:

(1) Lawrence, Karen. Neuroscience, Memory and Social Manipulation. Suite101.com. September 21, 2008.

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Maria: I came across your website through a reference in today's Architect Weekly ezine and am delighted I did. I'll bookmark your site and check back often. I read the first article and then the second and thirty minutes later realized how much time had passed. I've been practicing for thirty years and have always missed the stimulation of academia. I find each of your brief dissertations sort of like a day in design studio. Thanks for the inspiration.

Ron Ward
AI Group Design
I am excited to see you touch a vein of values in architecture, I have been chasing myself for years. Your depth of involvement in these very deep subjects is really beautiful and passionately dealt with and well written. Sound, color and value, shape, texture, scale, smell.... all definitive measures of the spaces we should be alert to. [...] I will savor the rest of your investigation of sensuality in architecture. I'm Glad I found you.

Dennis McLaughlin
McLaughlin Architect
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Maria Lorena Lehman is a multi award-winning visionary author, designer, and educator from the United States. Maria holds a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Virginia Tech and a Master in Design with Distinction from Harvard University Graduate School of Design. CLICK HERE to learn more.

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