Understanding Cognitive Processes in the Courthouse

Neuroscience and Courthouse Design Workshop: Understanding Cognitive Processes in the Courthouse

by Christina Noble, AIA , LEED AP
Originally published in AssociateNews, National News Publication for the American Institute of Architects. October 2007
and the AAJ Journal, a national journal focused on justice architecture for the American Institute of Architects, October 2007

The Academy of Neuroscience of Architecture was created with the mission to research links between neuroscience and “human responses to the built environment.”  As Dr. Fred Gage stated in his Lecture on Neuroscience and Architecture, “the places we live, work and play are changing our brains and our behavior all the time.”  Neuroscience research has determined that the brain controls behavior, genes control the brain’s “design and structure,” and the environment impacts gene’s function.  As a result, environmental changes impact behavior.

Past ANFA workshops have initiated research of healthcare facilities, worship spaces and detention facilities.  This weekend I participated in “Neuroscience and Courthouse Design Workshop: Understanding Cognitive Processes in the Courthouse,” the first ANFA workshop to discuss courthouse design. Our session included behavioral researchers, architects and court administrators in a multidisciplinary exploration of how we might apply neuroscientific concepts to better understand design’s impact on court users.

One of the key themes that emerged during the session was the importance of the jury as representatives and executors of democratic justice.  By considering the jury the arbiters of truth and final authorities within the court of law, the importance of their engaged focus and concentration throughout complex legal proceedings comes to the fore.  Neuroscience has already proven that stress reduces complex reasoning capabilities.  Through focused study of juries’ courthouse experiences, we can hopefully identify key stress points throughout their courthouse visit, increase their reasoning and lead to more accurate and just verdicts.

Neuroscientific studies have analyzed how we create cognitive maps to navigate spaces – the first and best method, and the least stressful, is to find visual clues within our environment.  Kevin Lynch described paths, edges, nodes, landmarks and districts in The Image of the City as effective urban way-finding devices.  Dr. Richard Werner has proven that the use of rectangularity, simplicity, expectation, visual access, asymmetry, terminology and orientation can create more navigable interior spaces.  Of special note is visual access – the ability to see from where you are located now to where you want to go.  Visual connections between interior and exterior can help us better understand our position in space, orient ourselves within a building, and experience less stress as a result.

Additional behavioral research surveys by Dr. Debajyoti Pati have drawn correlations between transparency, illumination, ease of way-finding and courthouse occupants’ perceptions of “openness.”  “Openness” was theorized to have many layers of meaning, including perceptions of equal physical access throughout the building, transparency for way-finding, and transparency to suggest democratic access to justice for all.  Thus, visual connections with the outdoors and community not only allow for ease of stress, but also strongly symbolize equality and justice.

Our workshop’s final suggestion for further study hopes to build upon transparency’s ability to create visual connections and its symbolic associations with “openness” by extending the discussion to natural light.  We found natural light especially intriguing because of the dual possibilities of strong symbolism and stress relief for juries.  Studies of natural light throughout the jury’s experience of the courthouse – the deliberation rooms, courtroom, lobby and waiting areas – could be especially intriguing because of natural light’s combined functional and symbolic implications within the courtroom.  Separate behavioral research surveys by Dr. Pati have indicated possible conflicts between functional and symbolic lighting needs during court proceedings.  Functionally, more balanced, horizontal lighting allows for better facial expression recognition.  The jury can identify a scientific expert witness’s indecision and discomfort or a jilted lover’s seething irritation.  However, the same study also revealed that more dramatic, vertical lighting leads to perceived greater solemnity, dignity and ceremony within a courtroom.  Dramatic lighting conveys the importance of the proceedings and engenders greater connection between the jury and the human dramas of the court.  Architects and designers will need to weigh these competing priorities in the judicial environment – the functional importance of unimpeded vision or the symbolic importance of respect and dignity.

We can find numerous successful, built examples of designing natural light into the judicial environment, especially in Europe.  French courts employ natural light as an integral symbolic gesture – light illuminates truth and truth produces justice.  Similar Italian designs can be found, as well.  For example, daylight is placed above and behind the jury in the Doge’s Palace in Venice – evidence is illuminated in a gesture that carries both functional purpose and symbolic meaning.  Inspired designers have intuitively recognized the power of natural light in legal proceedings.  Now, neuroscience can provide the tools to understand why.

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