How do our brains navigate through a space?

By Dr. Lusine Tarkhanyan on 3 April 2017

Over the last 11 years at Spacelab, our focus has gone beyond the aesthetics of buildings and spaces to understanding their deeper structure and impact on the way they’re used in daily life. We use a number of specialist spatial mapping techniques to help diagnose how the layout of a space impacts on a business and its people. This, layered with a wider understanding of the business and people's needs, allows us to create a strategy for a workplace design that supports the social life of the office.

Our academic partners, UCL, have a team of neuroscientists who have linked brain activity to how people navigate through a space. Published in the journal, Nature, these findings prove that how we layout a space affects the way people move and therefore the importance of design in supporting people's movement patterns.

What does the research tell us?

The neuroscientists scanned the brains of people navigating a virtual version of London's Soho. They found that a certain part of the brain, the hippocampus, activates when people are processing the potential routes to take and recalling the street layout.

The neuroscientists found that brain activity increased when people were at a junction with multiple route options and long lines of sight, as compared with dead ends. The hippocampus reacted more intensely to the layout of the street network than any visual clues, such as trees, street width or the presence of shops. This links street layout to brain activity and is indicative of the degree of impact that a design has on our perception of and navigation through a space.

How does this apply to workplace design?

Haymarket Media Group approached us to conduct a workplace study to support them with finding a new office space. We used our in-depth consultancy process to identify a number of ways we could make the layout of the new space work better for them, from both efficiency and improved ways of working perspectives.

We used spatial mapping techniques to analyse the layout of their building and establish how the different spaces interlinked physically and visually across the four floors. We then identified ways in which their people could better navigate through the space. We improved access and visibility across the floors by opening up a disused courtyard and inserting a staircase through its heart. This resulted in a 91% increase in visual connectivity. People meet each other with less effort and there are more opportunities for unplanned interaction (view the full case study).


These latest findings are testament to the fact that, by designing buildings that are in line with the way our brains navigate a space, we really can make spaces work better for people.

Read the full article in the journal, Nature. 

Topics: buildings, evidence-based design, visibility, design, layout, ucl, space, spacelab, data driven design, scientists, behaviour, topology, neuroscience, hippocampus, brain, networks, haymarket media group