Muuto: What is neuroaesthetics?
Susan Magsamen: In its simplest form, neuroaesthetics is our understanding of how our brain changes on the arts. It’s about looking deeply into how our sensory, perceptual and motor systems work when we create or appreciate art and how these systems engage with the central nervous system around things such as rewards, pleasure, emotion and cognition.
M: How do different art forms help us understand ourselves and the world around us? How do they affect our behavior?
S: Art, in its many forms, lets us fully express ourselves, process and make meaning from human experiences, big and small. The act of art-making can have a very calming, restorative effect on body and mind, which is important to successfully navigating life's stressors. Art also bonds us to others, building bridges of understanding and empathy between different groups of people.
M: If we zoom in on the aspect of color, can you tell us about the role that it can play within neuroaesthetics and how it can impact our wellbeing?
S: Color is such an interesting topic in terms of the part that it plays in the world, being vital for cues of survival on a basic evolutionary level as hot colors like red, yellow and orange are better seen by the human eye than greens and blues. We also know that our perception of color is highly cultural; a given color might mean something in one culture and something entirely different in another. When we bring color into design, we have to be mindful about what is happening from both a neurobiological perspective as well as a cultural and social perspective.
M: What elements shape our perception of a given color?
S: One of the things that is so interesting to me about color is that while individual colors are important, the actual hue of a color plays an important part in how we respond to it on an individual level. As an example, things with pinker hues tend to have a more calming and soothing effect on us. Understanding hue is an important aspect when thinking about color and so is context. Our perception of a given color changes in relation to the colors that surround it.
M: How do you think color can impact the ways in which we experience our surroundings?
S: The thing about color is that we all see it differently, depending on our biology. The cones in my eyes are different from the cones in yours and the way that my brain crushes color is part of my perception; this comes down to genetics, to life experience, to conditioning. We must think about color as being highly subjective. Though you are designing a space from your perspective and from the idea that a certain color will have a certain effect on the people inhabiting it, that may not necessarily be true. Instead, we should consider color more as a tool within a palette that includes volume, texture and all the other objects that make a space. Color is highly contextual, and we should approach it as such.
M: Is there such a thing as a wrong or a right color within design and neuroaesthetics?
S: Not in the slightest. I believe that it truly comes down to context; you can’t realize your intentions for a space if you haven’t worked your way towards determining the appropriate color in relation to the context in which it will appear. However, there are no principals that make one color better than another, due to its subjectiveness.
M: Looking towards objects such as furniture, how do you find that the colors of these can affect our perception of a room as compared to the color of a wall or ceiling?
S: The objects within a space have a direct relationship to the space and its colors, meaning that they can affect each other as well as our perception of them. Say you put a dark green leather sofa in a room with dark brown walls: they’ll change each other’s color in a way that wouldn’t happen if you had placed the sofa up against a white wall, which would have made it more enriched. You must be intentional about what you are trying to achieve when placing objects within a space, as not only the color but also the textures of these objects can, in theory, be disturbing or noisy. All these variables play together in helping you achieve what you are trying to do within the space.
M: Do you find that we, not only as individuals but also companies in general, should be more thoughtful in relation to the colors that we surround ourselves with—whether it be at home, at work or in public?
S: Totally! I think we should be more conscious about how colors make us feel individually and that this differs from person to person. You may walk into a bright, blue room and be totally calmed by it whereas others may come in and feel entirely overwhelmed. We should be very conscious about how color makes us feel and that different emotional states prompt different needs: your needs at home are going to be different from your needs at work—you might need a softer palette in the home where color within a workspace may be more about alertness and potential focus. It’s important to think about what colors are appropriate in which spaces, thinking about the contexts of these and what their different purposes are.