The Architecture of Life: April 2009

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Monday, April 27, 2009

Snoop tops 2008 New Scientist Picks!

Sam Gosling's book, Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You was chosen one of the Top Science Books of 2008 by New Scientist Magazine.

My critics cannot claim I keep promoting the book just because I am in the last chapter and Sam is a friend and member of our Advisory Board. (Of course that IS partly why I promote it, but at least now my shameless self promotion is more justified!)

Here are a couple of quotes explaining why Sam's title was in the magazine's top six for 2008.

"In this charming and well-written book, academic psychologist Sam Gosling brings a mass of research to bear on a simple question: just how much can you really tell about a person from their possessions, living spaces and non-verbal behaviour?

"With this book, Gosling joins a small but growing band of scholars who are keen to present to the public the important and practical insights that can be gained from experimental social psychology."

Way to go, Sam!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Truehome on "Luminous Ground"

Our Luminous Ground, a blog that explores the ideas of Christopher Alexander included a well-informed article recently about our Truehome approach to architecture - and my architecture firm - Sentient Architecture.

Here are a few excerpts:

"'Sentient' obviously refers to our senses. But it’s a word with deeper meaning. It also means being consciously aware of how we feel. How do you design a home with feeling? With emotion?

"Christopher Travis, an architect from Texas who also has a philosophy degree*1, has crafted a psychological and aesthetic compatibility tool for his clients who believe - as he does - that a home does not have to be just a building. It can be an emotional experience.

"At least 70 happy customers are living in homes that truly belong to them. They are “suites of emotional responses” emerging from the brains of the folks who live there.

It’s why the New York Times called an article about Travis’s work, “Home is Where the Head Is” (July 17, 2008)

By referring to clients’ carefully answered questionnaires, Travis designs a home reminiscent of their happy childhood memories and avoids design elements that brought stress.

By learning about the home-owner’s parents, siblings, relationships, childhood issues, life experiences, he tries to avoid what he calls “design dysfunction.”

"He read Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language and...has a blog Alexander, himself, would no doubt approve... Travis writes about “Transforming Responsibility.”

"'It may seem impossible to make any real difference. It may seem too overwhelming to even contemplate, but truthfully you do not have to know what to do or how to do it to make a powerful commitment.

"'All you have to do is pick yourself up, realize you have the power to control your words...and change the conversation'”

'Reflective of his own design process, Travis adds, 'People must first see the possibility of a positive change before they can strive towards it. Human beings are profoundly emotional. They are profoundly social and collaborate instinctively. These facts mean we must give up the ‘one size fits all’ stereotypes we use to fix blame without ignoring the realities of human nature.'”

"We are now in the midst of changing many conversations. Travis, Alexander and others are changing the conversation about how we construct the spaces in which we live, the powerful places we call home."

Thanks to Karen Speerstra and her partners at Luminous Ground for their kind words.

*1 Just to set the record straight, I do NOT have a degree in philosophy. I did study philosophy when I was young at the University of Texas, but obtained no degree. I still study philosophy now, but I am a mere lay theorist without formal training. Karen got this inaccurate fact from the N. Y. Times article. Penelope asked me what I studied in school - then assumed I completed my study. The error was mine as I missed it when I fact checked.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Room Psychology" in Welt der Wunder

Today, I got a copy of the newest issue of the German popular science magazine - Welt der Wunder (World of Wonder).

It includes a major article that cites two psychologists I admire - Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK and Sam Gosling of the University of Texas at Austin.

I open up the magazine, and there I am - the subject of an online experiment Dr. Wiseman asked me to participate in called "Room with a View." According the the article I am a "room psycholgist" with an "uncanny" ability to predict the character and personality of people by viewing their home environments.

Here's how it happened.

It all began when Wiseman tested a group of us - including me - by asking us to predict the personality and character of an unknown person whose office was shown in a single image. I learned later the picture was taken of the office of Sigmund Freud. Apparently I analyzed Freud's personality with some success because Richard Wiseman created the next experiment just for me.

Due to Sam G's ongoing promotion of my psychological approach to architecture, Richard Wiseman thought it would be interesting to see if my experience with clients made me a more expert Snoop than the average Joe on the street.

In the experiment he created, I was asked to guess the personality and character of four people by looking at a single image from their living areas - just as I had done with Freud. But this time they were people in the U.K. - gender unknown - who Richard asked to photograph their living rooms without changing them or cleaning them up.

I know I didn't get all of them right - but I must have done well because Richard Wiseman's experiment ended up part of a big spread in Welt der Wunder called The Secret Code of Human Knowledge. Sam's research rightly got more text - but my poor mug and the pictures of the rooms I analyzed took up most of two pages.

Just goes to show there is no justice. The real "room psychologist" is Sam Gosling. I am just a guy that gets inside people's head to figure out how to design homes that fit who they are.

Oh well, sometimes the gods of fame are capricous...

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Seeing Puzzles of Reality

A host of studies have recently been published that in one way or another suggest new levels of complexity and cooperation in the functioning of the nervous system.

April 7th, researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reported that a recent study suggest that "the nervous system operates with higher precision than previously appreciated and that apparent irregularities in individual cells may actually be coordinated and finely tuned to make the most of the world around us.

"About 1.25 million neurons in the retina - each of which views the world only through a small jagged window called a receptive field - collectively form the seamless picture we rely on to navigate our environment. Receptive fields fit together like pieces of a puzzle, preventing "blind spots" and excessive overlap that could blur our perception of the world" state the researchers.

Cells in the body have long been understood to cooperate in incredible ways to support the functioning of the body. Chemical messengers actually tell aging cells when it's their time to die.

What is now becoming more clear is that the brain and nervous system also operate at a level of complexity that is much closer to optimal than previously thought.

Also becoming more likely is that complexity science, particularly studies of emergent social properties of social insects, is likely a good metaphor for understanding how cells in the brain might operate as agents in a living complex adaptive system.

Another recent study suggests that reactivated memories of spaces cued by your environment are strengthened and updated by neurons born less than a week earlier. Thus memory is inextricably tied to neurogenesis. Each new cell born is tagged to valuable information we need to navigate the world around us.

Again, our homes are in our heads. So are our relationships with others and the realities we experience in our everday lives. But let's face it - we don't live like that. We all walk around with a pretense that we are making rational decisions based on rational evidence - when only a small part of our decisions occur that way.

I will point out again - with some hubris - that I predicted this April rise in the U. S. stock market last October and stuck to it religiously through the deepest, darkest economic times agains all evidence. I did that simply by thinking of global economic behavior as the psychological behavior of a single person undergoing serious anxiety.

Perhaps that was just luck, but taking a systems psychology view of the mass behavior of human beings informed by the emergent behavior of macrotermes termites and harvester ants DID produce an accurate prediction that almost none of the smartest economists supported.

Step by step neuroscience is uncovering the mechanisms through which we construct our day to day experience - and those mechanisms are much more sophisticated and adaptive than most of us can imagine.

What we think about as we move through our lives has a limited impact on how we automatically react to the world around us. It is beginning to look like the vast majority of our actions are spurred by intuitive, automatic or emotional decisions that have little to do with the internal chatter of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations going on constantly in our heads.
But it "real life" - we all experience that babble as our day to day reality - when in truth it is mostly self-justification associated with how we fear others might see us and other types of social positioning common to baboons.

Happily our nervous systems are incredibly ingenious at juggling the "story" we tell to prop up our social identities with the facts as they actually occur in our environment. Otherwise, we would most likely have gone extinct.

Where the rubber meets the road - in working relationships - think what that means about the process of collecting criteria for design.

Think how effective questioning a client about their thoughts and desires would be when a complex design project is being envisioned.

Given what is going on in the brain, the "self-reporting error" would be pretty darn high - and that is exactly what we have seen for a decade in our architecture firm.

Think what that means about the way you explain your own choices to others and how that might impact the workability of our communication with others. No wonder designer/client relationships are such a mess.

We are all living in the past but operating as though we are making decisions based in the present. It's like that old metaphor. We are driving through life with both hands turning the rear view mirror as though we grasp the steering wheel.