Religious architectures encode sacred information (divinity, history, authority, the dead), spiritual orientation (our place in the universe, relation to nature, social order), and holy rituals (practices, contemplation, work). This is done by incorporating spiritual representations on a building’s walls, ceilings, windows, and spaces and using its scale and proportions, layout, materials and craftsmanship, dark-light ratio, and acoustics. The result is the creation of an all-enveloping, intentionally constructed environment that points to the realm of spiritual reality. Nonetheless, holy buildings are like music albums; it is only by playing them that the enacted content will be experienced. In other words, information-rich sacred architecture depends on phenomenological engagement to produce cognitive and aesthetic effects.
Considering the nature of spiritual experiences, empirically gauging such effects has proven nearly impossible until the advent of neuroscience — a trustworthy method to study relationships between phenomenological states and brain activity. However, most neuroscientific and clinical research on spirituality has focused on internally-induced (i.e., self-directed, as in prayer or meditation) and not externally-induced (i.e., object or environment-driven) spiritual responses. The very few studies involving externally-induced aesthetics and theological concerns have been limited to two-dimensional iconography and music. Similarly, there is no hard data on the possible causes of such effects. Semiotic studies done in architecture and environmental psychology in the 1980s and 1990s only indirectly pointed at possible architectural features communicating and inducing human perceptual and behavioral responses.
Our research addresses these voids by investigating (1) brain and physiological correlates of internal states elicited by sacred architecture and (2) the architectural conditions eliciting such reactions. Ambulatory EEG (electroencephalography), mobile eye-tracking, and bio-sensors are used to analyze the experiential responses of 30 individuals of the Catholic faith to two aesthetic conditions: one religious (the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception) and one secular (Union Station) — buildings of great significance in Washington, DC.
Bringing together experts in architecture, psychology, neuroscience, theology, and machine learning, our interdisciplinary team will (1) employ last-generation technology to measure brain activity, eye-tracking, and bodily states, (2) develop a novel research methodology grounded on neurophenomenology to investigate architecture’s aesthetic capacity to produce spiritual and cognitive outcomes, and (3) collect compelling data to advance our understanding of sacred architecture and support further studies.