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 as well as making use of 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 subjectivity, ineffability, and ambiguous external signs 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.
Our research addresses this void by investigating brain and physiological correlates of internal states elicited by sacred architecture. Mobile electroencephalography and bio-sensors will be used to analyze the differential experiential responses of 30 individuals of 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 and bodily states, (2) develop a novel research methodology grounded on neurophenomenology to investigate architecture’s aesthetic capacity to produce spiritual cognitive outcomes, and (3) produce compelling data to advance our understanding of sacred architecture and support further studies.
On the Frontier Between Art and Faith
Deconstructing the Spiritual Experience of Architecture