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Dr Des Fitzgerald
University of Cardiff
Philip Leverhulme Prize

Psychology’s architectural turn

Des Fitzgerald is investigating the implications of contemporary interest in the relationship between our physical environment and our mental state

The Barbican Estate, London, combines brutalist concrete with a lake, rushes and palms. Credit: Andy Mabbett, licensed under CC 3.0.

In a recent essay, the architect John Paul Eberhard tells a story about Jonas Salk – discoverer of the polio vaccine.  In 1948, Salk was in Pittsburgh working feverishly to develop his vaccine, when he became overwhelmed with ‘brain overload.’ He at once left for the town of Assisi, where he stayed at the basilica of St Francis. And it was there, among the building’s harmonious arches and frescoes, that Salk made the vital realisation that a ‘dead’ virus could be used in a vaccine. Years later, he told this story to the American Institute of Architects. For Salk, the physical surroundings of Assisi were central to his breakthrough: he suggested quite seriously to the architects that they devote more attention to the links between architecture and the brain. 

I like this story. But I also take it as symbolic of a moment when a striking range of organisations and individuals, across a wide array of fields, not only began to explore the link between architecture and the brain, but become much more widely interested in the delicate interweaving of psychology and the environment – in the idea that the psychological and neurobiological aspects of our lives are intimately caught up with the physical environments and landscapes in which those lives take shape.  

This idea – which is not new exactly, but is becoming much more expansive - marks a certain kind of environmental or architectural ‘turn’ in how we think about neuroscience, psychology and, increasingly, mental health. And not only among neuroscientists and psychologists. I am interested in a network, in which, certainly, at one point, teams of clinicians and researchers are trying to figure out why there is so much mental illness in cities. But at another point, there are planners, architects and policymakers, wondering how to actually design for good mental health. There are psychologists and counsellors becoming more and more convinced of the healing power of nature. And there are hotel chains trying to figure out how more ‘natural’ environments can improve the emotional experiences of their guests. 

This network coalesces around an important shift in psychological, psychiatric and neuroscientific thinking – one in which our psychological health seems to be more and more closely caught up with the physical environments we inhabit. My research, beginning in 2018, is about making sense of this shift, the institutions and practices holding it together, and its wider consequences for how we think about, and intervene in, our mental health.

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