What if architecture can be more than a physical, “bricks and mortar” structure?
What if a building can help us to find God?
What if religions understood how sacred architecture makes the miracle of experiencing God possible?
“The intensity was astounding.” “I was in a sort of ecstasy.” “I had palpitations of the heart.” “I was just overwhelmed. All of me.”
People often struggle to describe the awe they feel when they enter a beautiful structure designed for worship. Whether they’ve visited an ancient or modern site, whether their words focus primarily on a physical, cerebral or emotional reaction, what most accounts hold in common is a powerful sense of transcendence to some other realm of being. For many, this is the essence of a spiritual experience.
Julio Bermudez, Ph.D., a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning at the Catholic University of America, is fascinated with how humans respond to sacred architecture – both what they verbalize about the experience and, especially, what can be measured in their brains and bodies during the experience.
With funding from Templeton Religion Trust, he’s leading pioneering, interdisciplinary research using the newest scientific tools and methods to track and measure the experience of sacred architecture as a cognitive phenomenon – essentially, a full-body, full-brain workout with a person’s surroundings. Thanks to advancements in biometric and mobile technologies, he reports, the experience can now be deconstructed and analyzed like never before.
“Architecture is one of the arts that allow us to have access to an experience of spiritual understanding and spiritual realities. The challenge right now is that, despite a millennium of theorizing and argumentation about how that is possible, we are really still at ground zero in terms of having any scientific understanding of it,” Bermudez maintains. “There’s been enough talk. I want to actually measure it, to scientifically, empirically, and testably understand how architecture communicates with us. And, in particular, to understand how that communication has to do with something transcendent.”
Bermudez’s current research builds on a previous project, also funded by Templeton Religion Trust, in which 30 research participants, all Roman Catholic, visited Washington D.C.’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and Union Station. Each was equipped with a mobile EEG system to record brain waves plus smart devices to measure heart rate, blood pressure and skin conductance levels. At five predetermined stopping points in each building, researchers gathered instrument readings and asked questions about the experience. The objective was to gather quantitative and qualitative data to determine if people respond differently to spaces that are architecturally similar but serve distinctly different purposes: one sacred, the other secular.
The data are still being analyzed. However, preliminary findings suggest that sacred spaces produce distinct biometric effects compared to secular spaces. For instance, increased gamma activity across the brain and higher activation of the frontal lobe indicates intense focus. Also, the brain’s default mode, usually associated with daydreaming and mind-wandering, seems to be disrupted in a sacred space.
To learn more, this latest Bermudez-led project is essentially duplicating the earlier one, using the same buildings, participants and protocols. However, now there’s another layer of technology – mobile eye-tracking and AI-based scene analysis. To date, these technologies have mostly been used by advanced marketing and psychology researchers. This is the first time these new technologies will be used to study sacred architecture.
By precisely tracking what research participants are looking at and cross-pollinating data sets, the Bermudez team hopes to identify specific architectural stimuli that cause measurable biometric effects.
Determining what people are actually seeing is much more complex than it may seem at first glance. As Homo sapiens (“wise humans”), our brains are hardwired for unconscious as well as conscious processing of sensory inputs, and much of our sight processing occurs at the unconscious level.
Bermudez explains: “The eye goes all over. You probably are looking at 30 or more points in one second. Because the brain coordinates and brings them together into a stable scene in consciousness, we think we are looking at something, but that’s a result — a report that the brain delivered to us. What we think we’re looking at is only the tip of the iceberg of what we’re actually looking at.”
It’s all part of humans’ deeply embedded survival mechanism, he continues.
“We have to be continuously monitoring our surroundings with our eyes to know we’re safe — we have millennia of priming for that. Once our safety is clear, then we can relax and begin to pay attention to other things. As researchers, we’ve developed a hypothesis that there is a progressive layering of information involved. We think certain features of architecture that are more comprehensive, more environmental – such as enclosure, light, materiality – are much more impacting at the unconscious level than some other features like decorations, symbolism or messaging in art. So, if you ask people what they’re looking at, they may say things like, ‘Well, I’m looking at the images of the Virgin Mary.’ When, in reality, that may be possible only because the infrastructure is there that allows it to happen.
“We think that there are some features unique to architecture that convey spiritual information and spiritual reality by communicating to deep physio-psychological structures that organize our perception of the world,” he summarizes. “But that’s a hypothesis that doesn’t matter from a scientific perspective because there’s been no way to prove this — until now.”
Specifically, the research team is tracking research participants’ responses to 12 aspects of architecture:
It’s a tremendously challenging undertaking. The questions are complex. Though the number of research subjects is small, the quantity of data is enormous. And it’s impossible to control all the variables that exist in real-world settings. “It’s not a petri dish,” Bermudez acknowledges. “Human experience is much more complex.”
However, rather than being an end in itself, this project, like its predecessor, is best understood as a beginning. The researchers hope it will lead to more and broader research ahead. By pursuing a science-based understanding of how spiritual architecture shapes human responses and sharing the results broadly, this work potentially lays the groundwork for a new field of study: experimental theological aesthetics. The result could be better, more thoughtful architecture that intentionally prompts us to become better, more spiritually attuned people – individually and collectively.
“Architecture is the most physical, lasting thing that humans construct,” Bermudez observes. “At its best, it produces the impossible, which is effortlessly catapulting us into the metaphysical, into God, into spiritual reality and spiritual understanding. We need to understand how and why that happens.”