Tag Archives: Architecture

The Ego in Architects

Beauty is found everywhere in Paris. From the art museums, to the local gardens, to the towering landmarks across the city, it is impossible to not have Parisian beauty in your sight at all moments throughout the day. It is hard to imagine that at one point in time, the sights that seem so breathtaking were once not there; once upon a time, there were no identifiable landmarks along the cityscape, just gardens and houses composing the city. While imagining what older versions of Paris may have looked like, I thought back to some of my favorite sights that I have seen: Sacre-Couer, Arc de Triomphe, and (of course) the Eiffel Tower. While thinking of these internationally famous landmarks, I began to wonder why. Why were they made? Why were they made the size they are? Why were they made of certain material? Why are some more ornate than others? I then realized that the answers to these questions pertain more toward the architects of such monuments and not the monuments themselves. As I pondered the history of these architects, I started to realize the amount of pride they must have had from their accomplishments. I then began to question the ego (self-defined as a sense of self-esteem/pride) of these architects and to what role did their pride impact the design of their monuments?

The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Sacre-Couer

To first understand the role of ego in architects, it is important to first understand the role of ego in a general person. Rizzolatti et al. (2014) explored the relationship between neuroscience and ego. According to their report, the link between ego and the brain is a network of brain regions that are highly active at rest and are non-active during goal-directed thinking, called the default-mode network (DMN). The DMN controls and suppresses the activity of brain structures that receive information from brain regions that are in charge of motivation, as well as moderates information from the external world (Rizzolatti et al., 2014). While this study cannot conclusively state that the DMN is responsible for ego (as there was no actual research performed in their article), since ego is a human construct, it does convince me that it is the closest neural mechanism for ego and/or pride. So, since the DMN processes motivation, is involved in goal-directed thinking, and factors in information from the world we live in, it seems reasonable to conclude that the DMN functions as the neurobiological mechanism for ego which deals with one’s sense self-esteem in relation to other’s in their environment.

Location of DMN in adult brain

As for architects, one study has shown that the creative aspect of an architect’s mind leads to a strengthened ego, or in other words, an inflated sense of self-esteem (Fodor, 1995). In this study, participants were asked to design an engineering solution to the question of how to water a dog while frequently gone from home. The participants were then graded based on personalities, in which the more creative individuals scored higher on ego strength. This inflated sense of ego leads to a psychotic-like behavior that favors creative performance in finding solutions to difficult engineering problems, a quality that is favored in a renowned architect (Fodor, 1995). While the study by Fodor did give insight into the reward mechanisms of ego, it offered little biological evidence for the existence/prevalence of ego, necessitating further research.

Upon further investigation, I found one study where researchers performed an fMRI on participants as they recalled memories where they felt prideful, meaning they had a sense of ego (Roth et al., 2014). In this study, they discovered that during feelings of pride, the left amygdala (brain region responsible for emotions and memory) was significantly activated, as was the left anterior insula (brain region responsible for emotional experiences). These feelings of pride were also correlated with an increased rewarding/pleasurable experience. It was helpful how in this study they used neutral imagery in between moments where pride (or shame) could be recalled, ensuring that there would be clear results for which parts of the brain are, indeed, activated in response to pride  (Roth et al., 2014). Based on their results, it may mean that when these great architects resolved their engineering feats, they activated brain regions responsible for subjective emotional experiences and felt an increase in personal reward, perhaps leading these architects to build to new heights to achieve this same feeling each time they completed a project. Additionally, other areas of the brain are rewarded when seeing pleasurable architecture; regions of the brain such as the parahippocampus (responsible for memory retrieval) show that past architectural experiences play a role in the reward circuitry (Coburn et al., 2017). This may be interpreted that as an architect gains experience, they may need to out build their previous work, leading to a compulsion to build higher, wider, and more grandiose than ever before. It was beneficial for Coburn et al. (2017) to include neurobiology from all senses (motor, auditory, visual, etc.) however, the most convincing piece of evidence for the role of ego in the construction of architecture lies in their explanation of the parahippocampus which allows for a unique drive to “one-up” one’s self.

Image of brain highlighting the location of the insula and amygdala

So, next time I look up at the Eiffel Tower from my apartment window or look back on my pictures at Sacre-Couer, I will know that the brilliant architects responsible for these masterpieces had a reward circuit in their brain pushing them to go past their previous boundaries and build more robust pieces of architecture than before. Who knows, if these architects were still alive, they may have already built a more iconic landmark for Paris than the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe. Only time will tell how far future architects will push themselves (and their egos) in the city of Paris.

Map of famous Paris monuments


Works Cited

Rizzolatti, G., Semi, A. A., & Fabbri-Destro, M. (2014). Linking psychoanalysis with neuroscience: The concept of ego. Neuropsychologia55, 143-148.

Roth, L., Kaffenberger, T., Herwig, U., & Brühl, A. B. (2014). Brain activation associated with pride and shame. Neuropsychobiology69(2), 95-106.

Coburn, A., Vartanian, O., & Chatterjee, A. (2017). Buildings, beauty, and the brain: a neuroscience of architectural experience. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience29(9), 1521-1531.

Fodor, E. M. (1995). Subclinical manifestations of psychosis-proneness, ego strength, and creativity. Personality and Individual Differences18(5), 635-642.

Image 1: my personal photo

Image 2: google images http://dmangus.blogspot.com/2018/06/neuroscience-default-mode-network.html

Image 3: google images https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/figures?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0201772

Image 4: google maps screenshot

The Real Art Connoisseurs

Coming to Paris the first thing I noticed was the architecture. As an architectural studies minor, I love seeing new styles of building and the effects they have on how we perceive a city. Just from the buildings, Paris is already classier than any city I’ve been to in the U.S. I was even told that the reason most apartment buildings don’t have air conditioning is because Parisians don’t want to mar the beautiful façade of the buildings with ugly air conditioning units (I don’t disagree with this decision).

Classy Parisian apartment building

Not only is the architecture beautiful in Paris but also the artwork in the plethora of museums. Just in this first week I’ve visited three museums: the Musée de l’Orangerie, Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. Each one is always filled with people admiring the artwork. The interesting aspect about art is that its beauty is subjective and intangible, and yet, it is relatable to many. After all, there is a reason that 10.2 million people visited the Louvre in 2018 (taking into account the fact that some people go just to say they’ve gone). This absurd number of people has me thinking, is there a way to detect the real art connoisseurs from the charlatans who only go to the museums for the Instagram post?

Entrance to the Louvre, designed by I.M. Pei

One way to answer this question is to find evidence that there is a difference in brain activity between art experts and non-experts when viewing a piece of art. Such a study was done by Kirk et al. in which the authors asked architects and non-architects to rate the aesthetic value of building images while fMRI studies tracked neural activity (Kirk et al., 2009). Before this study, it was already

The ACC and OFC are involved in processing reward

known that brain areas that are active in processing reward such as the striatum, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) are also active when perceiving visual aesthetics such as paintings (Vartanian and Goel, 2004). Because of this, Kirk et al. focused on fMRI studies of these brain locations in architects and non-architects to see if there was a difference in neural activity. It should be noted though that other areas such as the parahippocampal gyrus are activated during visual perception and judgement of value, but are not explicitly studied in this experiment (Chatterjee and Vartanian, 2016).

Eleven architects/grad or postgrad architecture students and 13 undergrad/grad students with no formal art-related education were asked to rate the level of aesthetic appeal for 168 building images by pressing buttons 1 (lowest appeal) to 5 (highest appeal) while in the fMRI scanner. Results showed that there was a significant increase in ACC and OFC activity in architects compared to non-architects when asked to make an aesthetic judgement of the building (Kirk et al., 2009). These results are controlled by data that show no significant difference in neural activity when architect and non-architect were asked to make an aesthetic judgement on a neutral stimulus such as a face (Kirk et al., 2009). Thus we know that the difference in neural activity in the ACC and OFC is due to the judgement of buildings specifically. Interestingly enough, other areas of the brain active during reward that are predicted to also be active during aesthetic judgement such as the nucleus accumbens show no significant difference in activation between architect and non-architect during building aesthetic evaluation (Kirk et al., 2009). Overall, we can conclude that the anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex have different neural activities in art experts vs non-experts when asked to judge the beauty of an artwork.

So what does this mean in terms of differentiating the connoisseurs from the charlatans? Essentially there is no real way to tell the difference without access to fMRI scans of everyone’s brains, since behavior in making aesthetic judgements (such as reaction time in aesthetic judgement) is not significantly different between experts and non-experts when viewing a piece of art (Kirk et al., 2009). So good news for us charlatans, no one will be exposing us anytime soon during our next museum visit!


Chatterjee, A., & Vartanian, O. (2016). Neuroscience of aesthetics. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 172-194.

Kirk, U., Skov, M., Christensen, M. S., & Nygaard, N. (2009). Brain correlates of aesthetic expertise: A parametric fMRI study. Brain and Cognition, 69, 306-315.

10.2 million visitors to the Louvre in 2018. (2019, January 3). Retrieved from https://presse.louvre.fr/10-2-million-visitors-to-the-louvre-in-2018/

Vartanian, O., & Goel, V. (2004). Neuroscience correlates of aesthetic preference for paintings. NeuroReport, 15(5), 893-897.