Psychological Design

Haunted by design: how buildings can make us see ghosts

Imagine yourself in front of a shadowy Victorian villa. The wind whooshes in the trees and swings a loose shutter against the side of the house. It sounds like a child on a trampoline. You push the unlocked door, which opens with a creak, then slams shut behind you. Moonlight streams in through the gaps of the boarded-up windows. You step on to the old, dusty floorboards that have much too much give in them. Suddenly, a thread from torn upholstery touches your face. Then a cobweb. From another room comes the soft, tinkling sound of a pianola.

Add a fearful back-story, a half-remembered rumour, and you are set. How much more prompting do you think you need to see shadows transforming into more than they really are? To mistake clanging pipes for footsteps? To see a face out of the corner of your eye?

If you were to see a ghost, how would you know if it was haunting the house or if it’s the house that was haunting you?

I’m an architect and neuroscientist working at Psychological Design, an architecture practice based in Sydney, Australia. Over the past decade or so, I’ve been researching how psychologically manipulative environments can be. Design, at any scale — from cities to buildings to interiors, down to the objects in them — can suggest, motivate and support human behaviour, whether desirable or not.

We do it in our homes whenever we make an aesthetic choice — we might light a room dimly to create a romantic atmosphere, or drape a guest bathroom in Carrara marble, say, to impress and feel a cut above the rest. In short, we all know how to do this yet, bizarrely, we’re often surprised to discover how well it works.

In extreme cases, environments may trigger hallucinations, delusions and confusion. The effect can be even greater for people who are impressionable or vulnerable.

Architects and planners employ psychological aspects of design deliberately and instinctively, in the design of everything from shopping malls to hotels to Gothic churches. Design involves composing motifs and memes to make sense. The way we respond to the environment is mostly determined by the stories they suggest. But the effect is not always intentional. People can experience paranormal hallucinations without them being driven by learnt cultural memes and motifs. And in those cases, the themes of people’s hallucinations are more difficult to predict.

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