How neuroscience could shape a more empathetic built environment

From studies of how our brains work, we know that emotion is innate. To use a computing analogy, it is part of our neurological hardware. But we now understand that empathy is learned, and so to use that same analogy, empathy is software – an app that runs on our emotional hard-drives. In this article we explore how neuroscience for places could shape a more empathetic built environment.


As we struggle with the new world created by a pandemic, it is surely clear how valuable and vitally important this understanding is to create a more empathetic world. Exactly how do we learn and lose and relearn empathy? Does the world around us encourage or discourage our concern for others? How has this affected our reactions to lockdown – have we made our world safer through empathy for each other’s fears? How can we be encouraged to do so? We don’t have to guess or intuit. These are questions that we now have the tools to start answering.

Whilst we are hard-wired to have feelings and are capable of empathy – i.e. we have the software available – we first need data: our minds’ ability to observe and understand emotions in others. Toddlers start this process of learning when they first become consciously aware that they are both separate from, and able to affect, their parents’ emotions and then later other peoples’ too.

The new developments in neuroscience provide insights into how this process of empathetic awareness is learned. From these we are developing a practical understanding of how this can be affected by the signals in our built environment – dialled up or down or, in extreme instances, turned completely off or on. By applying this ever-growing body of knowledge, we have the opportunity to understand and design our environments to encourage – or discourage – empathetic over selfish, community- aware rather than individualistic responses.

It is exciting to consider how we might apply this new learning in a world managing a pandemic. How we design the verbal and visual signposting of our environments, indoors and out, private and shared. How we agree the laws and customs that will constrain and affect our responses. Can we use these new insights to create truly inclusive environments that actively encourage greater empathy amongst their citizenry in our ageing, increasingly uncertain and now even more threatening and complex world? To turn my anger into empathy when a young runner comes past too close; to turn their inward focus into an awareness of my vulnerability.

Our environment switches our responses on and off. Measuring our brain and neurological responses to different situations and signals and incorporating this knowledge into design processes could be hugely influential in creating greater fairness in the allocation of space and infrastructures and encouraging greater empathy through our designs.

If all this sounds too theoretical, let’s consider two contrasting real-world examples:


  • Design Council’s project ‘Designing out Aggression in A&E’ identified the challenges doctors and nurses have in empathising with patients’ fears. Whilst A&E staff thought their processes were clear and uncomplicated, the same wasn’t true for many of their anxious patients. Some became incensed sitting in uncomfortable chairs for hours whilst others seemed to jump the queue, worried about everything from their car parking running out to why triage doctors didn’t treat them immediately.A significant part of the solution was simply better signage and information – the reduction in levels of aggression in one hospital in Southampton was immediate and phenomenal.Empathy for the obviously vulnerable, fearful and critically ill and their carers has come easily in the current crisis although the responses are very hard to manage. Maybe with new knowledge about how the brain reacts to uncertainty, pain and fear we will be better able to design aggression out and design empathy and new safety into our towns and cities?
  • By contrast, undervaluing empathy in seemingly straightforward messaging can be profoundly detrimental to a project’s vision and mission. For example, the naming and communication of “Cycle Superhighways” in London created a sense of entitlement amongst some cyclists, communicating that it was the sole responsibility of pedestrians, indeed everyone, to prioritise and watch out for speeding cyclists. (It is interesting to note that Transport for London has since renamed these so-called ‘Cycle Superhighways’ as, simply, ‘Cycleways’.)This runs contrary to what many consider best practice for the fully integrated pedestrian and cycling infrastructure we now realise we need. In the Netherlands and several other countries, the law places automatic responsibility for any accident with the less vulnerable: lorries for cars, cars for bikes and scooters, scooters for bikes, and cyclists for pedestrians. Today as we keep off public transport, many more non- lycra wearing, non-racing bike riders are asking for increased empathy from other cyclists. How will we use empathy to deal with the anxiety levels that could be induced by e-bikes and e-scooters?

As we move into an era of autonomous vehicles and large data sets producing ‘digital twins’ of our cities, it is timely to explore this understanding of the impacts of new elements in the world around us on our reactions and our empathy for others. We can use this new science to guide the ethics, priorities and laws with which we will mediate different interests.

Behaving with empathy is very hard if you can’t or won’t get into the mind of the “other”. Hence the importance of bringing diversity and diverse thinking into all the professions.

These developments in neuroscience enable designers to innovate and design better places and movement systems, aware of responses beyond their own experience. We need to use them to explore the impacts we create on others, especially those with vulnerabilities and disabilities. To better understand how and why people follow their own desire lines rather than our designed infrastructure and rules. And to create new digital apps to assist in providing and managing outdoor places and indoor spaces where the widest possible range of people feel welcome, included and, in a world of new anxieties, safe.

To design a kinder, less selfish world.

If you would like to share your view on how neuroscience could help shape a more empathetic built environment, we would love to hear from you.