tufts universitytufts magazine issue homepage
contact us back issues related links
Discover Mind Meld House of Mirth Kids These Days Dinosaurs and Poached Eggs Warding Off Liver Cancer Character Sketch Health News from Tufts Act Create ConnectDepartments

House of Mirth


Symmetrical windows that look like eyes. Centrally placed doors that resemble a nose or mouth. Such architectural quirks never fail to captivate us.

It turns out the reason lies deep in our evolutionary past: faces have been so important to our survival that we are primed to identify them rapidly and accurately, from infancy on. In fact, the brain arrives in the world with a specialized region prepared for the task. The Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel refers to the brain’s built-in blueprint as a “visual primitive”—it’s an oval with two points for the eyes, a vertical line for a nose, and a horizontal line below for the mouth, as shown above.

And, he says, our brains are always on alert to subconsciously read dots and lines that align in this manner with no prompting on our part whatsoever.

If you need convincing, think about emoticons, the colons and semicolons and other characters we deploy to represent smiles, frowns, winks, and a range of other expressions. Adding such marks to an email or text message instantly conveys our feelings about a subject. The minimalist lines appear to everyone as facial features and work like emotional shorthand.

Some buildings seem deliberately or unconsciously designed to reflect the figural primitive. But even if they were not, we might perceive a surprised or happy or scowling expression anyway. Because of a phenomenon called pareidolia, we routinely discern faces in places where they are not: in clouds, the moon, a tortilla chip, or the burnt markings on a piece of toast. In the buildings presented above, however, it is almost as though the designers were copying the pattern they knew best, the one preprogrammed into our brains and so significant for survival: the face.

ANN SUSSMAN, F86, is an architect,artist, writer, and community organizer in Concord, Massachusetts. JUSTIN B. HOLLANDER, A96, is an associate professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts. The authors explore this and similar topics in their new book, Cognitive Architecture: Designing for How We Respond to the Built Environment (Rutledge).

  © 2015 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155