Perception is one of the most fundamental and significant topics in relation to the built environment. In the most simplistic terms perception can be defined as having awareness of the external and internal environment generated by the neural processing of the human sensory system.
What we see, hear, touch, or smell is not a literal representation of sensory inputs. It would make sense if what we experience through our senses (sounds, light, smells, touch) is what we become aware of (shades of colours, loudness, softness, hardness, bitterness, sweetness, forms).
However, this is not the case. The information generated by the first phases of sensory processing is refined, modulated, and integrated with the influence of other factors. These factors may include the recent activity of the sensory system, prior experience with that specific stimuli, the context in which a stimulus occurs, influence from other sensory systems, mood, mental states, and physiological state of the perceiver.
There are also other more complex “top down factors”, which also play a role in influence perception such as emotional modulation, culture, past experiences, and social context. Therefore what we perceive goes beyond just sensory input.
This presents an interesting challenges when thinking about programming spaces. It means that despite how much we would want to engineer a space to a specific outcome, it is not possible. For example, saying that spaces for collaboration can be created is not quite accurate, we can say that we provide spaces that provide the physical affordances for better quality conversations, which play a crucial role in collaboration.
Each person when they enter a space, they arrive with top down factors as were mentioned in the previous paragraph that will change how a set of stimuli is perceived.
Imagine walking into a busy lobby entrance and the night before you had trouble sleeping due to an impending deadline that is weighing in on your thoughts. These top down factors would change what you pay attention to and for how long. It would also change how you perceive the sensorial stimulation you are intaking. For example, you might develop a higher sensitivity for noise or temperature.
Each person that enters a building will perceive their own unique experience of the space, furthermore it is an experience that is constantly changing. Therefore, the best that the built environment industry can do is mitigate against stressors, create a sense of narrative, and provide choice within the programming of a space.