Brain reserach

The Power of the Physical Environment

Blogger: Melissa Farling, Managing Principal, Architecture | Phoenix, AZ, USA
February 02, 2017

Architect and advocate Melissa Farling is one of the pioneers in the field of neuroscience research relating to correctional facilities. She shares here how this field of research originated, her insights into why she became an advocate, in addition to her thoughts about the recent Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) conference panel at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA, in which she participated, along with John MacAllister, director of justice consulting. 

Q. How did the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (ANFA) originate?
MF. In the early 1990s, Dr. Jonas Salk inspired the genesis of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture at the AIA National Convention (where he received the AIA’s 25-Year Award for his work at the Salk Institute). There, he shared a story with the American Architectural Foundation (AAF) officers about a profound experience he had while trying to find a cure for polio in the 1950s. When he became intellectually “stuck,” Salk went on a personal retreat to the 13th-century Abbey at Assisi in Italy. He credited his experience at the Abbey environment (set on the hillside with white Romanesque arches framing quiet courtyards) for inspiring him to find a solution to create and produce the polio vaccine. Salk maintained ‘that something about the place — the design and the environment’— helped to clear his mind. He then proposed that AAF begin a research effort to better understand the influences of architectural settings on our experiences.1 

Q. How do you feel about the work that originated at Salk and how does it relate to justice design?
MF. When I was in 3rd year architecture studio, I became interested in the impacts of architecture on behavior and began exploring correctional facilities as places of rehabilitation. After graduate school, I was fascinated to learn about the impact of architecture on the behavior of individuals in correctional facilities. In 2005, I had the opportunity to meet with John Eberhard, then President of ANFA, and Fred Gage, Adler Professor in the Laboratory of Genetics, The Salk Institute, and a past-president of ANFA. The purpose of the meeting was to explain to Dr. Gage why correctional facilities are an important building type for ANFA to consider. The first effort was a neuroscience and correctional facility workshop funded by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). My soon-to-be mentor, Jay Farbstein, Ph.D, FAIA (a leader in justice facility research and planning) and I organized and facilitated the workshop that included architects (specializing in correctional facilities), environmental psychologists, facility administrators, and neuroscientists (who focus on study of the brain). This led to a pivotal neuroscience and jail study (explained below).    

Q. As a member of the ANFA Advisory Council, what insights do you bring to the discussion?
MF. I bring my expertise as an architect to the discussion–to help identify the important issues to explore and then apply the research. Starting as a research associate for ANFA in 2006, I did what I could to immerse myself in neuroscience, taking classes at ASU, and meeting with doctoral students in the field. I was part of a team which conducted the first neuroscience and correctional facility study (with Jay and Rich Wener, PH.D. from the ANFA solitary confinement panel and others).The study, funded by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) measured the effects of a simulated nature view on correctional officers within a jail intake area in Santa Rosa, CA. The study showed significant results indicating reduced stress, less fatigue, and better attentiveness in the officers.

Q. How did the panel at the Fall 2016 ANFA BridgesSynapses come about?
MF. Over the past year or so, I’ve been discussing the importance of behavioral health and corrections with ANFA. The board has been supportive and we were able to put together an incredibly diverse panel: psychiatrists, environmental psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators. We presented the issues and then looked at them from a new perspective, for example: trying to understand the source of the negative effects; separating the variables that can be attributed to the physical environment; and looking for the neurobiological mechanisms causing the consequences, etc. Our goal with the panel was to begin the process of creating a research agenda.

Q. How did your panel offer insight on the topic of the physical design of solitary confinement spaces?
MF. I think it reflects our attitudes and responsibility toward design. As professionals we are always trying to increase our knowledge. The architects I work with are very concerned with ethics, dignity and human rights.  We realize it’s our responsibility to understand how our designs impact the users of the built environment and have lasting effects. Neuroscience can help us understand these impacts. The panel is exploring and identifying the physiological and neurobiological mechanisms causing the outcomes. Up to this point, the data doesn’t exist. We hope to help generate it and share that knowledge. 

Q. What’s next?
MF. I think we’re on the threshold of some exciting things. Further exploration and research into the neurobiological impact of the physical space in confinement is essential to help us find effective alternatives to incarceration. The need for reform is critical no matter a person’s political beliefs. I’m energized by the fact that reforms are already being discussed, across party lines, in Washington, DC. 


  1.  John Paul Eberhard, Brain Landscape: The Coexistence of Neuroscience and Architecture (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 21-22.

Image: AIA AAJ Neuroscience and Correctional Facility Workshop, October, 2006​.