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Mind Over Mortar

A brahmasthan  --  a peaceful central core  --  is visible from the entrance of Jeffrey and Rona Abramson's Vedic home in Potomac.
A brahmasthan -- a peaceful central core -- is visible from the entrance of Jeffrey and Rona Abramson's Vedic home in Potomac. (Photo by Katherine Frey for The Washington Post)

Where Lipman and his fellow Vedic adherents run afoul of Western empiricists, however, is in their contention that people in houses that don't face east or north, or those who do not sleep with their head pointing toward the east, are more likely to experience lack of energy, anxiety, aggression, or even mental and physical illness.

Lipman is up for the challenge. He cites studies, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggesting that rats are sensitive to having their heads placed in different directions, and he welcomes research involving human beings.

It seems like an issue tailor-made for the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, a coalition of architects and brain scientists who have come together, according to board member Esther Sternberg, "to try and address how modern principles of neuroscience can inform questions of how the elements of physical space effect creativity, cognition and mood."

Sternberg, a director at the National Institute of Mental Health, says her organization has not specifically studied whether the de-cluttered interiors and color palettes of feng shui, or the orientation dictates of Vedic design, can affect people's well-being. She and her colleague, architect John Eberhard, stop well short of lending their academic imprimatur to either movement.

But there's no question, they say, that natural light, architectural balance, or the presence of clutter can affect one's mood. And mood, they say, can affect one's health.

Clutter, for example -- the bete noire of feng shui practitioners -- is "a very potent inducer of the stress response," says Sternberg. "Clutter is essentially lots and lots of sensory inputs in one space. And when one has to deal with too many sensory inputs, one can get anxious." As for sunlight, she says that "optimal amounts and wavelengths of light have different effects on the triggering of all those brain pathways that start at the eye and go through to the visual areas, and they can also trigger the stress response."

Some of Eberhard's research into human responses to architectural proportion suggests that people may be hard-wired to appreciate the scale and balance that Vedic architects employ as a matter of doctrine. In one test, for example, participants were asked to choose a favorite shape of obelisk. The landslide winner had proportions that corresponded not only to the Washington Monument, but to the ancient Egyptian obelisks on which the monument was based.

"You could say, well, that's because people know what the Washington Monument looks like; that's why they picked it," says Eberhard. "I think it's possibly more fundamental than that: that whatever was in the human brain 5,000 years ago, when the Egyptians were building their obelisks, is still there today. What we know from neuroscience and genetics is that the hard-wired parts of our brains were essentially laid down 50,000 years ago. Therefore whatever we have now, in the sense of our response to proportions or to symmetry or to harmony, are things that were laid down a long time ago."

We're still a ways off from hooking people up to EKGs and seeing whether the dial goes crazy when their bed is placed under a window (in direct violation of good feng shui), or when they enter a house from the inauspicious south versus the oh-so-auspicious east. But Jonathan Lipman, for one, isn't afraid to get the research ball rolling.

"The initial question always has to be, simply: Is there a real, natural phenomenon occurring?" he says. "And if there is, then people will start floating models that can be tested. Eventually we'll have a good theory as to why."


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