Abstracted Nature in Architectural Interiors: Effects on Space Memorability Compared to Pure Representation

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18th May 2020 Architecture Reference this

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Objective: While there has been a great variety of interest into the health and philosophical benefits of biophilic design, which is design that responds to the human desire for connections to nature, few studies have explored these effects in regard to spatial memorability, which is a significant factor of spatial experience. It is the goal of this research to examine the potential utilization of abstracted nature elements (elements which illustrate qualities or concepts over depictions of nature) in lieu of representational (living elements or depictions of nature) elements to provide increased spatial memorability.

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Background: With mounting evidence to support the healing attributes of biophilic environments, we propose a method to identify biophilic content within interior spaces. Such a strategy offers much promise to the advancement of restorative environments

 Methods: This study will compare subject’s recall of abstract and representational natural elements by presenting subjects with images of both abstract and representational elements in architectural interiors, and then use a memory selection task where subjects are asked to select the images they remember seeing from a larger pool of similar images. It is the expectation of this study to find a correlation between abstract natural elements and greater memorability. In addition, the experiment will also explore possible reasons behind any correlations in increased memorability. Firstly, the study will analyze how subjects categorize images (new and/or unusual vs. familiar and/or common) of abstract and representational natural elements to determine whether increased memorability of abstract natural elements may be caused by novel encounters with implicit memory. Secondly, the study will explore whether constructivist meanings, or meanings which involve viewers in their development (which are more inherent in abstracted elements compared to representational ones), may lead abstract natural elements to be more memorable by comparing the variety of subject-given descriptions of abstract and representational natural images. These findings will contribute to a growing body of knowledge on best practices for the use of biophilic design as well as reasons for those practices. It is crucial for designers have multiple methods of implementation for connections to nature in urban, dense built environments where representational biophilic design opportunities are scarce, expensive, or difficult to maintain.

Keywords: biophilia, abstraction, implicit memory, spatial experience, novelty, constructivism

Despite the benefits that are provided through biophilic designs, these elements are often regarded as too laborious, unnecessary, and unmarketable to clients. This is often due to the fact that these effects (such as reduced stress, improved cognitive function, and pleasure) are difficult to translate into business metrics of success such as profits, return visitation, and brand awareness. Because factors of spatial experience such as memory are important to inspiring some of these outcomes, it is crucial for designers to explore the effects of biophilic design in regard to these metrics in order to create well-rounded arguments in favor of biophilic design as a sustainable practice.

Literature Review


Based on previous research, this study is attempting to connect multiple theoretical aspects to examine whether their combination will result in a new application for interior spaces; this application would be the use of biophilia as a source of creating memorable spaces. These aspects include biophobic and biophilic perceptions in architecture, abstractions of nature, problems with nature in space, and components of spatial experience in abstracted nature.

Biophilic and Biophobic perceptions in architecture


Biophilia and Biophobia. Biophilia is the inherent human desire to be connected to natural systems, and biophilic design is translating those natural systems into the built environment (Kellert, 2008). Architectural elements which do not contain such natural affiliations can be referred to as biophobic, as they eschew connections with natural systems.

Because it has been conjectured that this affiliation for nature exists due to evolutionary biology (Kellert, 2008), the reconnection of the built environment to nature through biophilic

design is regarded by many industry experts as a necessity for human health (Stavrianos, 2016) and that disassociation from nature in built environments can lead to both physical and mental health issues (Roberts, 1998). Furthermore, because natural systems function harmoniously in balance, many biophilic researchers also believe that connections to the natural world inspire environmental identities and promote societal and environmental health (Clayton, 2003; Roberts, 1998).

The application of biophilic patterns within architectural space has shown improvements in physical and mental health, cognitive performance, and the practice of design. These elements have been proven to reduce stress, increase cognitive function, and are more preferred when compared to biophobic design elements (Bratman, Hamilton & Daily, 2012; Biederman & Vessel, 2006). Because humans now spend 90% of their time in interior environments, and that artificial environment has exhibited both direct and indirect negative consequences on mental health and wellbeing (Evans, 2003). Therefore, it is integral to bring the benefits of nature into the built environment through biophilic design in order to reduce these societal and environmental degradation. In addition, biophilia also has other possible effects such as preference and memory that have been under-explored in much of the present literature.

Preference. The application of proper form in architecture has been debated throughout history, with rectilinearity and curvilinearity cycling in and out of fashion through various architectural movements (Ramzy, 2015). However, biophilic design suggests preference for certain forms is not simply based on trends, but is biologically ingrained (Kellert, 2008). While it could be conjectured that preference for either rectilinear or curvilinear forms is a matter of taste, previous research has indicated that natural scenes are preferred by humans (Biederman & Vessel, 2006). These natural scenes tend to be rich in organic and curvilinear shapes, which

studies have shown people prefer over angular shapes (Cotter et al, 2017) and rectilinear shapes (Dazkir & Read, 2011). In addition, shapes, forms, and spaces utilizing contours and curves have shown to be more pleasing than ones utilizing heavy angular patterns; this pattern has shown to not be a result of a dislike of angular forms, but rather a bias towards curvilinearity (Vartanian et al, 2013; Silvia & Barona, 2008; Bertamini et al, 2015). Complexity is another characteristic of natural forms, and is created through different processes, different materials, and high levels of variety. Previous research has indicated that there is a general preference for more complex shapes (Cotter et al, 2017), and differentiated, complex spaces with visual access have shown to be more easily rememberable (Roberts, 1998).

While the precise reason for these preference has yet to be identified, associations of curvature with organic and natural connotations could be a result of biophilic impulse since these types of cues originate from the natural environment (Kellert, 2008).

Memory. Pleasurable experiences have been proven to be more memorable than neutral (Dolcos & Cabeza, 2002) or unpleasant experiences (Meltzer, 1930; Holmes, 1970). As a result, if biophilic architecture does indeed create more pleasurable and preferred experiences, then it can be inferred that spaces utilizing biophilic elements would be more memorable than spaces that do not. Therefore, it can be hypothesized that the pleasurable effects caused by biophilic design elements will enhance the memorability a space which utilizes such elements. If biophilia creates positive experiences, and positive experiences increase memorability, then it deductively follows that biophilia will increase memorability.

One such study, performed by Mirkia (2018) has confirmed that biophilic patterns produce positive effects on memory in which biomorphic design was shown to be more memorable than biophobic, rectilinear designs. This study will serve as a complement to

Mirkia’s in determining the relationship between similar abstracted nature patterns and physical manifestations of nature. This will help to determine whether the element of abstraction plays a role in the memorability of biophilic spaces.

Abstractions of nature


The biophilic patterns identified by Browning, Ryan, & Clancy are categorized by nature in space, natural analogues, and nature of space (2014). This categorization is shown in Table 1.

Table 1

Nature in Space

Natural Analogues

Nature of the Space

Visual Connections with Nature

Biomorphic forms and patterns


Non-Visual Connection with Nature

Material Connection with Nature


Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli

Complexity & Order


Thermal & Airflow Variability


Presence of Water

Dynamic & Diffuse Light

Connection with Natural Systems

What Browning, Ryan, & Clancy (2014) identify as natural analogues and nature of the space, which they describe as evocations of and relationships belonging in nature respectively, can also be described as abstracted elements of nature. Abstraction involves the drawing away from reality (Zimmer, 2003) and is concerned with the qualities of things rather than their true forms (Whittick, 1977). In this sense, it can be argued that almost all of the patterns (except perhaps visual connections with nature and presence of water) can -and usually must- be abstracted in order to translate these natural qualities to interior space. By using abstraction then, these patterns can connect to nature on deeper and more conceptual levels than the physical.

Therefore, this study will propose a recategorization of these patterns based on their levels of abstraction. This categorization is shown in Table 2.

Table 2

Representational Nature

Physical Abstractions

Intangible Abstractions

Visual Connections with Nature

Biomorphic forms and patterns


Presence of Water

Material Connection with Nature


Non-Visual Connection with Nature


Non-Rhythmic Sensory Stimuli


Thermal & Airflow Variability

Complexity & Order

Dynamic & Diffuse Light

Connection with Natural Systems

Complexity & Order

When the patterns are categorized based on their levels of abstraction, it becomes evident that representational aspects of nature in space offer the least amount of opportunities for implementation in architectural interiors.

The problem with nature in space


Biophilic applications of nature in space are generally regarded as the strongest and most effective connections to natural elements (Browning, Ryan, & Clancy, 2014), and are typically the most relied upon methods when implementing biophilia in interiors through views to nature, plant life and green features, nature art, and daylighting (Wilson, 2008). While these are effective strategies that have shown significant benefits in health and wellness, they leave much to be desired in true implementation of biophilic methods as they don’t allow for deeper connections to and personal experiences with the natural world (Beatley, 2008; Bloomer, 2008). Often these elements are used as after-the-fact supplementations for poor design, and even more often, fail to truly alleviate design shortcomings (Kunstler, 2004).

Another issue diluting the effectiveness of representational nature in space is its accessibility and availability. While the city is often viewed as a producer of environmental degradation, it is actually the salvation of sustainable living. The proliferation of cities as

biodiverse ecosystems is integral to re-establishing human connections to natural systems (Beatley, 2008); however, for these cities to be sustainable urban forms, they must be dense and compact to prevent overconsumption of energy, transportation, and infrastructure (Jabareen, 2006). While cities can still be planned organically and with open green space, the requirement of density and compactness can limit the accessibility of physical manifestations of nature in interior space as well as the accessibility of views to natural elements (especially those that are not artificially landscaped). In addition, these types of applications typically require maintenance through watering, cleaning, and climate control, which can be expensive and laborious.

Components of spatial experience in abstracted patterns


Because abstracting natural forms and systems into qualities creates a greater variety of biophilic applications as well as unique connections to nature in the built environment, it can be assumed that spaces that are designed with abstract biophilic concepts will contain additional components of spatial experience including constructivism and place attachment as well as novel experience and memory.

Constructivism and Place Attachment While the difference between representation and abstraction in the arts has been noted as being indifferential to the appreciation of the craft (Whittick, 1977), implementation of abstract forms in design through mental abstractions impacts the way meaning is constructed from them. Therefore, abstraction allows for a participatory experience of meaning making between the abstracted element and the viewer (Zimmer, 2003) which will be calibrated to each person’s experiences (Gortais, 2003). This aspect of participation is essential to the meaning-making process because it allows viewers to relate new knowledge to past experience which enhances active learning (Zimmermann, 2017).

This participatory co-creation of meaning in abstraction is compatible with the theory of constructivism. This theory states that interactive experiences that provide an opportunity for the individualized construction of understanding build connections that allow people arrive at comprehensive understandings of the nature of humanity and their places within the nature world (Wiggins, 2015). In addition, allowing constructivist activities to take place in natural environments promotes two-way learning processes and interactive learning (Stavrianos, 2016). Therefore, implementing constructivist theories through abstracted biophilic principles will aid in the reconnection to natural relationships in two ways: firstly through the evocation of nature through qualities of nature and secondly through the reinforcement of humility in the face of

non-human entities in regards to the meaning of humanity (Clayton, 2003).

Another consideration for the implementation of co-created meaning making in space are the resultant attachments to that place. Because people assign more value to experiences that they can influence and are emotionally engaged in (Suntikul & Jachna, 2015) as well as have stronger feelings of attachment in places which evoke personal memories (Scannell & Gifford, 2010), the combination of the positive emotional effects of biophilic design and its co-created meanings may induce return visitation and enhanced experience.

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Novel Experience and Memory. Past experiences have been shown to act as primers for current recollections over long periods of time, and have yielded superior recall compared to novel events (Mitchell, 2006). However, novel events have been shown to attract attention and therefore become encoded into memory more effectively when they are contextually novel, or unexpected (Ranganath & Rainer, 2003). This is conjectured to be due to the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which improves spatial stability and, in time, memory (Ewell & Leutgeb, 2014). In addition, when novel events unconsciously interact with prior experiences, a

concept known as implicit memory (Bokura, Yamaguchi & Kobayashi, 2005), such novel events have been shown to become more memorable and diminish overnight-forgetting of novel information (Sommer, 2016). Since affiliations for nature have been speculated to be innate and therefore preside in long term memory (Ryan et al, 2014) and these affiliations are biologically encoded (Kellert, 2008), it is possible that biophilic abstractions that provide unexpected experiences could yield improved memorability.

Preferences have also been shown to be a result of interactions with the brain’s stored information in that an association of meaning towards visual stimuli and previous knowledge creates moments of cognitive coupling that release endorphins. Novelty has also shown to be a player that moments preceding and following associative activities exhibit reduced endorphin release, and as a result, reduced pleasure (Biederman & Vessel, 2006).

Research Questions


This study will determine to what effects abstracted biophilic patterns influence spatial memorability based on components of spatial experience (increased preference, constructivist interactions, and novel nature). Therefore, the following questions will be addressed:

  1. Will the inclusion of abstracted natural elements increase recollection of interior spaces over physical representations of nature?
  2. If abstracted elements of nature are more memorable than its representational counterpart, could novelty be a reason?
  3. If abstracted elements of nature are more memorable than its representational counterpart, could constructivist interactions be a reason?



As part of this study, investigation will include three research hypotheses:

  1. If the presence of biophilic architecture can improve recollection over representational nature, then the presence of biophilic architecture may elicit greater recollection of a space than nature present in architecture.
  2. If an increased ability to recall a space due to the presence of biophilic architecture is impacted by novelty, then subjects will categorize these spaces as novel (new or unusual in an interesting way).
  3. If an increased ability to recall a space due to the presence of biophilic architecture is impacted by constructivist interactions, spaces that are found to be more memorable will have a greater variety of meanings attached to them.

Research Design


This will be a structured and behavioral experiment utilizing both quantitative and qualitative methods involving human subjects. This study will utilize the online survey platform surveygizmo for experimentation.



From a pool of 60 images, 30 contained abstracted natural elements and 30 contained representational natural elements. In order to control confounding variables of color and proportion, each image was shown in grayscale with relatively equal percentages of the floor and ceiling. Images were also adjusted to be similar in brightness and contrast, and distinguishing features that were not related to the the architectural design of the space, such as human figures, were removed as necessary. Each image had an aspect ratio of 1:1 and was shown with a resolution of 150 pixels per inch for equitable viewing.


Figure 1 Figure 2

Experimentation occurred through surveygizmo.com, an online survey platform in which subjects viewed a series of 15 abstracted biophilic designs (similar to Figure 1) and 15 representational biophilic designs (similar to Figure 2) in random order. The survey was conducted as follows:

  1. Participants gave informed consent .
  1. An instructional page was presented to the subjects explaining that they are to examine each image until the page automatically changes.
  2. Each of these images was presented for an alloted 10 seconds, This proceeded until the total 30 images have been shown for a viewing time of 5 minutes. Participants were able to see the page timer and were unable to manually proceed to the next page.
  3. Following the viewing of the 30 images, the survey tested the memorability of each image by presenting a total of 60 images (30 abstracted biophilic designs and 30 representational biophilic designs) in random order. The subjects were instructed to select the images he or she remembers viewing.

Figure 3

  1. Following the memorability test, subjects were directed towards a categorization exercise. They were instructed to drag and drop five images of abstract biophilic designs and five images of representational biophilic designs into columns labeled “new and/or unusual” and “Familiar and/or Common.”

Figure 4

  1. Following the categorization exercise, subjects were directed to a two-question short answer section. For this portion, subjects were presented with one image of an abstracted biophilic design and one image of a representational biophilic design. Subjects will then be asked to describe what each image means to them.

Subjects and Sampling


Random sampling was pursued as much as possible by recruiting subjects through personal email addresses, forwarding, and online social media platforms. 60 subjects completed the survey.

Protection of Human Rights


Subjects did not submit any sensitive information, and only were asked to provide their industry experience if they felt comfortable doing so. Subjects will be participating in this study voluntarily, anonymously, and will be able to withdrawal from the study at any time for whatever reason. This study was approved by UNT IRB on x, and the subjects provided informed consent in line with the common rule 2019 prior to research.

Results and Data Analysis


Sixty randomly pooled subjects participated in the study individually. See Figure 5 for a breakdown of their industry experience.

Figure 5

Quantitative Memorability Test


It was predicted that spaces with abstracted natural elements would be more memorable than spaces with representational natural elements. These categories of architectural interior design are described in Figure 6 below.

Figure 6

A paired t-test was run with memorability as the dependent variable and the representational or abstract nature of the space as the independent variable. This analysis was run both for the percentage of images selected that were correct and for the percentage of images selected that were incorrect.

There was a statistically significant difference in the participant’s memory of spaces with abstracted natural elements elements (M=0.74, SD=0.23) and representational natural elements (M=0.66, SD=0.24); paired t(59) = 3.35, p = 0.001) A statistically significant difference was not found between the percentage of images selected that were incorrect (paired t(59) = 1.07, p = 0.291).

Figure 7

These results suggest not only that the architectural interior design has a significant effect on memorability of space, but also that the type of design can influence the memory performance. The results of this study suggest that spaces that incorporate abstracted patterns of nature will yield higher memorability than those that incorporate biophilia through representational methods.

Qualitative Novelty Test


While the results of the novelty categorization exercise show that the spaces with abstracted natural elements were generally regarded as new and/or unusual, and the spaces with representational natural elements were generally regarded as being common and/or familiar, the results of this study show that may possibly be the level of abstraction which governs how novel someone thinks a space may be. Those images that were more often categorized as new and/or

unusual tended to be those in which the abstracted natural elements were larger and more heavily integrated into the architectural design of the interior.

It is important to note that the results of this study did not show a correlation between the categorization of an image as novel and memorability. In fact, one of the representational images that was categorized most strongly (83.3%) as being common and/or familiar also showed one of the highest retention rates at 88.3%. This does not necessarily outrule the effect of novelty and implicit memory on the memorability of space completely, however, since implicit memory involves the unconscious interaction between new information and past experiences (Bokura, Yamaguchi & Kobayashi, 2005), and this survey involved a conscious categorization from subjects.

Figure 8

Qualitative Constructivism Test


Short answer responses were categorized into three types: descriptions of feelings, descriptions of the space, and descriptions of activities that would occur in the space.

Both images yielded both positive and negative affective feelings, with both spaces being described as “peaceful,” and “sterile”. However, the abstract space did have a more equal distribution between the positive and negative feeling descriptors, while the representational space was mostly positive. This could indicate that people are interacting with the abstract space more conceptually based on their own experiences; however, further research would need to occur to evaluate whether this is the case.

It is interesting to note that the representational responses yielded a larger number of descriptions for activities that would occur in that space. This could indicate that an abstract space draws attention to the space itself rather than to the activity within it, which could correlate to the increased memorability.

In addition, many of the descriptions of the space for the abstracted natural space used more abstract descriptors such as “gives a hug,” “reminds me of being underwater,” “Spaceship-like,” and “the desert” in addition to the concrete descriptions such as “church.”

Contrastly, the descriptors for the representational space were mostly concrete and focused on the space’s geometry or type and did not include any such abstract descriptors beyond “reminds me of the future”.



The fact that abstracted natural patterns are found to be more memorable could be a foundation for further research regarding the effects of abstract biophilic designs on creating effective connections to nature while simultaneously benefiting users through ease of

maintenance. Further study will be required into the extents of abstraction and how different levels of abstraction can affect memory. In addition, further study into possible synergies that could be created through combinations of abstract and representational biophilic designs would greatly add to the body of knowledge surrounding biophilic design in architectural interiors.

While spaces with abstracted natural patterns had a tendency to be categorized as new and/or unusual, this categorization did not necessarily correlate with memorability. this could provide a foundation for further inquiry into reasons behind the benefits of abstract biophilic designs. These findings could also potentially stimulate further research into reasons behind biophilic affiliations as a whole.

These findings could be utilized in the service industry, which could stimulate return visits and brand awareness within interior spaces. The results of this study could also stimulate research into the use of abstracted biophilic designs for wayfinding applications; however this application would need extensive further research. Further study could explore these effects in specific interior applications through virtual and augmented reality.



This study conjectures that the best practice for the use of biophilic design in architectural interiors to promote memorability is through abstraction. This is a result of the benefits attained through cost and maintenance easements as well as improved recollection. Therefore, the results of this study propose that abstract natural designs should be utilized more often as a biophilic design strategy.

Limitations and Suggestions for Future Research




The largest limitations of this study were its length of viewing and method of reach. Approximately 17 subjects did not complete the survey, with the majority leaving during the viewing portion, likely due to fatigue caused through sitting through so many images for such a long length of time. In addition, as this was an online survey, measures could not be taken to ensure that subjects viewed the images without distraction beyond those that were controlled through the survey itself. However, an online platform was necessary due to time constraints.

Opportunities for Future Research


While this study found an answer to the question of whether spaces with abstracted natural elements can increase memorability, it also opened up many questions regarding the reason for this increased memorability. While this study originally proposed that novelty or could be a reason, this was not found to be correlated to memorability; however, due to the fact that implicit memory can still have an effect on the memorability of space through unconscious, rather than conscious, interactions with past experiences, this is a subject that should be further investigated regarding the effectiveness of abstracted natural elements.

Further research should also investigate the differences in memorability between spaces with only abstracted natural elements and spaces that utilize a combination of abstract and representational natural elements. Establishing this relationship could help determine the most effective biophilic practices for encouraging spatial memorability.


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