Is Science Catching Up With Feng Shui?
Have you ever wondered why Chinese roofs rise in gentle curves? Pagoda-style roofs are not only very pleasing to the senses, but are also believed to ward off evil spirits. Feng shui says that garden paths should meander like a gently flowing river, and feng shui fears sha qi, which is anything angular and straight that points or points directly at you. These notions have been around for a few thousand years, always backed by superstitions or supernatural beliefs, but deeply practical with mundane foundations.
Modern research and psychogeography now confirm that shapes matter and that environmental stress can cause psychopathic reactions. Contemporary feng shui respects traditional rules and principles, but tries to substantiate ancient wisdom with the latest discoveries in scientific disciplines.
Architects are concerned with designing spaces that suit the personalities and preferences of the future occupant. They now have access to virtual environments and physiological instruments by which they can measure and collect information on how the client reacts to their design models. Interesting experiments reveal that people’s stated preferences are sometimes out of sync with readings from their bodies and movements. In other words, your body-based emotional reaction doesn’t match your intellectual choices.
These observations confirm what we know in feng shui as positive or negative environmental aspects. We distinguish between the yin of the smooth and round shapes versus the yang of the straight and jagged edges. We also follow the guiding principles of the five elements to determine which ways may be conducive to recommending environmental adjustments. Personal needs can be met by increasing or decreasing elementary characteristics with color, line, shape, and texture.
Colin Ellard, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo, says that “we see curves as smooth, attractive, and beautiful, while jagged edges are hard, repulsive, and may indicate risk.” Other neuroscientists show that exposure to curved or irregular contours in architectural interiors can change our pattern of brain activity. “Presenting curves produces strong activation in brain areas such as the orbitofrontal cortex and cingulate cortex, areas of our brain that are associated with reward and pleasure. The jagged edges can cause increases in amygdala activity, a important part of our fear detection response systems.”
University studies and experiments have revealed that participants were more likely to behave aggressively when surrounded by artwork with sharp, angular shapes than when they were in a room where artwork with more rounded contours was hung. These findings suggest that shapes and contours can make us feel happy and comfortable or anxious and fearful.
Armed with the latest facts from scientific research, we are ready to embrace the wisdom of traditional Chinese gardens and structures. We might meet the round opening of a moon gate looking through its framed view along a winding garden path stretching off into the distance. Pagoda-style roofs with raised edges and corners are part of an intricate indigenous system of architectural design grammar that has been prescribed for thousands of years.
Training school practitioners of early agricultural societies would search for the smooth, undulating forms in search of “the dragon’s lair” which they thought was the ideal setting for a tomb. A huge arc-shaped mountain, symbolizing the black turtle of the north, provided protection from inclement weather and the threat of the approaching enemy. Rolling hills shaped like a dragon in the east and a white tiger in the west would open up to views of a lake or river with a gentle central rise representing the red phoenix in the south.
If these setups are replicated in a virtual reality lab, biofeedback devices and electrodes can now measure and report how the environment alters our brain activity and physiological responses.