Can Occupant Travel Speed Determine How They Remember Your Building?

Architects often look at where their occupants travel within their building, what makes them decide to go wherever they are going, and what behaviors they engage in once they arrive. But what actually happens to building occupants as they move through your building? Does the speed at which they move through your building have impact on their experiences while they are there? And upon how those experiences are remembered?

In a recent research article published by Science Daily, it was cited that the Society for Neuroscience studied and found evidence that “activity in rats’ memory-related brain areas varies with how quickly they move to explore their environments”. (1) So, for our purposes, we can begin to deduce that the speed at which a subject moves, can alter their memory of the setting within which they moved. (1)

Here is a slightly more detailed description of why this happens in the first place:

“They found that the pathway associated with storing and consolidating memories was most active when the animals moved slowly. At faster speeds, the balance shifted from these circuits to circuits bringing in info from the outside world.” (1)

Speeding Your Occupants Up Versus Slowing Them Down

So, within your own building projects, how might you go about designing for the way in which your occupants move? And what about your design solutions might benefit them as they engage in their real-time activities within your building?

First, you must ask yourself how you would go about slowing them down versus speeding them up as they travel to and fro within your built environment. For instance, might putting in a sloping floor impact their travel speed and behavior? Might there also be impact if you changed the material composition, color or pattern with which the floor is made? And by juxtaposing the rising and declining slopes, while also transitioning between flooring materials, might that serve as a “friction” or “smoothing” process that would yield different occupant travel speeds?

On the other hand, you could take a more generalized approach, where perhaps, a change in lighting color, strategically positioned architectural features, or a certain amount of contemplation or learning space might serve to give building occupants more to sensorially take in, and thus, causing them to linger. Whereas having a more subdued design fabric that is more goal-oriented and efficiency-based might make occupants move about more quickly.

Of course, this all could be taken to an uncomfortable extreme — if perhaps an architectural space has a superfluous amount of design activity that becomes too busy, and in fact, overwhelms occupants.

The Journey Your Occupants Take and The Memories That Form

In the end, speed of occupant travel really impacts the behaviors that they engage in once within a space, thus impacting the benefits they get from those behaviors. Subsequently, memories are formed, and as the Society of Neuroscience study implies, the way in which they are stored is now thought to be determined significantly by their motion and speed.

So, how can you as an architect begin to apply all of this to your work?

Perhaps within your designs you can re-assess the overall intended function that you are planning to hone in upon within your designs. Then, you can assess what role memory will play both while your occupants are engaging in their behaviors and once they have left the space. For instance, will learning be a key component while within your space? If so, at what spatial and experiential points within your design do you want your occupants to learn? How will you get them there? What will they do while they are learning to help them with memory formation (which is linked with learning)? And how will you design for the way in which they leave?

As a preliminary step, I would recommend assessing whether it be beneficial for your occupants to engage in a more exploratory travel experience within your building, or a more targeted goal-driven one. Think about how much they might need to absorb while they are there, and what they should remember once they have left. Then think of ways that you might design for all of this — floor slope, feature materials, lighting colors, goal-driven versus contemplation space, and so on.

In short, think about what your occupants actually engage in while within your building, then think about their “motion” while engaging in those behaviors — both of these will impact what they remember, and that may very well push your architecture from being simply good, toward being great.


(1) Society for Neuroscience (2010, November 15). Motion determines how an experience is stored in memory, optogenetics study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 29, 2010, from

Image Credit: © D'Arcy Norman | Flickr


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