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Living Structure and Cognition

Greg Bryant

June 25, 2015

I will make some perhaps surprising assertions, which I consider to be testable, about things that may exist, in the natural world. These are, in other words, ontological assertions. Or, in other words still, I'm proposing particular principles for theory improvement, from the perspective of the natural sciences. The domain of these theories includes, more or less, Christopher Alexander's ideas of 'life' and 'living structure'. I will present the state of argument and evidence, and gaps that need filling, in research initiatives within this domain. I will then outline two specific research programs, investigating both the biology of the perception of life, and the study of a particularly promising pedagogical method that could engender improved outcomes.

The Problem

Let me start by outlining "Alexander's Problem". His books are influential, and have inspired countless good acts. But despite all of the tools he created, his penetrating research, his many well-wrought projects, and his excellent writing, he did not manage to grant, to his readers, the core sensibility that drove the work. He also did not organize the continuance of the research program that revolves around this sensibility.

By 'sensibility', I'm referring to the human ability to perceive the quality of 'natural structure', and hence to judge its emergence, produce things in the world that possess this quality, and pursue adequate theories about the quality itself. The people with whom he worked directly, without real exception, became capable of making this judgment. So it is reasonable to assume this judgment to be an innate human capacity, whose manifestation requires some experiences, and some internal work. The sensibility, and the training, predates Alexander's research, as he consistently points out. Using this judgment, we can see that artisans and their communities have, for millennia, discovered this innate capacity on their own.

So this is Alexander's Problem: his primary goal, the broad distribution of the materials that can engender this sensibility, has not been achieved. He used the sensibility to do pioneering exploratory work. This leaves us with some serious problems to consider, and gaps to bridge, in moving this work forward in the future.

Natural Structure

Let me make a few assertions about 'natural structure'. Our ability to perceive 'life' is certainly stimulated by something in the outside world, and with the right 'training' and cognitive effort, we can isolate the particular mental faculty, a perceptual faculty, that is responsible for, and capable of, detecting this structure. In this preliminary discussion, I'm calling this mental faculty the 'Life Perception Faculty', or LPF. It is some part of the brain that lights up when we see a tree, a forest, a beautiful landscape, a living thing, a 'profound geometry', or a 'field of centers' -- the latter two descriptions employed by Alexander as cognitive-perceptual aids for his readers. The LPF is inhibited not just by other stimuli, but by other cognitive faculties, which is why it's so hard to convey this material without personal interaction.

Pedagogical challenge

It is a reasonable guess that overcoming 'Alexander's Problem', for a broad audience, without personal interaction, might require explicit understanding, on the part of the learners, that they are trying to isolate and stimulate 'the LPF', and that this explicit use of the LPF is needed to properly understand Alexander's ideas.

Again, many aspects of mental life interfere with LPF. One of the most obvious is 'objectification' … the human tendency to identify something as a unit, or object, with definable boundaries, enumerable attributes, etc. Alexander provided a pedagogical counter to this, with his 'field of centers' idea, which helps the learner to mentally avoid perceiving and imposing the idea of an object upon something in the world. The 'objectification faculty' needs to be consciously 'turned down' for the LPF to be most effectively used.

Imagine perceiving a forest. Using primarily the LPF, we appreciate the living geometries, the dynamic ecology, the fields of intense centers, the unfolding that created the forest, etc. Then, let’s begin to imagine the individual trees, making use of objectification. And then, let’s further objectify, and turn LPF down completely, by imagining the counting and measurement of logs that the trees could become, if cut down. The exercise moves us from one cognitively-influenced perceptual faculty towards another. But most people are not sufficiently aware of either objectification or the LPF to choose when-where-and-how to emphasize them, or choose to disentangle them. I believe, even if it turns out not to be the best pedagogical approach, we must make the existence of the LPF explicit, in order to empower people to make that choice.


Our ability to objectify seems related to our our ability to recruit mental objects as symbols, which then can be used by the Language Faculty, LF, which is an innate, mind-internal system with the ability to cyclically compose, in some way, recruited mental objects, resulting in many of the cognitive abilities we consider to be uniquely human.

Together, these two faculties, LPF and LF, can have a rich effect, and of course, we experience their combined effects all the time. So, as examples, when we look at ‘word art’, or good calligraphy, or nice maps, or some of Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks, we get a special thrill from the LPF and the LF perceiving and conceiving, in combination, different aspects of this stimulus, which also may trigger other mental faculties, including emotional ones such as nostalgia. Most of the patterns, as presented in A Pattern Language, have this combined effect, which I formerly called a combination of 'heart and mind', but which I now think of as combining LPF and LF. Note that this is a testable assertion, in an experimental approach that is easy to describe.


We can use an early and basic technique from experimental psychology, known as the Method of Impression, to distinguish these phenomena. One version of the method uses comparisons, and comparison by degrees -- on which Alexander leans heavily to demonstrate natural structure in his books.

This method can be used by any investigator, and confirmed through verbal reports of subjects, to isolate and test the existence of complex impressions of complex stimuli. So, for example, using impressions, a researcher can note the phenomenon of the afterimage on the retina -- the researcher's actual, straightforward experience -- with 'comparison tests' of stimuli that do, and don't, produce this well-known visual effect. The effect is primarily known through this kind of first-hand experience -- you don't observe an afterimage from outside of the person who is experiencing it, unless they tell you. This kind of experiment is, for example, how all optical illusions such as Mach Bands are known -- through experiments initially carried out by the experimenter, on the experimenter. The same comparison tests could then be given to subjects, to provide corroborating reports, to ensure that the investigator's experiences are not idiosyncratic phenomena. We can use the same approach, a comparison of impressions, to study the LPF.

And, as mentioned, Alexander has already done a great deal of this preliminary work, across many kinds of phenomena, uncovering principles such as the fifteen properties, for example, and unfolding. But soon, if we want further support for this research, and further validation, it would be useful not only to isolate aspects of stimuli of the LPF, but also to find neural correlates, through the careful construction of fMRI studies that correspond to the moments of experience of these phenomena. This way, we could make concrete assertions about the existence of the LPF, and its role as an explanatory factor in the various mental states under examination. The explanation will be limited -- an fMRI mostly tells you where something is, not what it is -- but at least the phenomenon will be confirmed.

Of course, Alexander also believed that this faculty was not strictly perceptual. He wrote, in the fourth book of The Nature of Order, that it coincided with the actual geometry of real structures in the outside world.

Certainly, the geometry of the stimulus is important here, since we're asserting that there's a mental faculty dedicated to detecting this living geometry. But the LPF can be stimulated by a photograph of a tree, by a real tree, or by a horrible place perceived at a distance so that the horrible details disappear into a larger structure that is beautiful, something with 'the quality without a name'. The full geometry in the real world isn't as immediately relevant as the stimulus which is available to human perception at any given moment of impression. Our LPF is excited by certain geometries, and it’s important to find ways to characterize those geometries, and achieve theories that have descriptive adequacy. But the only way to do this, is by understanding that we are studying ourselves -- we are studying the impact certain stimuli have upon us. Then of course, for example in the built environment, we will be obligated to use our ability to create structures that satisfy our LPF at many different scales.

A study of this kind can also pursue an interesting puzzle relative to Alexander's insistence that we’re perceiving a deep geometry in nature. We will find, when studying the LPF as human biology, three general categories of factors, that can be found when studying any biological phenomenon: developmental factors, genetic factors, and 'third factors', i.e. phenomena that are the result of natural physical laws.

An example of these 'third factors' is the shape of cells, which are spheroid and not cuboid -- a fact that is neither genetically encoded nor the result of developmental experience. The shape is, instead, the result of known physical laws. These biophysical ‘third factors’ are not well understood in complex systems, but they are certainly involved in the geometry of all living things, as Alexander pointed out at length in the Nature of Order, and hence they stimulate the LPF. So these 'third factors' will contribute heavily to future theories of the psychological physiology of the LPF, and this is a ‘connection with the deep geometries of nature' that, I believe, Alexander would find sufficient, once elucidated.


Let's return to my pedagogical assertion, that is, that people can better make use of LPF if they imagine it as 'part of their brain'. Most human faculties do not require special awareness to function, and it's not even possible to introspect mental activity -- one instead notices an experience, thinks about it, experiments on oneself, and observes the results. But there are desired mental skills that we must isolate to use. An example is the kind of perception that we use to draw: cognitively forcing a 2d perception upon a natural 3d perception of a 2d image on our retina. It does help artists to know that they are suppressing the 3d perception in order to, in a sense, reproduce it. It's hard to comprehend how we could draw without knowing this -- although it's certainly possible in outlier cases.

So, if we want many people to use the LPF -- to build a better world -- we should definitely tell them "there's a part of your brain that allows you to judge whether something is alive, and we believe you can use this, to design and build places that are more natural and profound -- but only if you become sufficiently aware of it." It's easy to test the effectiveness of this approach. I have found it effective, in person, and I try to continue my earlier work with Alexander to build experimental tools that convey LPF without personal interaction. The results can be tested by the judgment of people who can already ‘isolate their LPF’ -- but without objective studies of the biological existence of the LPF, this would be very suspicious pedagogy. We know there’s something to investigate, because we have done the preliminary work: environmental impression studies, that is, preference surveys, whose results are quite predictable. But to move beyond this stage, research-backed conveyance of the ability to judge and create living structure, will be tightly tied to the natural science, that is, the physiological psychology, of LPF perception.


This paper is a preprint of a presentation prepared for the 2015 PurPLSoC conference in Krems, Austria.

Photos by Olga Volchkova.