Debating the Neuroscience of Feng Shui

Dr. John Zeisel and Steven Post onstage at the Rubin Museum of Art.
Dr. John Zeisel and Steven Post onstage at the Rubin Museum of Art.

Feng Shui Expert Steven Post + Neurosociologist Dr. John Zeisel at Brainwave 2010.

The winds are mild
The sun is warm
The water is clear
The trees are lush.
– Guo Pu, The Burial Book

It is no secret that our environment affects us.  But how should we design our surroundings?   The February 24 Brainwave event at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City featured two men who were dedicated to answering this question.  Steven Post, a feng shui expert, represented a tradition (Black Sect) that is open to change.  The neurosociologist Dr. John Zeisel presented work in a field called “neuroarchitecture.”  They engaged in a light and lively discussion, challenging each other and encouraging audience participation.

In Chinese, “feng shui” means “wind-water.”  The ancient tradition seeks to inspire that ineffable power of place.  Although it is called “the original natural science” in China, the truth is that feng shui is based on intuition and spiritual belief.  For example, in his explanation, Mr. Post referred to the “intention of a site” and “invisible beings.” He offered professional anecdotes that illustrated these concepts.  But this is not proof; people who hire feng shui consultants are more likely to experience its effects because they subconsciously want to fulfill their own expectations.  Any valuable experiment would have to be blind.  If people don’t know their surroundings have been arranged in a special way, will they still find more peace-of-mind?  To his credit, Mr. Post many times honored the “rigor and testability” of science and expressed a desire to apply scientific method to feng shui in order to validate or invalidate its ideas.  This willingness to learn and change is a rare intellectual trait.

Dr. Zeisel had a similarly progressive attitude.  Although he has collected clinical data—from his work with Alzheimer’s patients—he never dismissed the unproven claims of feng shui.  Instead of coveting a mystical harmony, Dr. Zeisel simply seeks to design an environment in which the brain can best function and develop.  A particularly interesting discovery has to do with the chiasmatic nuclei, which control our circadian clock.  Damage to these nuclei cause disturbances in temporal routine, such as waking up in the middle of the night or “sundowning” (at the end of the day, patients feel anxious and want to go out).  Studies have shown that if Alzheimer’s patients spend time outside every day, this particular function is normalized.  But although Dr. Zeisel did present empirical evidence, I felt that his inferences exceeded his data.  Dr. Zeisel failed to prove why putting a cafeteria in the front of an office building (rather than the back) would influence behavior.  Or change brain chemistry.  There are intuitive explanations that make sense, but they are ultimately no more reliable than those of feng shui.

Human intelligence affords extraordinary privileges with respect to the environment.  It is important to understand the interactive relationship between brain and world so that we can maximize our own potential.  More studies are needed to discover the neurological effects of place.  But events like Brainwave, bringing together different perspectives and ideas, are tremendously positive for the discourse.  They are the brainstorms of progress.

About the author

Ben Ehrlich

Ben Ehrlich's new book "The Dreams of Santiago Ramón y Cajal" will be published by Oxford University Press in 2016. Ben is a 2015 Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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  • I’m not sure I agree entirely with your assessment. I do not recall the presentation of any empirical evidence as I understand the term! Instead I would describe Dr. Zeisel’s insights as professional anecdotes that illustrated the concepts he was presenting.

    The difference, so far as evidence goes, is that I am lead to believe there is empirical evidence supporting the claims Dr. Zeisel made about the effects of his design ideas. With Mr. Post there is only the invitation, noble though it is.

    I did not believe that the purpose of this talk was to prove one thing or another. But even if Dr. Zeisel did not prove the reasons for why a cafeteria might go in the front of an office building (and maybe he has outside this talk) – I believe he has proven (outside of this talk) that moving the cafeteria will effect behaviour. This is one step closer to proving that there are Naga – which we must do before we can prove whether or not they are happy Naga.

  • Thank you very much for your comments, Alexander. By “empirical evidence,” I was mainly referring to Dr. Zeisel’s brief mention of a study (conducted by someone else) about the chiasmatic nuclei. Other than that, and perhaps one or two other hard science slides, you’re right to say Dr. Zeisel’s insights were anecdotal. This makes sense given the venue and audience. But I, too, still assume that most of Dr. Zeisel’s claims are evidence-based. I just wasn’t sure that ALL of them are. Perhaps I should read his book, where I’m sure my questions will be answered. I think that we mostly agree, and I should have clarified my distinctions.

    Thanks again for reading.

  • I’ve been noticing the spirit of collaboration between Eastern and Western perspectives everywhere for some years now. For example the Dalai Lama’s work with Richard Davidson on the neuroscience of meditation. With the means of illuminating brain activity perhaps we will break down some of the barriers between brain and world. I doubt we will get very far in a hurry though because although two individuals may experience the same environment, they will each take that information and turn it into their own experience. So as Alexander suggests- baby steps!

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