A recent study conducted by neuroscientists of the University of Toronto shows human brains prefer curved shapes on an emotional level.

Several examples of past and modern architecture reflect the impact curves can have on emotions. When the great architect Philip Johnson first visited the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry, he started to cry.

“Architecture is not about words. It’s about tears,” Johnson said.

Something about the museum’s majestic curves moved him emotionally.

guggenheim bilbao

Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry.

“What attracts me are sensual curves”, said noted Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Niemeyer is widely considered one of the key figures in the development of modern architecture and is known for his design of civic buildings for Brazil’s capital, as well as for his collaboration with other architects on the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

“Right angles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man,” Niemeyer wrote in his 1998 memoir, The Curves of Time. “What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love.”

oscar niemeyer contemporary-museum

Niemeyer’s hallmarks include the Museum of Modern Art in Rio de Janeiro.

The University of Toronto study sought to uncover why people are so attracted to curves. A team of researchers led by psychologist Oshin Vartanian documented the reaction in people’s brains while they looked at a wide variety of pictures. The images featured roughly 200 images of interior architecture, some of which had rounded features, and others more rectangular ones.

The images appeared largely similar to the eye, but the subjects’ emotional responses changed based on the lines and forms in each room.

cathedral of brasilia

The concrete framework for 108ft-high, 197ft-wide conical Cathedral of Brasilia created by Niemeyer.

Participants in the test were asked to label each room as “beautiful” or “not beautiful.” The results reported that both men and women were far more likely to consider a room beautiful when it was flush with curves – oblong couches, oval rugs, looping floor patterns – rather than straight lines.

“Our preference for curves can not be explained entirely in terms of a ‘cold’ cognitive assessment of the qualities of curved objects. Curvature appears to affect our feelings, which in turn could drive our preference,” Vartanian said.

Beauty ratings were just the first step in this study, as the scientists also captured the brain activity that occurred when the individual looked at each picture.

oscar niemeyer architect

Inside the Oscar Niemeyer centre: Niemeyer said he found inspiration in the ‘curves we find in mountains, in the waves of the sea, in the body of the woman we love’.

People looking at curved design demonstrated a marked increase in activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a portion of the brain that is closely linked to emotion.