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Brain death by dull cubicle


You always knew that dull, boring cubicles could suck the joy out of work, but now there's evidence that they can change your brain. Not mentally or emotionally, no, we're talking physical structural changes. You could almost say, "Dull, lifeless work environments cause brain damage."

I said "almost", because it depends on your definition of brain damage. What the research suggests is that in unstimulating, unenriched, stressful environments, the brain STOPS producing new neurons (more on that later). But it's only been the last few years that scientists have finally realized that the human brain can build new neurons. For most of the previous century, it was believed that we were born with all the neurons we'd ever have.

Scientists who believed in and studied the idea of "neurogenesis" were dismissed, criticized, ignored. But Princeton's Elizabeth Gould has picked up the neurogenesis ball and run with it. She is almost single-handedly changing the face of neuroscience and psychology.

From a fascinating article in the new print issue of Seed Magazine (my new favorite):

"Eight years after Gould defied the dogma of her field and proved that the primate brain creates new cells, she has gone on to demonstrate that the structure of the brain is incredibly influenced by one's surroundings."

One of the most interesting (and, in hindsight, "doh!") discoveries was that one of the main reasons researchers kept finding NO evidence of new neuron development in their test primates is because they kept them in an environment which shut that process down. In other words, it was the caged-living that stopped the neurogenesis process. By giving her animals a rich, natural enviornment, Gould "flipped the switch" back on, allowing their brains to work normally, and sure enough--the happier, more stimulated animals showed a DRAMATIC increase in neurogenesis as well as dendrite density.

One summary:

"Complex surroundings create a complex brain."

[One interesting and beautiful back story--researcher Fernando Nottebohm had showed earlier that neurogenesis was necessary for bird songs. "To sing their complex melodies, male birds needed new brain cells. In fact, up to 1% of the neurons in the bird's song center were created anew, every day." Of course, his work was dissed as irrelevant. I mean, come on, these are bird brains. "Avian neurogenesis was explained away as an exotic adaptation..."]

So, back to cubicles. The key to Gould's demonstration of neurogenesis (where virtually all other primate studies had failed) was the stimulating environment. Cages stopped neurgenesis, which she describes as "The neurons stop investing in themselves." She links caged environments with stress, and stimulating natural environments as less stressful, so there is a big assumption here that a dull, boring, unstimulating cube life is also stressful (for the brain, anyway--it doesn't mean the work itself is stressful).

But she didn't just throw them in a natural environment... she also made sure they had a lot of opportunities for play. And perhaps very importantly--frequent rotation and introduction of new toys. I've always wondered why in every game company I worked for (or anyplace with "creatives"), it was assumed and encouraged that people made elaborate virtual worlds out of their workspace, but in non-game/creative workplaces, not so much. While this is often allowed in the cubes of non-game programmers, for the most part it's only the young hipster startups that consider this a primary, essential element of their corporate culture. [Apparently those ping-pong tables and games in those web startups were more than just examples of bubble/VC excess.]

With Gould's work, it would seem, we should not only be allowing employees to, say, decorate their cube, but we should be encouraging it at every turn AND take steps to make frequent changes to the area. (And by "changes", I don't mean rotating demotivation posters). For too many places I've worked, a new "official policy poster" or some new HR thing is about all the stimulating change we got. (That, and the increasingly emphatic signs posted in the coffee/kitchen area about "your mother doesn't work here, it's up to US to keep it clean!!!")

It would appear that blowing your own mind on a regular basis is not just a good idea, it's a key part of neurogenesis. One of the conclusions she came to is that "learning heals the brain." And again, we aren't talking emotionally or psychologically, we're talking physical structures. She believes that even those who have been in a stressful environment can undo much of the damage by not just removing the stress, but actively introducing enriching and stimulating things.

Experiencing and learning new things is literally exercise for the brain!

That's so cool.

The implications of her work are of course much deeper and more significant than just "dull and/or stressful work environments with low stimulation suppress neurogenesis, which means less or no new brain cells." There are all kinds of social implications as well, although she points out that like most scientists, she does not want to see her work "twisted for political purposes".

But it does mean that the work we are all doing to help our users learn and grow and develop (and kick ass ; ) is a lot more meaningful than just good customer support. Remember, when WE say "passionate users", we mean the kind of passion that inspires people to spend time learning and getting better at whatever it is they're passionate about. So it would seem that it might not be a huge stretch to say:

Passionate users grow more brain cells!

Apparently all work and no play makes Jack not just dull, but dumber. So don't forget to have fun...

Posted by Kathy on February 20, 2006 | Permalink


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As an alternative to cubicles housing induhviduals, my employer has, in a sort of development hot-house they call an ADC, these hexagonal pods which house 6 developers per pod. On the walls there are whiteboards you can draw on, and in the middle is a smallish round table useful for quick meetings. Initially people seemed to greet the pods with suspicion, but quickly people have ended up personalising their individual corners, and each pod takes on a character that defines the team that works there. It's a sort of happy medium between the isolation of the individual pod and the exposure of an open-plan office.
Compared to an open-plan office, it's a great idea. I actually suffer from over-exposure in an open-plan. I can't think when people are looking over my shoulder.

Posted by: Matt Moran | Feb 20, 2006 2:02:45 PM

Check out Paul Williams' Idea Sandbox blog. His latest post mentions similar finding from a different article/reasearch:

Paul is all about creative space. You can see samples here:

Posted by: DUST!N | Feb 20, 2006 4:02:54 PM

And what does this say about retirement villages and nursing homes and long hospital stays and ...

Posted by: Doug | Feb 20, 2006 5:12:26 PM

Finally, some justification for people to look for more to do in their cubicle than work.

Hopefully our blog will be a resource for Cubies.

Posted by: Mike | Feb 20, 2006 10:27:35 PM

Similar research apparently found growth in the hippocampus of London taxi drivers, learning "The Knowledge" (all the streets) has an observable effect on memory structures. Re. the cubicle, PeopleWare is a good read on the negative effects of interuptions: oddly I find that pair programming focuses attention on the task in hand, shutting out the background noise, a little like the cocktail party effect? And cubicle conversations, in the words of Mr. Bateson, reminds me of a story :)

Imagine an experiment in which rats are being raised in a series of five boxes. In the first box, you have a single rat, raised the usual (sterile) way. In box two, you have a rat raised the same way, except that it is given toys to *play* with (my emphasis). In box three, same idea, except that the rat's toys are changed every week. Box four, same idea, changed toys, but there are several rats growing up together. In box five, you have several rats, rich toys, but each rat is removed from the cage every day and lovingly stroked for 15 minutes.

Posted by: ken | Feb 21, 2006 12:21:27 AM

The more I read about the toxicity / productivity-drain of cubicles ... makes me wonder what office planner has been taking all the crazy pills?!?

Is there any evidence *for* cubes, besides cost/space savings?

Ken - how about a sixth set of rats, that get to choose their most ideal / productive environment possible? (home, net cafe, office, etc) *stroking optional*

Posted by: Shanti | Feb 21, 2006 3:07:58 AM

Rats? How about people?

Take a peek here:


Yes, it is a shameless semi-self-plug. But, it qould please you to know this: Open Spaces really do open minds.

As far as people looking over my shoulder while I am working, I never have to worry about that. All of us understand our responsibilities. And yes, there are occasions when one or the other digresses, but then it is just restricted to that. A digress.

I believe open-plan spaces help keep a check on such digressions. Plus, if I need to talk to someone, I don't need to look across cubicles, they are simply there for me. :)


Posted by: Shrikant Joshi | Feb 21, 2006 3:48:01 AM

What freakish timing! In about 30 minutes, I'll be heading into my office for the last time. We're moving to a new space today...one full of plain white walls and no foosball tables. We'll have to see what we can do to spruce it up right away! Can't have our brains rotting away, now can we?

Posted by: Dave Wood | Feb 21, 2006 8:13:21 AM

Could explain why autocratic, bureaucratic, dictatorial, communistic societies, companies, and countries ultimately fail and creative, open, and entrepreneurial endeavors thrive. It explains a lot about history, evolution, and society in general.

Posted by: kris | Feb 21, 2006 8:31:52 AM

So true! I used to think that making my work-space "pretty" was just frivolous and showed lack of focus... but since I prettifed my desk, my focus has actually been enhanced!
(By the way, all I did was add a plant, and get colourful stationary and organising tools)

Posted by: Dave Duarte | Feb 21, 2006 9:05:32 AM

You've healed MY brain this morning.

Posted by: greenup | Feb 21, 2006 9:40:11 AM

I think good preschool teachers have known this for a long time: a good preschool never looks dull. And rotating toys is such a simple thing to do, yet it inspires great play from the kids.

Posted by: Wendy | Feb 21, 2006 12:27:00 PM

Great post! Now I'll have a new excuse to buy cool toys :D

Posted by: Michael G. R. | Feb 21, 2006 1:46:00 PM

Another great posting Kathy! More cannon fodder for the cube wars!

Posted by: Steve Sherlock | Feb 21, 2006 3:57:17 PM

Brain damage--I knew it!

Now I understand the lack of intelligent life in the dull, bureaucratic government office venue.

Posted by: I Gallop On | Feb 21, 2006 5:42:54 PM

This is one of the reasons I feel I love living abroad (currently in Japan, but have been elsewhere).

When back in the states, usually, a trip to the grocery store or post office won't do anything to blow my mind. However, when living abroad, even the most routine tasks can be filled with mind blowing unexpected first experiences.

Just the fact that everything is conducted in a foreign language alone is enough to keep my brain happy!

If I was back in my hometown I'm sure I would need to seek outside stimulation more proactively!

Good stuff.

- Harvey

Posted by: Harvey | Feb 21, 2006 9:53:00 PM

I was thinking about this more yesterday and I started wondering what a study on the opposite extreme would look like: is there a point at which too much stuff (clutter) becomes mind-numbing? It would be really interesting to know if there was an optimum amount of stimulation for growing brain cells--honestly, I think my home office is probably across the line. There are a lot of toys in this room!

Posted by: Wendy | Feb 22, 2006 9:59:11 AM

This reminds me of how my current programming environment is. A colleague and I program for hours at a time, and we used to play Worms 3D to wind down a bit but we have been slacking with this lately. After reading this article, I think we are going to see a resurgence of Worms :).

Posted by: Mujtaba Talebi | Feb 22, 2006 10:02:01 AM

*boom* Yep, another blown mind. Get the mop.

This is astonishing stuff. I'm a techie and an activist, and weird as this sounds I think this might have some pretty profound political implications. I wrote about the interaction between people's built environment and their political views last year...


...but I had no idea that the changes might be happening on the freaking neurophysical level. Complicated social and built environments like cities giving rise to complicated brains giving rise to complicated worldviews.

Woah. Kathy, this is a great blog. Thank you for thinking.

Posted by: Dan Ancona | Feb 23, 2006 7:07:04 PM

Ground-breaking! Makes you want to climb on the rooftops and scream until everyone hears you: "Learning is healing!"

This is one of the best posts I've ever read!

Posted by: Alex Bunardzic | Feb 24, 2006 1:46:29 PM

I wonder if this can be expanded to cover a company's "brain" i.e. in the beginning as a startup the environment is stimulating, but as the company matures and gains the systems and processes to service its customers, the company's environment becomes stale, lifeless and bureaucratic.

Posted by: Paul Moen | Feb 24, 2006 7:01:21 PM

Just as plants need food, water and sun to grow and regenerate...So do us as human beings. Our brains yes, but our 5 senses need the additional stimuli to help jump-start/signal our connected brains to regenerate/create additional cells. Colors, sounds,shapes and so much more play an important role in our continuing development until we expire.

Great subject matter and I totally agree with the articles that followed...

Posted by: BobCat33 | Feb 26, 2006 9:03:09 AM

After years and years of working in a cubicle - I now have a cubicle window feel free to check it out, www.WindowSane.com, the perfect window for your cube.

Posted by: Russ Abrams | Feb 28, 2006 8:21:55 AM

As a middle school teacher, I'm aware of the principles you're talking about. The amount people learn and retain is roughly proportional to the degree of their participation in the learning process. That's one reason why I think reading blogs and articles like yours can help us all keep our minds fresh.

Posted by: Plagiarism Checker creator | Mar 9, 2006 12:01:08 AM

"... I realized that this was yet another good reason to work from home rather than to work from the office. At work, all of the offices look the same. Even those with windows..." 100%!!
True! That is why i work from home.

Posted by: Mike | Apr 19, 2006 6:16:07 PM

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