What Goes On In The “Urban Brain”
How does the space you’re in affect what goes on in your mind? Scientists are now able to gauge people’s brain activity in response to different environments with the use of head-mounted electroencephalography technology. That’s right—EEG machines you can wear as you walk around outside. One of the authors of a new study employing this technology, University of Edinburgh professor Richard Coyne, writes about it on his blog:
“We’ve just published an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine outlining our results from a study using head-mounted EEG technology worn by people walking about outdoors in Edinburgh. We think this is a first. Such studies usually take place in a laboratory, with human subjects sitting in front of a computer monitor and looking at pictures of city streets and landscapes. In our study we took the EEG technology out into the field.
The research was undertaken by Panos Mavros, Jenny Roe, Peter Aspinall, and me, Richard Coyne. As researchers in architecture, environmental psychology, health studies and urban design we are interested in the relationship between the environment and emotions. We conducted a study using mobile EEG as a method to record and analyze the emotional experience of people walking in three types of urban environment, including parkland.
Using Emotiv EPOC, a low-cost mobile EEG recorder, participants took part in a 25 minute walk through three different areas of Edinburgh. The areas were a shopping street, a path through green space and a street in a busy commercial area. The equipment provided continuous recordings from five channels.
The manufacturers of the EEG recorder identify these channel outputs as ‘short-term excitement,’ ‘frustration,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘arousal’ and ‘meditation level.’ In fact, the readings are derived from the faint frequency signals picked up from the human brain, known as alpha, beta, delta and theta waves. These are the major pulse frequencies at which brain activity takes place, and seem to be reliable indicators of the emotional state of the person from whom readings are taken.
Our analysis of the data show evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation when moving into the green space zone, and higher engagement when moving out of it.
Our study has implications for promoting urban green space to enhance mood, important in encouraging people to walk more or engage in other forms of physical or reflective activity. More green plazas, parkland, trees, access to the countryside, and urban design and architecture that incorporates more of the atmosphere of outdoor open space are all good for our health and well-being.
Our study also intersects with the current fascination with GPS (global positioning systems) mapping techniques providing new avenues for experimentation. The recordings from the portable EEG were tagged with location data, and later turned into maps showing the relative levels of readings at different points along the journeys.” (Read more here.)
There are so many fascinating possibilities for this research—imagine monitoring volunteers’ brain activity as they go through their days at school or work, for example.
One other interesting insight, from the study itself: It notes that previous studies “have proposed that natural settings promote recovery from stress and fatigue via attention restoration mechanisms. Soft fascination (intriguing environmental stimuli) promotes involuntary attention, enabling cognitive recovery from fatigue, and is typically present in natural settings. By contrast, hard fascination (demanding stimulation) grabs attention dramatically, increasing cognitive load, and is typically present in urban settings.” (Read an abstract of the study here.)
I’d never seen that distinction between “soft fascination” and “hard fascination” before, and it made immediate sense—there’s a kind of diffuse engagement we feel when walking on the beach or through the woods that is very different from the high-impact stimulation of walking down a city street.