What Goes On In The “Urban Brain”

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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.


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3 Responses to “What Goes On In The “Urban Brain””

  1. Judy Lundy says:

    It’s always nice to see studies which confirm what you know from your own experiences. I am very aware of my brain slowing down when I walk on the beach or through a forest or dive into the ocean. I can feel my brain entering this slower, more creative state and this is almost always when I have those eureka moments to solve a problem.
    As a long term adult educator I have also been very aware of the strong impact of the physical environment on participants’ receptiveness to learning – we can manage these environments with powerful and positive results.

  2. Lesley Beth says:

    Annie – seriously! I have always wanted to EEG kids using my Jazzles ELA program and if possible any other resource! With Jazzles its music, song, actions, animations, choral singing! Can you imagine that versus the boring stuff most teachers have to use.
    Love to know if you are aware any researcher who like to do this – but actually my next stop this weekend was to find someone!! Really! Brilliant as is your site.

  3. Ivan Gruer says:

    Very interesting! I hope that such research will inspire the development of a new kind of modernity.
    This post also let me remember something that happened to me. When I was student I moved to Trieste, a medium size city with about 200 thousand of inhabitants in the North-East of Italy. Since before I had lived in a small town (a summer resort), my first reaction was: “Wow! A lot of traffic, it’s too noisy”. Then I moved to Milan (about 1.3 million of inhabitants) for working and I had the same feeling: “Here is even worse than Trieste: too smog, too noise”. Later on I found a new equilibrium with the new environment by searching green and peaceful places and thus enjoying “soft-fascination” experiences.
    After three years I went back to Trieste and surprisingly I thought: “Wow, It’s so peaceful here! Everything goes slowly”, the opposite emotional reaction that I felt when I was a student.
    Thus I am wondering: How the brain is shaped by environment in the long-run? Do “Soft fascination” and “hard fascination” remain the same during the whole life? Thinking about my experience, If a person lives a big city, Is it possible that the “hard fascination” will become less “hard”?

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