The brain in the city

 by Richard Coyne, University of Edinburgh

How does the space you are in affect the way you feel? We've concluded a study using head-mounted EEG (electroencephalography) 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 3 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. 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 provides evidence in support of other perceptual and preference studies based on questionnaires, observations and the use of other sensor data.

We found systematic differences in EEG recordings between the three urban areas in line with theories about how certain behaviours, environments and technologies can assist recovery from short-term or long-term periods of stress or illness — restoration theory.

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 wellbeing.

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.

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