What We Can Learn From the Brain Waves of Pedestrians

Enter the brave new world of mobile EEG.

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Our own Eric Jaffe has previously written about a concept in psychology called "attention restoration theory," which proposes that our brains may be given a break from the constant bombardment of urban life when we stroll through a park or encounter green space. As Eric explained last summer:

In simple terms, when we're in a setting with a great deal of stimulation, like a city, we expend a great deal of direct attention on tasks like avoiding traffic and fellow pedestrians. When we're interacting with nature, however, we use an indirect form of attention that essentially gives our brain a chance to refresh, much like sleep.

This phenomenon has previously been studied by asking people to self-report how greenery makes them feel, or by giving subjects memory and attention tests before and after prodding them to walk down a city street or through a park. Other evidence of the greenery-reduces-stress theory comes, of all places, from your saliva. That research has found that people who live near trees and parks have lower levels of salivary cortisol, a slightly more scientific measurement of stress than reported questionnaires on well-being.

Today, The New York Times Phys Ed blog has a fascinating update on the latest research in this space that deploys a new method for understanding what city streets and green spaces do to us. These researchers, out of Edinburgh, have peeked into the brains of pedestrians using mobile electroencephalography, or EEG.

As Gretchen Reynolds writes, until now

it had not been possible to study the brains of people while they were actually outside, moving through the city and the parks. Or it wasn’t, until the recent development of a lightweight, portable version of the electroencephalogram, a technology that studies brain wave patterns.

It's hard to resist the mental image of pedestrians walking the city wearing portable EEGs on their scalps for science. This is exactly what 12 subjects did for this study, which has been published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. They also carried in their backpacks laptops collecting wireless readings from the EEGs. Subjects went on a 25-minute walk, first through a pedestrian-friendly shopping district, then along a path through some urban green space, and finally down a street in a busy commercial district.

The findings back up what earlier research tells us about the contrasting impacts on our brains of pavement and green space, busy streets and quiet parks. Writes Reynolds:

When the volunteers made their way through the urbanized, busy areas, particularly the heavily trafficked commercial district at the end of their walk, their brain wave patterns consistently showed that they were more aroused, attentive and frustrated than when they walked through the parkland, where brain-wave readings became more meditative.

While traveling through the park, the walkers were mentally quieter.

This was an admittedly small study. But it broaches the possibility that as we begin to think more about the impact of cities on the brain, researchers might actually be able to study the question in real time, on city streets, and outside of the laboratory.

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About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.