How we respond to these differing facades has roots in our evolutionary history. Colin Ellard

A neuroscientist takes his lab on the road to explore the psychology of the streets.

We don’t usually think much of it as we’re walking down a street, but our bodies and brains are constantly reacting to what’s around us. Psychologists and neuroscientists have spent years studying the effect of cities on our behavior and our emotional and physiological states, but a lot of questions remain unanswered.

For example, studies have suggested that green space can have a positive effect on well-being. But “does a set of trees on a boulevard do it, or do you need to be completely immersed in a space?,” asks Colin Ellard, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and the author of the new book Places of the Heart: Psychogeography of Everyday Life. “And does simply walking down a street with a nice landscape work, or do you have to sit on a bench in a park for half an hour to get these beneficial effects?”

To answer these more nuanced questions, Ellard is making the streets of Toronto his lab—as he has done before in other major cities like Mumbai and New York City. Psychology on the Street is part study and part exhibit, in which researchers take small groups of people on hour-long walking tours through the heart of the city. Here, participants are both guests and test subjects.

Participants record their reactions to the landscape on smartphones while headbands measure their brain activity on a walking tour in Toronto. (Colin Ellard)

The groups make their way through a mixture of landscapes, including parklets, quiet alleys, and packed streets. Along the way, participants report how they feel about the safety or attractiveness of each site. They’re also given headbands to monitor brain waves and blinking rates. “If they’re thinking hard about something, if they’re disoriented or confused, if there’s lot of cognitive processing going on, we would expect to see an increase in blink rates,” says Ellard.

Ellard won’t say what his data reveals so far, as the study is ongoing (though you can take a peek at the results on his website). But he expects the final results to fall along the same lines as his previous research: A lot of the way our bodies respond to cities can be traced back to our evolutionary history, he says.

As a species, humans are what Ellard calls “infovores.” That means we, like other animals, tend to select habitats that give us information about our surroundings. “Animals look for locations to live where they can both have some protection but also they can gain information about what is going on in the world,” says Ellard.

That might help explain how we respond to bland cityscapes. When he studied how people react to building facades during his walking tours in New York, he found that those who looked at featureless, bland building fronts—like that of a Whole Foods—were bored and unhappy. Sensors on participants’ wrists showed little physiological arousal. (A study by psychologists at University of Waterloo has also linked boredom to the increase of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress.)

“When we are in settings that provide us with very little information, I think we are repelled by them, and the stressful responses we are picking up are part of that repulsion,” says Ellard. “We’re built to avoid those kind of settings, and when we can’t, I think that produces physiological and psychological stresses.”

At the same time, our brains have adapted to living well in small groups. “We might have, thousands of years ago, lived in groups of maybe 100 to 150 people,” he tells CityLab. “We knew everyone, and we had a good understanding of the behavior and motivation among the people with whom we live.”

So when cities—and huge crowds of strangers—came along, that that presented our brains with a challenge. “We want to satisfy this evolutionary imperative to continue to learn new things about our environments, but we don’t want to be overloaded.”

That, he argues, explains why humans need built settings and walls. “Built settings condition our behavior—everything from where we go and who we can see,” he says. “You can make an argument that one of the primary functions of a wall itself is inherently psychological, because it's shielding us from the gaze of strangers [and] allowing us to shield ourselves from having to process information about other people.”

A walking tour/study in the densely populated city of Mumbai. (Colin Ellard)

Of course, different city landscapes provoke different reactions and stress levels. As CityLab previously reported, Ellard found that some of it has to do with one’s own experiences and memories. So how a native New Yorker experiences the Lower East Side (he reported generally positive reactions in one study) differs from how a tourist would.

Similarly, in densely packed Mumbai, locals found empty public spaces like churchyards and parking lots relaxing. Those were where people went to find solitude and privacy, and to escape the “hubbub” of their crowded homes, as Ellard puts it in his book. In the U.S., we generally consider empty spaces like that as barren failures, which is why many planning efforts seek to fill them.

Ellard says he hopes to continue these walking-tour studies in other cities, which could help city planners understand not only the differences in our reactions to starkly contrasting landscapes but also to small changes. When exactly, for example, does a complex façade become too chaotic and induce negative effects on our bodies?

“It’s surprising how much we don’t know,” he says.

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