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How measuring brainwaves could improve cities

Here’s a deceptively difficult question to answer: “Why do we go where we go?”

Until now, the tools we use to measure the way people move about have been purely quantitative – in effect, limited to counting footsteps. That’s led to an unquestioned assumption among those who make maps that the quickest route to our destination is usually the best: we have no idea whether a route makes people happy or sad, or whether the shortest route may actually be the most disconcerting, noisy or frightening.

In the past few years, though, this has begun to change. Last year, Yahoo! and the University of Torino, Italy, carried out a study in which they developed “happy”, “beautiful”, and “quiet” routes by collecting responses to an online photo survey. Tellingly, participants who tried out the routes didn’t seem bothered about whether the routes took slightly longer to complete. There are apps which get you lost on purpose, too, like Dérive – an “exploration of urban space in a random unplanned way”. Even so, we’re reliant on survey answers and anecdotal evidence for information about how routes and spaces affect people.

But thanks to the work of Panos Mavros, a PhD student at UCL, we might be edging closer to changing that. The data that he’s collecting from neuroscience could tell us how to create better routes, and even how to design better cities.

Mavros studied as an architect, but now spends a lot of his time dealing with electrodes. When I visited his office at the Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA) the first thing he did was get out a black cap laced with wires and small plastic rings, and make me try it on.

Image: author’s own.

His PhD project, he says, began with a simple question:  “Why do people walk on particular streets – why are there more people on Tottenham Court Road than Gower Street, say, even though both routes go to Tottenham Court Road station?”  

His attempts to answer that question led him to electroencephalography (EEG): technology like that wiry cap, which allows scientists to collect information from the brain – how confused or agitated it is, for example – while participants undertake particular tasks.

Until now, various factors have kept this kind of experimentation in the lab: previous models were attached by wires to a big metal box (“you couldn’t really carry it around with you”). On top of that, it’s much harder to analyse data collected in a sense-overloading place like Tottenham Court Road than it would be in a controlled lab.

But scientists are gradually realising that data collected in a clinical environment may not actually be that useful. As Mavros puts it: “Studies found that when you’re moving around in space, it does have an effect on you – it activates different neural pathways. So scientists realised that we need more integrated experimental designs, even if that increases the complexity of analysis.”

Mavros presenting his research on Sky News. Image: Sky.

Even with these limitations, the EEG method offers scientists far more information than asking participants questions would, since it offers a continuous measure of a participant’s responses during a walk: the resulting data looks like a line graph, as opposed to a couple of data points. It’s also a better measure since we sometimes respond to environments in ways we may not even be aware of ourselves, the equivalent of subliminal stimuli or messages: “There are things we’re not conscious of, because we’re thinking so fast, but they still affect our choices.”  Seeing a particular object, for example, may unconsciously make you take a different route.

To put the technology into practice, Mavros has been organising pilot investigations in which 12-20 participants go out onto city streets wearing the black caps and walk around. Ever the scientist, his observations on the project stretch to noting passerby’s reactions to the caps themselves: “Consistently, within 20 minutes you’d get two or three stares. In Reading people were quite discreet, but in London we were out on a Friday night and everyone was in the pub, shouting and pointing– it was quite intense.”

For one of the projects, Mavros worked with Microsoft, the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and Future Cities Catapult to analyse the experience of visually impaired people in the city. Certain city designs are far easier for visually impaired people to navigate: by measuring participants’ neural reactions the researchers hope to discover how design could improve to make navigation easier for the blind or partially sighted.

In the next stage of his PhD, Mavros will analyse the brain signals collected during these experiments. In the project involving the visually impaired, however, some findings didn’t require any data analysis at all. “We came to one junction,” he says, “and the participant nearly walked out into oncoming traffic – there were three different crosswalks at the junction, and only one had an auditory signal. So the participant heard it, and started walking.”

Portable EEG technology is still relatively new, and could be used in a multitude of ways within urban theory. Mavros says that his data, once analysed, could be used to build up calm, beautiful or quiet routes based on streets the particpants found quieter or more attractive, in the vein of the Yahoo! study. The data could also be used by urban planners and designers: “If we have evidence that we measured a certain design factor, which required X amount of cognitive effort from participants, then we could say how important this factor was in a particular design.”

There is a danger to this approach, however. “We’re wary of saying a certain type of environment is ‘good for you’,” says Mavros. “Participants’ reactions could be a matter of personal taste, where they grew up, or even cultural influences.

“You might prefer one piece of architecture over another – but that doesn’t mean someone else would.”
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