The brain in the city

How does the space you are in affect the way you feel? We’ve just published an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Online First edition) outlining our results from 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 MavrosJenny RoePeter 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. The equipment provided continuous recordings from 5 channels.

Diagrammatic section through a head showing some contours of activation in red, yellow and green

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 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.

Read more at, and blog posts: Are you aware of your brain and Soft fascination.

Head and shoulder photograph, head mounted device, and Edinburgh in the background


  • Al-Chalabi, A., M.R. Turner, and R.S. Delamont, The Brain: A Beginner’s Guide. 2008, Oxford: Oneworld.
  • Aspinall, Peter, Panagiotis Mavros, Richard Coyne, and Jenny Roe. 2013. The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG. British Journal of Sports Medicine, (doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091877).
  • Greenfield, S., The Private Life of the Brain. 2000, London: Penguin.
  • Hartig, T., et al., Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2003. 23: p. 109-123.
  • Mavros, P., R. Coyne, J. Roe and P. Aspinall, ‘Engaging the brain: Implications of mobile EEG for spatial representation’, in H. Achten, J. Pavlicek, J. Hulin and D. Matejdan (eds), Digital Physicality Proceedings of the 30th eCAADe Conference, Czech Technical University in Prague: Molab, 2012, 657-665.
  • Ramachandran, V.S., The Tell-Tail Brain: Unlocking the Mysteries of Human Nature. 2011, London: William Heinemann.
  • Roe, J. and P. Aspinall, The restorative benefits of walking in urban and rural settings in adults with good and poor mental health. Health and Place, 2011. 17: p. 103–113.
  • Ward Thompson, C., J. Roe, P. Aspinall, R. Mitchell, A. Clow and D. Miller, ‘More green space is linked to less stress in deprived communities: Evidence from salivary cortisol patterns’, Landscape and Urban Planning, 105: 3, 2012, 221-229.


[altmetric doi=”doi:10.1136/bjsports-2012-091877“]


  1. Interesting project Richard and team! Perhaps the techology/methodology could become a form of sick building diagnosis with data extracted and medication prescribed by interior architects, designers etc?

    1. Good idea, though wearing and adjusting head mounted EEG is not currently practical (or desirable) on a day to day basis. May be plausible for a research study, except that there are many stress factors in the workplace other than the interior design. Suggestions welcome.

  2. dave says:

    is heart rate relevant ?

  3. I think so, but heart rate changes with physical activity and other factors. Or were you thinking changes in outdoor exertion might affect the EEG result?

  4. As others have said, this is a fascinating study, and thank you for sharing the findings. Given that current debate in many cities regards the importance of connectivity within urban centres, as well as the importance of green networks, I imagine that this could have applications in both design and post-occupancy studies. Thanks again.

    1. Thanks Richard for the advice about wider applicability. We are also analysing data from screen-based studies of urban visual preferences using EEG, but too early to report on that yet. It will be interesting to see if others replicate the results from our outdoor study. Here’s a link to your site to help with networking:

  5. sara says:

    Hi Richard
    It was a really good research I had been looking for for more than a year, but what I wonder about is that how you could get to the result with all those artifacts? even the noise around can make difference in the results by affecting the people brain waves. How is your result reliable if you started with a low cost device and how did you interpret the results? in fact I don’t know how you omitted the different movement artifacts from the data in all the subjects to be able to get to a reliable result to report?

    Wish you get to more fascinating facts and let us know

    1. Thanks Sara for the astute inquiry. As we say in our paper, we are dependent on the filtering mechanisms built into Emotiv Epoc’s Affectiv suit software which processes the raw EEG data. Their software has been through independent tests in various contexts and proves to be reliable. I know that they filter for extraneous signals from the environment, ie harmonics on the hum of surrounding electrical fields. It’s worth looking at some of the literature about Epoc. Which system have you been using? Let me know if you uncover anything.

      1. sara says:

        Thank you for your reply. As I read some in Epoc website, they assert that the researchers should be confined by about 60 % reliablity of the device data because it moves on the head. But anyway, It is the first as far as I followed this experiment in two years. another one which justify your results have been done in Tehran, one of the most busiest cities but not yet published.

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