How science may help us all be happier in our cities

Nov 5, 2015

Colin Ellard is a cognitive neuroscientist, and the author of “Places of the Heart: The Psychogeography of Everyday Life.” His work involves studying how city grids, storefronts, and streetscapes effect our mood and our health.

His scientific career wasn't always focused on studying humans, however. At one time he was the world's leading expert on the visual system of the Mongolian gerbil. 

“I looked at things like termite mounds and burrows. And although they may be interesting from an engineering point of view, for a psychologist they weren't all that exciting. And I thought, ‘If only there was an animal that built interesting structures that might tell me something about their spatial brains,’” Ellard says, “It took me a little while to figure out that that animal of course is us.”

He now studies the psychology of urban and architectural design. There are a number of tools Ellard uses in his work. Sometimes he immerses people in virtual reality to study their reactions to urban streetscapes and green spaces. He takes measurements of their brains, and their stress and arousal levels. 

He has also developed series of walking tours of cities like New York and Toronto. At different stops on the tour, Ellard has people answer a number of questions to describe and rate their settings. He also measures their physiology. 

“The key findings that we've made in every city that we've studied is that immersion in green spaces, even if it's only really brief, just a couple of minutes of sitting on a bench, has a remarkable effect not only on your mood but also on how you pay attention. And your physiological stress levels, they just drop through the floor. It's a really profound effect.”

Ellard's work corresponds to other research that looks at the effect views of nature can have on people recovering from surgery. 

“What was done was to compare the recovery rates of two sets of surgical patients all of whom had undergone surgery for the gallbladder…and the comparison was between individuals who had rooms with a view of nature through the window and those who didn’t,” Ellard says, “The main findings were that people recovered more quickly if they had views of nature and required less pain medication while they were recovering.”

Immersion in natural settings doesn’t always have to involve a walk in the park, however. Ellard says looking at photographs of natural scenes can elicit some of the same kinds of reactions. 

He’s also found that walking in noisy, crowded urban scenes can have a negative effect on people. 

“When you look at the measurements that we've seen from people while standing in that location, they're fairly miserable,” Ellard says, “If you stand there and watch the behavior of passers by, they tend to speed up. They kind of hunch over, not looking at anything because there's nothing to look at. They don't pause. They don't look around, and in laboratory simulations of those kinds of settings, one of the things that we've done is to measure facial expressions. And you can even pick up a little bit of a whiff of anger on people's faces. They're bored, they're unhappy. And we think that that has kind of follow on effects to people's physical health.”

Ellard hopes his findings will translate into happier city experiences for people. One of his ideas is to develop an app that "people could use to kind of map out their stress points in the city and advise them of places that maybe they should not spend too much time in.”

His work also has applications for architects looking for better ways to design their buildings. Casinos, for example, use pleasant design - curves, attractive colors, to draw visitors into their buildings. IKEA too plans out their stores to elicit certain psychological responses from their customers. 

“If you think about your your Ikea experience as it were, then one of the things that we all know is that we very quickly become lost in the space after a series of tricky twists and turns,” Ellard  says, “And that's deliberate. We become immersed in the story that IKEA is spinning out for us. And when we lose our bearings like that we basically are, in a way, surrendering control of our lives to the merchandiser. And when we're in that kind of not necessarily unpleasant state of disorientation, we’re much more likely to impulse buy.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow