Since ancient times, humans have relied on nature for survival. Nowadays, natural areas are decreasing whilst cities are increasingly sprawling, defined by anthropological activities that are damaging many natural ecosystems and intensifying climate change. Human lifestyle has never been more disassociated from activities within nature, nowhere more so than in urban areas, despite the fact the benefits of nature on the physical and psychological state of humans have been known and explored for many years.
The Green Pill is an experimental research study on the benefits of urban nature on the human brain through the use of neuroscience technology applied to geography and urban studies.
Studies show that living in cities can have negative impacts on the mental wellbeing of citizens. With this research, I wanted to explore the emotive and cognitive reactions of the participants when surrounded by nature, to further explore the positive relationship between human wellbeing and nature.
The neuroscientific technology used was: Electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures brainwaves classified into five frequency bands associated with a mental state; Eye-tracker, which provides in-depth and objective insights on human behaviour by showing exactly what a person is watching in real-time while moving freely in any real-world context, allowing us to understand how people interact with the external environment, what captures their attention and what drives their behaviour and influences decision-making; the last one is Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), it is a lightweight device used in real-time biofeedback research, consisting of two electrodes attached to two fingers of the non-dominant hand that measures the increase in moisture of the skin that is controlled by the sweat glands providing collection of physiological data in real-time.
Through these three technological tools, I analysed six mental states:
1 – High Engagement, which represents cognitive and emotional states including motivation, excitement, attention and interest.
2 – Low focus, which represents states of mental activity during low attention, distraction and low level of alertness.
3 – Mental Fatigue, which represents the mental workload during the execution of an activity. The more a user’s brain works on a task, the greater the value.
4 – Wilderness, which is the state of relaxation perceived when in contact with uncontaminated nature.
5 – Wellbeing, which represents the positive states of mental activity during the execution of activities in external environments.
6 – Frontal Asymmetry, which reflects the momentary tendencies of approaching interest or avoidance or the lack of interest felt by a person. An increase in the right prefrontal activity is associated with negative emotions, whereas left prefrontal activity is associated with positive emotions.
The pilot research was conducted on two models of parks that offer different types of nature, which are very different but with some similarities. One is Indro Montanelli Park, a classic park from the 1700s, rich in flora and fauna, with historic buildings such as the Natural Science Museum and the planetarium Enrico Hoepli, the other is Citylife which, as it was inaugurated in 2017, is therefore a new and young park. It was built thanks to the regeneration of a disused space. It is the third largest park in the centre of Milan and is the largest pedestrian area in Milan and one of the largest in Europe. These parks have elements in common, such as the fountain, the playground, the outdoor mini-gym; we measured the positive or negative reactions to stimuli with respect to the common elements.
For all mental states, the Indro Montanelli park generated the most positive feelings. I think that the results as such are not so surprising because they are perhaps predictable as Indro Montanelli park is a more natural park compared to Citylife, which has more marked anthropological interventions. But what I would like to communicate is the importance of this methodology and the possibility of using neuroscience applied to urban planning. With the aim of having a more in-depth knowledge of the positive relationship between nature and human wellbeing, and of the elements and characteristics that influence this relationship in a more positive way, more investments in the planning and management of greener and more sustainable cities, with the protection of natural ecosystems the focus, can be achieved.
By Viola Follini, MA Sustainable Cities Programme & Urban Futures Research Domain, Department of Geography, King’s College London Alumna
Please see a video by Fabio Cotichelli on this MA dissertation project of one of our former MA/MSc Sustainable Cities programme students Viola Follini below. Viola presented her research at Milano Green Week 2018.