Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | December 28, 2015
Colin Ellard is a Toronto-based neuroscientist who studies how our bodies and minds respond to different environments. The biggest tool at his disposal: his Urban Realities Laboratory, which lets him use virtual reality to create places and track the ways humans think and feel about them.
This fall, Ellard published his new book, Places of the Heart: the Psychogeography of Everyday Life. He spoke with Urban Edge Senior Editor Ryan Holeywell about the ways psychology, architecture, and urban design intersect. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ryan Holeywell: How did you come up with the term ‘psychogeography,’ and how did it become your field of study?
Colin Ellard: The origins of the term were in a French philosophical movement some time ago. It was their intent to make people aware of the extent to which our surroundings, especially in cities, condition the things we do and think – and not necessarily in benevolent ways.
By training, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist. I’ve had a longstanding interest in the way the brain has evolved to solve problems in space. If you think of that very broadly, that can encompass everything from how an animal chooses a habitat to how it finds food and avoids predators. Over the past decade, for me that has evolved into an interest in how human beings respond to the built environment at every scale.
At the moment, most of our work is at urban scale. But we also do work at the scale of interiors. We work half in the real world, with field studies, and half in synthetic environments using virtual reality.
RH: Reading about your lab, for me, was enormously fascinating. How do you set up those studies, and what can you measure in a lab that you can’t measure in the real world?
CE: We can basically build anything from a streetscape to a building interior, and we can control everything and measure how people might respond to variations in the design.
It’s immersive virtual reality. People are wearing headsets. The magic is we have motion tracking, so if you move through real space, what you see is a simulation of what it would look like in whatever virtual space we built.
While people are moving through these spaces, we are asking them questions. But we’re also measuring some other variables. For example, one of the things we routinely measure is skin conductance. It’s a simple measure of the state of the sweat glands, which gives us a window into a particular part of a person’s nervous system that deals with stress and arousal.
The other thing we do is look at gaze patterns. We can track every time someone moves their heads or eyes in an environment, so we know what’s capturing their attention. We’re just now starting to get into some basic measurements of brain waves.
There’s this increasing interest in using different kinds of visualization among architects and planners for design. In some cases, they’re immersive and can be shown in virtual reality or in rooms known as caves.
Generally, the great thing about a laboratory setting is you have absolute control over all the variables. If you want to explore something, like the effect of ceiling height, it’s pretty easy to build various models, and you can isolate the influence of that variable. VR is potentially a fantastic tool for testing designs. But it’s not exactly the same thing as the real world. It’s important to work out what the differences are.
RH: You recently published a piece about the need to fight “boring” places. What makes a place boring, and how hard should developers and planners be working to avoid boring design?
CE: I think it’s quite important. One of the key variables in building facades is complexity, and you can quantify it in a number of ways. Facades that are too complex – think Times Square – are not appealing and cause deleterious effects on the nervous system. But so do bland, homogenous, low-complexity facades. You have to get it right to have a good street vibe, and that translates into a healthy state for people’s nervous systems.
We don’t have a way yet to estimate the size of these effects, but you can connect the dots as people walk through the street. There’s some evidence excessive boredom can cause an increase in the level of cortisol in people’s blood streams. It’s a bad thing to have too much. All the connections are there to make the argument that if you’re chronically exposed to a low-complexity street scape, over time, it’s going to produce a measurable health effect.
RH: So you’re saying the stakes are pretty high?
CE: They are. We don’t know how big the effects are. I’m not suggesting every screet scape in every city should always hit that sweet spot. If you’re a designer of a corporate headquarters, you may not want a market in front of your place. But what I think is important is the average, daily experience of the urban pedestrian includes exposure to a variety of street scape designs.
RH: How receptive are planners, designers, and architects to the sort of research you’re doing? Are they excited about the idea of taking something from a lab and seeing if it has real world applicability? Or do they feel like that infringes on their ideas and instincts about art and design?
CE: We’ve encountered a range of different kinds of responses. Generally, there’s enthusiasm and interest, which I think is growing. There’s also a little bit of reserve. Anxiety is too strong a word, but there’s concern that people who use the approaches I use may encroach on the creativity of designers, many of whom have tremendously good intuition, experience, and understanding of what might work in a building.
For an architect, a building is an art object. But good architects understand it’s more than that. It has to be something that functions. With some good will on both sides, these kinds of dialogues can be fruitful, and my hope is they produce better designs.
RH: After years of people fleeing to the suburbs, there is densification happening in cities. It’s in places nobody really dreamed of it happening not too long ago. What role does your research play in addressing that shift?
CE: The way I see it, we have to make considerations for the psychological well being of urban residents. Until recently, that’s taken a backseat. We know about the materials and engineering to build high density. But if you think about the effects of that high density on behavior, we know much less about the psychological sustainability of those environments.
It’s hard to make the case that this is something that’s really important to get right. But really, it’s just as important as figuring out the transportation network and the plumbing and the guts of the city. You also have to think about what’s happening inside the minds of the people living there.