New research into how the environment affects brain functions could have major implications for the design of public spaces and buildings.
It found that tranquil environmental scenes, such as the sea or a beach,can positively affect the human brain function.
Scenes containing natural features cause distinct brain areas to become ‘connected’ with one another, while man-made environments, such as motorways, disrupt the brainconnections.
The study, published in the journal NeuroImage, could have implications for the design of more tranquil public spaces and buildings, such as hospitals.
The research used functional brain imaging to assess how the environment impacts upon our brain functions. The team carried out functional brain scanning at the University ofSheffield to examine brain activity when people were presented with images of beaches and motorway scenes.
It used the fact that waves breaking on a beach and traffic moving on a motorway produce a similar sound, perceived as a constant roar, and presented the participants with bothimages while they listened to the same sound.
Using scanning that measures brain activity they showed that the natural, tranquil scenes caused different brain areas to become ‘connected’ with one another – indicating that these brain regions were working in sync. The non-tranquil motorway scenes disrupted connections within the brain.
Dr Michael Hunter, from Sheffield Cognition and Neuroimaging Laboratory (SCANLab) based at the University of Sheffield, said: “People experience tranquillity as a state ofcalmness and reflection, which is restorative compared with the stressful effects of sustained attention in day-to-day life.
“It is well known that natural environments induce feelings of tranquillity whereas manmade, urban environments are experienced as non-tranquil.
“We wanted to understand how the brain works when it perceives natural environments, so we can measure its experience of tranquillity.”
Professor Peter Woodruff, also from SCANLab, added: “This work may have implications for the design of more tranquil public spaces and buildings, including hospitals, because itprovides a way of measuring the impact of environmental and architectural features on people’s psychological state.”