Skip to 0 minutes and 8 secondsWhen we provide people with goods or services or environments, we should try to learn about how these things are experienced. What do they feel like? How do their effects interact with other influences in people's well-being? Well, the easiest way of doing this is just to ask people how they feel about things. But raw feelings are different from remembered feelings. And people may report what's expected of them or what they think they ought to feel. Subconsciously, their experiences may be quite different to what they report. So what if, instead of relying on objective external indicators, what if we could directly and objectively measure people's experiences by monitoring the activities of their brains?

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsThis is where recent developments in mobile brain monitoring technology could provide exciting, new opportunities for the assessment of experienced well-being. For over 100 years it's been possible to measure brain activity using electroencephalography, or EEG for short, but only in the last few years has this capability become available in mobile and low-cost form of EEG headsets. Using these new mobile neuro headsets, we can gather information that is relevant to understanding people's emotional responses to various kinds of events or the changes in the environment. So I'm going to meet with Professor Richard Coyne from the University of Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, to find out a bit more about how the data collected from these headsets can be used.

Skip to 1 minute and 37 secondsSo, Richard, can you tell us a bit more about how this equipment works, these headsets? Sure. So this is the equipment we've been using in one of our major experiments. And it's a head mounted device for taking signals from the human scalp and processing those as what we call electroencephalography signals. Just out of interest, now we have this slicker, newer device which has fewer sensors and is more acceptable, I think, to be worn out on the street. What I have to do is apply saline solution to the sensors to make sure we have a good contact with the scalp. Yeah. And it's totally noninvasive and painless. So do you want to try it on? OK. OK.

Skip to 2 minutes and 24 secondsSo it requires a bit of adjustment. That's about right. The latest fashion item. And then what I do with the smartphone, as you can see here, I check that all the sensors are active and I'll just have to adjust this one a bit. Maybe that one. So as you can see there, it shows that we have a 100% activity. OK. So we're getting a signal. Then what I can do is switch over to graph mode. And you'll see the various parameters. Let's see. There's relaxation. There's stress level. There's focus. There's a range. There's about six of these parameters. And so when I go start or begin, you'll see here the graph is indicating the different values of these parameters.

Skip to 3 minutes and 16 secondsAnd at the moment, I have to say you seem to be quite excited. So that level is going up. You're engaged. Your focus is there. You're becoming more relaxed as you're getting used to this technology. Now, that's live. Of course, that's an unrealistic scenario because we wouldn't normally be looking at the monitor while you're wearing the device. But here's something that we recorded for a different participant other than you. And this was when we were out and about walking around Holyrood Park and going through the Innocent Tunnel. And you can see here the stress level. And you can see it fluctuates quite wildly.

Skip to 3 minutes and 53 secondsBut with these trend lines, you can see a nice curve that indicates that stress levels were reduced while the participant who was wearing the EEG kit was passing through a dark tunnel. And then their stress level was reduced when they come out into the open air. So you have an example of a very extreme environment. And you can see that their stress level rises as he goes So you can see. through the tunnel. Even if you're not a specialist, you can see the general patterns. Yes, there's a fair bit of I think [INTERPOSING VOICES] is good there, yeah. It's a fairly noisy signal. But then what we've done with the spreadsheet is create an indication of the trend line. Yes.

Skip to 4 minutes and 33 secondsSo you can see how the general trend is adjusting. I think capturing the information seems now to be extraordinarily cheap and extraordinarily simple. What kinds of things could you then do with this kind of information that you get on your screen? So one of the main applications is assistive technology. So people who are unable to move their limbs in various ways can actually control computers and other devices through the signals that come through the EEG. The other use, and that's the main one that we're involved with, is to assess people's stress levels and comfort levels as they're moving around in outdoor spaces.

Skip to 5 minutes and 12 secondsSo one of our innovations is actually take this kit away from the office, certainly away from the laboratory, and out into open spaces. And so the most recent experiment was testing people's responses to busy urban areas and park land and seeing what sort of transition there was in their EEG signals as they move from one space to the other. So you don't actually need to be a highly qualified neuroscientist to make some kind of sense of what this information reveals. Yes, because I think one of the most basic parameters that we're interested in is, from the point of view of well-being, stress. And these devices are a good way of measuring stress.

Skip to 5 minutes and 51 secondsThere are other methods, of course, of measuring stress. But this is a an easy one. Plus you get other information besides to do with these other factors. And apart from stress, what other signals could you monitor? Well, there's the extent to which you're relaxed, which I guess is the converse of stress. There's your engagement in the environment, which is an interesting cognitive parameter. Interest. Yes. Yes, are you fascinated by what's going on around you? And is the environment furnishing you with sufficient interest? So that's another thing. So from the point of view of design, we think this is very interesting.

Skip to 6 minutes and 25 secondsSo architects, landscape architects, urban designers will increasingly become interested, we think, in this technology because you can modify your designs in response to the kind of signals you're getting. A project led by University of Edinburgh's Open Space Research Centre has been using this new technology as a new source of information on people's emotional responses to the different and urban environments that they walk around. Urban pedestrian walkways like this one, green parks, and busy streets, busy road crossings, to see what kinds of ways their brains react to those different kinds of environments.

Skip to 7 minutes and 8 secondsIt is, of course, highly debatable whether and how we can translate between numerical measures of electrical activities in the brain to the complex and highly nuanced and situational specific language of emotion. Still, these recent experiments are, at the very least, showing the potential of new technology to provide objective data on subjective experiences. It could help us triangulate between the kinds of evidence favoured by the supposedly objective world of hard science and the more everyday qualitative evidence of how people make sense of their emotions and their moods by putting them into words. So far, EEG headsets have been use to learn about outdoor exercise, shopping experiences, watching films, and online gaming.

Skip to 7 minutes and 52 secondsIf you could use one of these headsets to learn more about your own emotional experiences, what aspects of your life would you like to monitor?

EEG Neuro-headsets for mobile emotion monitoring

The latest technology can now fairly easily measure how our environment impacts on our emotions as well as our levels of stress and relaxation.

What aspects of your life would you like to monitor in the way described in the video? What kind of environments - natural and built - do you think are particularly conducive for wellbeing (and which are not)?

You may also be interested in the Place Standard, a free online tool to assess the quality of places.

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This video is from the free online course:

Social Wellbeing

The University of Edinburgh