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EEG Neuro-headsets for mobile emotion monitoring

New low-cost and easy-to-use neuro-headsets can foster emotional awareness by providing feedback on emotional responses to places and events.
When 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?
This 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 the 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.
So 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– is 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.
And then what I do with the smartphone, as you can see here I check that all the sensors are active and I just have to adjust this one a bit. So as you can see there, it shows us that we have 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.
And 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, just getting used to this technology. 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 Hollywood Park and going through the Innocent Tunnel, and you can see here the stress level, and you can see it fluctuates quite wildly, but with these trend lines, you can see a nice sort of curve that indicates that stress level rises while the participant who was wearing the EEG kit was passing through a dark tunnel.
And then their stress level is reduced when they come out into the open area. So you have an example of a very extreme environment, and you can see that their stress level rises as they go through the tunnel. Even if you’re not a specialist, you can see the general patterns. Yes. There’s a fair bit of– it’s a fairly noisy signal, but then what we’ve done with the spreadsheet is create an indication of the trend line. So you can see how the general trend is adjusting. 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 space. So one of our innovations is to actually take this kit away from the office– and 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 parkland 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– is stress, and these devices are a good way of measuring stress. And apart from stress, what other signals could you monitor? Well, there is 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. Kind of 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. So 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 OPENSpace Research Centre has been using this new technology as a new source of information on people’s emotional responses to the different 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. It 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 situation-specific language of emotion. Still, these recent experiments 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 used to learn about outdoor exercise, shopping experiences, watching films, and online gaming. If 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?

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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