This is Your Brain on Culture

October 6, 2014

Taking stock

We’re one step closer to finding out what makes a neighbourhood tick – culturally speaking – and it’s all thanks to the neurons in your brain.

After more than a year of research examining which factors make a neighbourhood a culturally vital place, and how those factors interact to create something meangingful for the people that live, work, and play there, the last sets of data are in. We’re looking over the results to determine how what’s going on in your brain translates to culture on the street.

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                      Eight neighbourhoods, eight brainwave reactions 

This project has seen us exploring the cityscape with hundreds of volunteers in eight interesting – and very different – neighbourhoods in Hamilton. We then took even more volunteers into McMaster University’s LIVELab this past spring, where several offered up their brainwaves for the purposes of cultural planning. As volunteers viewed eight videos – one for each neighbourhood studied – the team at the LIVELab kept track of the neurons in volunteers’ brains as these little guys emitted tiny electrical potentials in response to what was seen and heard. It’s a process of measurement called electroencephalograpy, or EEG for short.

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This phase of data collection yielded plenty of “EEG selfies” from participants wired up to the LIVELab’s technological capabilities. But more than just a fun photo op, it gave Expressing Vibrancy something no other cultural study has had. As each video documented the experience of moving through a different neighbourhood, tiny micro-volts in participants’ brainwaves (that’s a millionth of a volt!) were measured and recorded. Even the blink of an eye (which, of course, people do a lot) causes a definable blip on the EEG reading, so the LIVELab’s team set about “cleaning up” the data. This way, we’d have some idea about how features in the videos – cars, natural elements, pedestrian activity, public art, etc. – influenced brainwave activity. This is the beginning of understanding how culture looks through the lens of neuroscience. And it’s a big step for us in interpreting how cultural planning can help build neighbourhoods in ways that engage, invigorate, and reflect how we see ourselves.

We now have images displaying the regions of your brains, with different colours indicating everything from excitability to relaxation to boredom, and everything in between. We have line charts with wavy patterns showing reactions over time. This is your brain on culture, and there’s something to learn in each neighbourhood. As we sift through the information, we’ll be bringing you updates about conclusions we’re able to draw, and what all this brainwave activity means for practical planning. 

There are also lessons from these eight test neighbourhoods that can be applied elsewhere. Where we go with it will determine the next phase of this exciting project.  

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