Cerebrum Winter 2021

That’s why restorative environments, such as the mountains or the woods, are places that provide a sense of being away (i.e., mental separation), a feeling of extent (i.e., large enough spaces to explore), and compatibility with goals, say researchers. This feature of “compatibility” is thought to be the way a person interacts with his or her environment at a given time. For example, if you work close to an urban park where you can relax over lunch, you are likely to feel restorative benefits on days when you are stressing from a morning’s worth of difficult work issues. Just as interacting with more natural environments such as trees, water, and grass can positively impact cognition, affect, and overall health, we are prone to feel, think, and act differently when we are in disorderly environments. Berman and colleagues outline disorderly environments as spaces strewn with litter, graffiti, or abandoned buildings, for example. These environments have been linked to “detrimental outcomes” such as perceived powerlessness, distress, depression, and anxiety, and the influential broken windows theory , which links scene-level social disorder cues (e.g., litter, graffiti) to crime and general rule-breaking.

T his bench placement at Rockaway Beach in New York City is an example of what Hollander calls "a built environment." "People tend not to sit on benches that don’t catch their eye,” he writes. When an outdoor space has no central orienting point, there is a tendency for increased user anxiety in the space. Using eye-tracking technology, the heatmap of the boardwalk shows that benches grabbed viewers’ attention.

The group recently published a study to demonstrate how the combination of eye-tracking technology and photographs helps to better understand human responses to neighborhood designs in New York City. How we interact with traditional design, how it puts us at ease, and what about it helps us orient ourselves, were some of the questions they sought to answer. “These images depict important public spaces where hundreds of thousands of people regularly congregate or pass through, thus their design attributes really matter,” says Hollander. Another concern his colleagues in the field are weighing—at least in the short term—is the pandemic’s impact on urban design, as commuting and public access are reconsidered. “Urban spaces are generally designed for cars, and this research can show how to better design places to meet human needs at a biological level, to encourage them to walk and be active,” says Hollander. “Likewise, the design of places impacts people’s well-being and mental health. Understanding this impact and designing cities the right way can ultimately make people happier and healthier.” l

The Impact of Technology Incorporating eye-tracking technology with their research , Hollander and his colleagues theorize that distinct contexts (e.g., whether you’re walking down a quiet, rural street or in a busy city) can influence cognition and behavior on an unconscious level. Imageability is an important principle in planning and architecture, he points out. Our brains are wired to seek out and remember patterns within our environments, and imageability determines how specific physical elements and their arrangement will capture attention, evoke feelings, and create a lasting impression.

A t Spotify’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan, the greening of a setback creates an environment for employees looking to relieve the stress or simply take an outdoor break with some fresh air.

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