Nature or City? The Brain Makes the Difference

When you see a picturesque forest lake from your window, the brain is working differently than when the view includes a maze of tall buildings.

After researching the electrical activity of the cortex with brain imaging technology, psychologists from the University of Tartu discovered that while one is solving a simple problem, the brain gives different signals, depending on whether there is a natural view or artificial landscape as the background on the computer screen.

South Estonian view

The impact of seeing this South Estonian view is similar to that of drinking coffee — the electrical activity patterns in the brain are more characteristic of being awake. Image credit: Toomas Tuul.

“The background didn’t have anything to do with the task”, said Talis Bachmann, a professor of cognitive and legal psychology, who led the study. The study is a part of Renate Rutiku’s doctoral thesis.

The participants had to press a button when rings showed up on the computer screen. While performing the task, the computer screen displayed a natural view of a forest and a lake or, alternatively, office buildings. According to Bachmann, picture resolution varied and distracting stripes were used, to no effect.

During the experiment, a strong magnetic field influenced participants’ cortices. This was achieved using technology that induces an electrical current straight into the brain — transcranial magnetic simulation. The procedure is painless — the guinea pigs feel only a mild tickle.

At the same time, the electrical activity of the cortex was measured with electrodes attached to the participants’ heads. This resulted in a clear distinction. When there was a picture of nature as the background, there was a different pattern of electrical activity than with the artificial landscape.

“Based on our experiment, it’s not possible to say that one (natural or urban landscape) is better or worse”, Bachmann said. His team has previously performed similar experiments with the effect of caffeine. The impact of a mug of coffee seems similar to a picture of nature — the electrical activity patterns are more characteristic of being awake.

According to Bachmann, the study is one small step towards the future, where scientists will be able to say what a person is imagining or seeing in a dream, based on the activity patterns of the brain.

ResearchBlogging.orgRenate Rutiku, Anu Einberg, Kuniyasu Imanaka, Talis Bachmann (2013). The effect of task-irrelevant visual backgrounds on human transcranial magnetic stimulation-evoked electroencephalography responses and cortical alpha activity European Journal of Neuroscience DOI: 10.1111/ejn.12374

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