The (Toronto) state of mind

From lush green parks to narrow grey alleyways, cognitive neuroscientist&nbsp; and associate psychology professor at the University of Waterloo. Dr. Colin Ellard is doing something unique on the streets of Toronto.&nbsp;</p>

Using a very different approach to scientific inquiry, Urbanspace Lab, an extension of the university’s psychology department, offers free guided walks to members of the public, taking them to carefully chosen locations where they are assessed on their experiences using mobile neurotechnology and electronic surveys. 

Ellard, who is overseeing the exhibition Psychology on the Streets as its director, developed this methodology over the last five years when he collaborated with the Guggenheim Museum and BMW back in 2011. 

The aim of this exhibition is to explore the relationship between urban design and how it affects a person’s psychology, physiology, and health. Ellard and his research team will publish the data collected in Toronto in a paper sometime in the future. The team is comprised mostly of graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Waterloo. 

“I’m interested in the different settings in our lives at every scale; from the interior of a building, like that of a house, to an urban streetscape,” said Ellard. “How does it all affect how you think, feel, and behave? I’m interested in finding ways to apply things that I can learn from the psychology of the urban resident and how those findings contribute to better urban design.”

From the findings Urbanspace Lab has gathered from big name cities such as New York, Berlin, and Mumbai, growing more trees and developing more parks are more of a matter of public health than of general aesthetics. 

“There is a measurable impact to changes of green landscapes in cities on incidences of cardiac disease, diabetes, and even mental health,” Ellard said, emphasizing the importance of green space and careful urban planning in our day-to-day lives. “By growing something as simple as a tree, you can extend a person’s life and it’s something that cities should be interested about.”

During one of these walks, participants are asked to wear Muse headbands, which measure the electrical activity of their brains as well as the number of times their eyes blink and bracelets that measure the sweat response of their skin. Participants also carry mobile phone devices that record responses to questions that are given at each of the six locations. These locations were chosen based on a certain set of criteria: green space, geometry, and complexity, amongst other variables. For days when you are unavailable to meet with a researcher, self-guided walks are available through an app you can download from Urbanspace Lab’s website. 

The turnout for this exhibition, located at the 401 Richmond Street West Art Gallery, has been a great success and the general response from the participants who have taken part in the tour has been positive. Psychology on the Street has also been featured in major news outlets such as the Toronto Star and CBC. 

When asked which cities Urbanspace Lab plans to set up their next exhibition, Ellard said there has been some interest from Vancouver, a city in the U.S., and possibly a city in the U.K. 

“I’ve been really keen to do this [exhibition] in Singapore. I think it’s a fascinating city. I’ve spent a little bit of time there and the feel on the streets is so radically different to every other city I’ve been to. They have a really strong urban planning vision and everything has been carefully thought through and made to work so I would be really curious to see how all of that is working inside people’s brains,” said Ellard. One thing is for sure, Psychology on the Streets will be a continuous project and its global ambitions show no sign of faltering. 

If you are interested in learning more about this fun but influential exhibition and how you can participate, you can visit for more details. Walking tours will continue in Toronto every Saturday until Nov. 14.


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