The Brain Does Not Lie: A Case Study of Psychophysiology and Landscape in South Clifton Park

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Researchers have long explored how humans respond psychologically and physiologically to distinct landscapes and natural features. Walking in nature and viewing photographs of natural landscapes have been shown to reduce stress measured through physiological responses of blood pressure, salivary cortisol concentration, and pulse rate. Exposure to natural landscapes has also been shown to improve feelings of relaxation and positive emotion. The increased popularity of virtual reality (VR) in landscape architecture provides an additional visualization tool to immerse a participant in a landscape at human scale. Little research has focused on the potential impact of visualization through VR, studied the impact of urban nature, or compared the impact of landscape design using the same site. This study explores how employment of psychophysiological measures provides objective assessment of humans' landscape perception in response to the restorativeness of a virtual place. Twenty students were recruited to view an actual site in South Clifton Park, Baltimore City. Utilizing VR, participants observed the site as it exists currently and reimagined using the tenets of Attention Restoration Theory (ART), Stress Reduction Theory (SRT), and community vision. Psychological response was analyzed using the Perceived Restorativeness Scale (PRS-16), a survey designed to evaluate a place’s restorativeness through principles of ART, and physiological response was analyzed using electroencephalogram (EEG), the non-invasive measurements of the electrical brain activity. Findings indicated that perceived restorativeness increased in the designed site for the factors Being Away/Fascination and Compatibility; however, no significant difference was identified for the factor Extent. Regarding EEG data, alpha brain frequencies (broadband alpha, low alpha, and high alpha) were not significantly different when viewing the vacant versus designed site within the frontal or parietal lobes; however, beta brain frequencies (broadband beta, low beta, and high beta) demonstrated a marginally significant effect of sex in the frontal and parietal lobes with male beta brain frequencies decreasing when viewing the designed site and female beta brain frequencies increasing. Finally, frontal alpha asymmetry, a measure of approach-withdrawal motivation, demonstrated a marginally significant decrease when viewing the designed site, indicating increased withdrawal motivation in the designed site. The present research seeks to fill a gap in understanding objective indicators of restorativeness of a place and explore the power of VR as a tool for visualizing place.