Our brains process stimuli, such as sounds and sights, quite differently when we are performing a task outdoors, as opposed to doing the same task indoors, according to a new Canadian study at the University of Alberta. The findings have important implications since almost all scientific research on brain activity is performed indoors in a lab.
“Something about being outdoors changes brain activity,” said Joanna Scanlon, graduate student and lead author on the study. “If we can understand how and what humans are paying attention to in the real world, we can learn more about how our minds work. We can use that information to make places more safe, like roadways.”
For the study, the researchers placed EEG (electroencephalography) equipment into the backpacks of participants who were asked to perform a standard neuroscience task while riding a bike outside. The task involved identifying changes in an otherwise consistent set of stimuli, such as a higher pitch in a series of beeping sounds.
Previously, the scientists had conducted the same experiment on stationary bikes inside of a lab, but in the new study, they were able to achieve laboratory-quality measurements of brain activity outdoors, using portable equipment.
“In addition to dividing attention between the task and riding a bike, we noticed that brain activity associated with sensing and perceiving information was different when outdoors, which may indicate that the brain is compensating for environmental distractions,” said Scanlon.
Overall, the findings reveal that our brains process stimuli, such as sounds and sights, differently when we perform the same task outdoors compared to inside a lab. Next, the researchers will explore how this effect differs in outdoor environments with varying degrees of distraction, such as quiet path or a busy roadway.
“If we want to apply these findings to solve issues in our society, we need to ensure that we understand how the brain works out in the world where humans actually live, work, and play,” said Dr. Kyle Mathewson, a neuroscientist in UAlberta’s Department of Psychology. Mathewson added that almost everything we know about the human brain is learned from studies in very tightly controlled environments.
The study was published in a special issue of Brain Research.
Source: University of Alberta