Here’s why looking at buildings can literally give people headaches

Ouch. A redeveloped Nazi holiday camp (yes, really) in Binz, Germany. Image: Getty.

It’s three o'clock – you’re at work, struggling to focus during the afternoon lull. You gaze out of your office window, hoping for some relief, but instead you feel a headache coming on. Flat grey concrete lines the streets, while windows form repetitive glassy intervals in stark brick walls. With monotonous straight lines as far as the eye can see, there’s nowhere pleasant to rest your gaze.

It may seem a superficial problem, but our research has found that looking at urban landscapes may actually give you a headache.

Over tens of thousands of years, the human brain evolved to effectively process scenes from the natural world. But the urban jungle poses a greater challenge for the brain, because of the repetitive patterns it contains. Mathematician Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier showed that we can think of scenes as being made up of striped patterns, of different sizes, orientations and positions, all added together. These patterns are called “Fourier components”.

In nature, as a general rule, components with low spatial frequency (large stripes) have a high contrast, and components with high frequency (small stripes) have a lower contrast. We can call this simple relationship between spatial frequency and contrast a “rule of nature”. Put simply, scenes from nature have stripes that tend to cancel each other out, so that when added together no stripes appear in the image.

Hurts to look at

But this is not the case with scenes from the urban environment. Urban scenes break the rule of nature: they tend to feature regular, repetitive patterns, due to the common use of design features such as windows, staircases and railings. Regular patterns of this kind are rarely found in nature.

Easier on the eye? Image: Top: Sam Beebe/Flickr/creative commons; bottom: Tsaiian/Flickr/creative commons.

Because the repetitive patterns of urban architecture break the rule of nature, it is more difficult for the human brain to process them efficiently. And because urban landscapes are not as easy to process, they are less comfortable to look at. Some patterns, such as the stripes on door mats, carpets and escalator stair treads can trigger headaches and even epileptic seizures.

We came to these conclusions by measuring the efficiency with which the brain processes images of natural and urban scenes.

There are two ways of measuring efficiency; the first is to build simple computer models of the way that nerve cells compute what we see. One model was built by Paul Hibbard (University of Essex) and Louise O'Hare (University of Lincoln), and another at the University of St Andrews by Olivier Penacchio and colleagues. Both models show that when the brain processes images that depart from the rule of nature, the activity of the nerve cells is increased, and becomes less sparsely distributed. In other words, such images take more effort for the brain to process.

For our own research, Olivier and I designed a computer program that measures how well images adhere to the rule of nature. After running the program, we found that departure from the rule of nature predicts how uncomfortable people find it to look at any given image – whether it’s an image of a building or a work of art.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Image: jonjk/creative commons.

We then analysed images of apartment buildings, and found that over the last 100 years, the design of buildings has been departing further and further from the rule of nature; more and more stripes appear decade by decade, making the buildings less and less comfortable to look at.

O₂ joy

Another way to measure the efficiency of the brain’s visual processes is to measure the amount of oxygen used by the visual part of the brain, located at the back of the head. When the brain uses oxygen, it changes colour. We can track these changes by shining infrared light onto the scalp, and measuring the scattered light which bounces back off the brain and through the skull. Typically, oxygen usage is greater when people look at uncomfortable images, such as urban scenes.

We found that the rule of nature not only predicts the levels of discomfort suggested by computer models, it also predicts how much oxygen is used by the brain. That is, our brains use more oxygen when we look at scenes which depart from the rule. Since headaches tend to be associated with excess oxygen usage: this may explain why some designs give us headaches.

Better out than in. Image: vincentq/Flickr/creative commons.

People who get migraines are particularly susceptible to the discomfort from repetitive patterns; these patterns increase the use of oxygen (which in those who sufferer migraines is already abnormally high). The patterns can give rise to a headache, possibly as a result. Indeed, some individuals with migraine cannot function in certain modern offices, because the patterns bring on a headache every time they enter the building.


The ConversationPerhaps it’s time for the rule of nature to be incorporated into the software that is used to design buildings and offices. Or interior designers can vary the wall designs, blinds and carpets they install, to avoid adding more stripes indoors.

Of course, some repetitive patterns are an unavoidable result of modular construction. But many stripes are there quite unnecessarily, simply as design features – to catch the eye. Unfortunately, they may end up hitting the head, too.

Arnold J Wilkins is professor of psychology at the University of Essex.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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