Neuroscience and Landscape Architecture

Two new studies use EEG and fMRI to pinpoint which elements of urban parks and gardens induce brain activity associated with meditative states.

2 minute read

September 26, 2014, 12:00 PM PDT

By Maayan Dembo @DJ_Mayjahn


According to Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow of Next City, two different studies looked at the effect landscape architecture and design have on brain activity. One was conducted by Agnieszka Anna Olszewska, a doctoral candidate in landscape architecture and urban ecology at the University of Porto in Portugal, and the other by Julio Bermudez, an associate professor of architecture and planning at the Catholic University of America.

Olszewska presented 50 photographs of urban parks in Europe to four design experts, to identify the photographed features, and assess the setting contemplativeness. The design experts found the most contemplative settings to have panoramic vistas and long-distance views. As Tuhus-Dubrow writes, "[t]hey tended to include large empty spaces, natural asymmetry, clearings and stimulation to look at the sky. The least contemplative settings, by contrast, usually lacked these features, and instead had characteristics such as paths and enclosed spaces (as in small pocket gardens)."

Then, the 15 most contemplative settings were presented to subjects while their brain activity was monitored through electroencephalography (EEG). Their recorded brain activity while seeing these images was similar to patterns known to be associated with mindfulness via meditation. Olszewska is working on a study to include a control group for her preliminary study.

Bermudez's study asked architects hooked to functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines to look at "photographs of buildings designed to be contemplative, including the Salk Institute in San Diego and the Pantheon in Rome, as well as ordinary buildings. The contemplative buildings reportedly elicited 'markedly distinct' responses, as measured by fMRI." Bermudez and his co-authors found that contemplative buildings "allow subjects to enter into a meditative state with diminishing levels of anxiety and mind wandering."

There are some caveats to this type of research. For one, "it’s hard to make blanket generalizations about what people find contemplative, and responses may vary culturally too. It’s also notoriously challenging to interpret brain waves conclusively, and this research is in its infancy. But both Olszewska and Bermudez believe there are certain common features that can broadly foster these meditative responses."

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