Looking at buildings can actually give people headaches — here's how

June 1, 2017 by Arnold J Wilkins, The Conversation
Credit: wwward0/Flickr, CC BY

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 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.

Because the repetitive patterns of urban architecture break the rule of nature, it is more difficult for the to process them efficiently. And because 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 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.

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.

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.

Perhaps 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.

Explore further: Why some images trigger seizures

Related Stories

Why some images trigger seizures

May 8, 2017
In people with photosensitive epilepsy, flashing lights are well known for their potential to trigger seizures. The results can be quite stunning. For instance, a particular episode of Pokémon sent 685 people in Japan to ...

Take a look, and you'll see, into your imagination

May 31, 2017
Scanning your brain to decode the contents of your mind has been a subject of intense research interest for some time. As studies have progressed, scientists have gradually been able to interpret what test subjects see, remember, ...

The role of physical environment in the 'broken windows' theory

November 17, 2016
For decades, the influential "broken windows" theory has linked signs of petty crime to bigger problems in a neighborhood. Largely left out of such discussions, however, is the role simple perceptual features in physical ...

New theory linking brain activity to brain shape could throw light on human consciousness

January 27, 2016
UNSW Australia scientists have shown that complex human brain activity is governed by the same simple universal rule of nature that can explain other phenomena such as the beautiful sound of a finely crafted violin or the ...

Blind people have brain map for 'visual' observations too

May 17, 2017
Is what you're looking at an object, a face, or a tree? When processing visual input, our brain uses different areas to recognize faces, body parts, scenes, and objects. Scientists at KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium, ...

Brain model explores the cause of different epileptic seizure onset patterns

May 4, 2017
At the onset of an epileptic seizure, differing characteristics of brain tissue surrounding the seizure's origin site may determine which of two main patterns of brain activity will be seen, according to a study in PLOS Computational ...

Recommended for you

MDMA makes people cooperative, but not gullible

November 19, 2018
New research from King's College London has found that MDMA, the main ingredient in ecstasy, causes people to cooperate better—but only with trustworthy people. In the first study to look in detail at how MDMA impacts cooperative ...

How the brain switches between different sets of rules

November 19, 2018
Cognitive flexibility—the brain's ability to switch between different rules or action plans depending on the context—is key to many of our everyday activities. For example, imagine you're driving on a highway at 65 miles ...

Mutation that causes autism and intellectual disability makes brain less flexible

November 19, 2018
About 1 percent of patients diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability have a mutation in a gene called SETD5. Scientists have now discovered what happens on a molecular level when the gene is mutated ...

Signal peptides' novel role in glutamate receptor trafficking and neural synaptic activity

November 19, 2018
Glutamate is the major excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, and the postsynaptic expression level of glutamate receptors is a critical factor in determining the efficiency of information transmission and the activity ...

Scientists identify novel target for neuron regeneration and functional recovery in spinal cord injury

November 19, 2018
Restoring the ability to walk following spinal cord injury requires neurons in the brain to reestablish communication pathways with neurons in the spinal cord. Mature neurons, however, are unable to regenerate their axons ...

Study explains behavioral reaction to painful experiences

November 19, 2018
Exposure to uncomfortable sensations elicits a wide range of appropriate and quick reactions, from reflexive withdrawal to more complex feelings and behaviors. To better understand the body's innate response to harmful activity, ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.