The Impact of Environmental Stimuli on Neural Activity

Presented by: Dr. Kristi Gaines, Michael O’Boyle, Michelle Pearson, Zahidal Islam, Kareem Al-Khalil, Debajyoti Pati

Evidence shows that environmental features have an impact on learning and behavior. However, most studies address the perceived impact of environmental stimuli on students (Gaines, 2014). Little is known about the correlation between neural activity and environmental stimuli. Neuroscience has revealed that seeing color activates the ventral occipital cortex. (Hsu, Frankland & Thompson-Schill, 2012). This study seeks to determine if other environmental stimuli result in changes in neurological activity. The built environment industry is one of the few that lacks the possibility of using full scale prototypes for evaluation (Achten & Turksma, 1999). Through virtual models, designers experience a real environment in a quick and inexpensive way. For greater realism, complex interaction and game engines are considered as a reliable tool that can be used for design development, problem solving, augmented spatial experience and produce credible user feedback. Many cognitive psychologists have used virtual reality tools and techniques to compare user experiences of real environments and its counterparts. Bishop & Rohrmann (2003) and Daniel & Meitner (2001) identified the critical need for realism when studying human perception and behavior. This study combines the use of virtual environments and fMRI technology. Methodology Institutional Review Board approval was obtained. The participants for this study were individuals ranging in age from 12 to16 years old. The research study was conducted at a Neuroimaging Institute (TTNI). Augmented reality visualization and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) were utilized to gather data on reactions to specific features of the built environment for individuals. Participants viewed 6 virtual classrooms during the process of imaging (15 seconds each): (1) low environmental stimuli (neutral floor, artificial light, no clutter), (2) classroom with a checkerboard floor, (3) classroom with daylight (4) classroom with direct daylight including harsh shadows, (5) classroom with clutter and (6) classroom utilizing window decals incorporating a nature scene. Additionally, between each scene presentation, participants were given 10 seconds to rate the “pleasantness of the environment (on a scale of 1-7) using fiber optic response buttons. Findings/Relevance to Interior Design Neurological changes were observed between each of the 6 environments adding to the validity of using virtual environments in interior design research. The virtual environments with (1) the window decal and (2) daylight showed the greatest increase in brain activity. Activation of the amygdala is thought to be responsible for perception of emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness. The findings from this study provide quantifiable data that individuals experience changes in brain activity as environmental features are manipulated. If selected for the conference, this presentation will show the virtual environments used in the study and the fMRI scans that demonstrate the findings. This research project provides new and relevant research methods to determine the impact of environmental features on inhabitants. The information from this study will be useful for design professionals in creating all types of environments including learning, working, and therapeutic spaces that encourage a sense of well-being and positive responses to the environment.


  • Achten, H. H., and Arthur Turksma. "Virtual reality in early design: the design studio experiences." AVOCAAD second international conference. 1999
  • Bishop, I. D., & Rohrmann, B. (2003). Subjective responses to simulated and real environments: a comparison. Landscape and Urban Planning, 65(4), 261-277.
  • Daniel, Terry C., and Michael M. Meitner. "Representational validity of landscape visualizations: the effects of graphical realism on perceived scenic beauty of forest vistas." Journal of environmental psychology 21.1 (2001): 61-72.
  • Gaines, K., Curry, Z., Shroyer, J., Amor, C., Lock, R. (2014) The perceived effects of classroom design and features on students with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Architectural Planning and Research. (31:4) 282-298.
  • Hsu, Nina S., Steven M. Frankland, and Sharon L. Thompson-Schill. "Chromaticity of color perception and object color knowledge." Neuropsychologia 50.2 (2012): 327-333.