How Memory Alters Our Perception of Place
As part of a research project with the BMW Guggenheim Lab, environmental psychologist Colin Ellard and colleagues led 134 people on walking tours in 2011 through the streets of New York City, at one point passing by a public housing project. The long red-brick row of apartments was classic public housing design: nondescript, homogenous, a little drab to the eyes of an outsider.
How did this place, Ellard wanted to know, impact the pedestrians' mood? The research subjects were outfitted with a smart phone polling their qualitative responses, as well as a bracelet measuring their skin conductivity.
"There were people in our sample who had grown up on the Lower East Side who knew these buildings, who had grown up with kids who lived in them – they were their neighbors," Ellard says. "In many cases, they gave us really kind of positive accounts of the place. They said 'look there’s a playground here, have you noticed the children playing?'"
Conversely, the many subjects on these tours from outside of New York, and even outside the U.S., felt the place seemed pretty bleak. That the two groups reacted differently to this stretch of the city isn't terribly surprising. But the anecdote underscores the mysterious, often unacknowledged role that memory can play in our perception of place.
"The overall pattern suggests that how people feel about a place, how they respond to it, transcends simply its appearance," Ellard says. "People are responding to their memories, an amalgam of what they’re seeing and what they know about a place."
The lab repeated this New York experiment in hour-long walks with people in Berlin and Mumbai, in each city trying to discern how different settings – a park, a chaotic intersection, a stretch of retail – impact people, both psychologically and physiologically. Curiously, the two responses didn't always align. And the results illustrate how we each bring a kind of sixth set of senses to bear on our more obvious perceptions of the sight, the sound or the smell of a place.
In each city, the tours passed by or through green space, which a long literature has shown can have calming effects on busy urbanites. Not particularly by design, the project happened to lead people through some atypical green space in all three cities. In New York, subjects visited private community gardens, in Berlin a leafy old cemetery, and in Mumbai a park on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital (green space isn't always easy to find in dense cities).
On some days, the tour groups in New York weren't able to get inside of the community garden and had to admire it from the sidewalk. But their physiological reactions still showed a drop in what we might think of as stress. "The restorative effect everybody talks about still works even if you were looking through the fence," Ellard says. And this is roughly in line with other research suggesting that simply looking at pictures of nature can give you some of the benefits of experiencing it.
Psychologically, though, many of these people were simultaneously upset about the idea that such beautiful green spaces existed in the middle of the city that weren't accessible to the public (a touchy topic in New York City).
In Berlin and Mumbai, the cemetery and hospital grounds had similar benefits for the people walking through them. "Readings that we got from peoples' bodies suggested that it didn’t matter: Green is green, and it was still working to lower peoples' levels of physiological arousal," Ellard says. But when people self-reported how they felt, the reactions were a little murkier. Ellard suspects that some people were bringing their own associations with death and sickness to these green spaces.
"One of the implications has to do with this idea that peoples' understanding of a site, and the stories that are associated with places are really important," Ellard says. But we seldom think of it that way.
"I see in my own field of environmental psychology that there's a bias toward looking at the impact of visual perception, the immediate raw appearance of places," Ellard says. "I wonder whether focusing too strongly on those kinds of raw perceptions is going to lead us a bit astray in terms of trying to understand what actually makes a great place, because it does have to do with memories and stories at least as much as it does appearances."