Fresh Air for The Brain

Fresh Air FPMS.005

This is not a piece to put in a gallery it is a means to an end which will produce information for what type of aspects in reactive interior design and architectural design support learning and creates a “safe” optimal learning  environment based on empirical data. It will explore the use of  plants to enhance the environment of a classroom by comparing quantitative and qualitative data. The quantitative data will be collected using an wearable brain computer interface head gear that measurers EEG waves and a written test. Participants will also be filmed which will be analyzed based on body movement and participants will fill out a survey based on their experience. This data will be analyzed and produce a data visualization. This visualization will then be translated onto cross sections of a tree visually comparing not only the brain waves and learning data but also the tree rings.

History / Narrative.

In 2008 I taught 6th, 7th and 8th grade students in downtown Denver Colorado. I was a special educator case manager and a math intervention teacher. While teaching I noticed that many of my students would have a fear response to specific changes in a room or while moving through the building. I began exploring possible causes for these reactions to physical space and found that these students were having a physical mental reaction to their surroundings due to the natural dissemination of sensory information through their nuero-networks. This system effected their ability to attain new information. Therefore I found it important to study the effects of specific aspects of a school to determine what designers can due to create spaces that are optimal learning environments. In order to do this one must understand the systems in the brain responsible for sensory intake.

Sensory information is observed and filtered through the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system houses and intake filter called the reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS is a primitive network of cells in the lower brain stem. All sensory information is routed through the RAS system. Of the millions of bits of sensory information available only several thousand of these are selected. This process is involuntary and automatic.  The information that is passed through to the areas of the brain that process information are only that which is most critical to survival. The RAS systems gives priority to changes in the environment that are appraised to be threatening. When there is perceived threat the RAS automatically selects related information and directs it to the lower brain which is reactive and responds with “fight, flight, or freeze” (Raz, Buhle, 2006).

When there is no threat the other type of information that the RAS is receptive to is novelty and changes associated with pleasure and sensory input that arouses curiosity. This type of information then gets sent to the frontal cortex which is responsible for higher order thinking and processed into working or long term memory.  The RAS system is an evolutionary advantage. It is one aspect that allows for the ability to learn and then adapt to our soundings based on self preservation (Wang, 2005).

It is important to understand what types of environments will create a novel, non-threatening aspects that allow for the RAS system to pass on new information, such as knowledge taught by teachers to the thinking part of the brain . Design becomes important in this equation. That is why I chose to explore the effects of plants on a learning environment and measure these effects by using qualitative and quantitative data. This experiment, collecting data about a space through the use of interactive new technology, allowed me to make certain findings to apply to further design practices. These findings were possible because of the three parts of the project that I had to design. These parts are the experiment procedure, the design and creation of the space and the design and creation of headwear that can read brain waves.

Process / Experiment Design: 

It was difficult to design this experiment as it’s place is within the intersection of design and science. It does not apply to pure scientific experiment rules as found in classic EEG laboratories because of the subject that is being studied. The space in which is being assessed through the experience of the participant is multifaceted and therefore it is hard to control the amount of variables. In order to attain valid data I used the following methods.

  1. Blind study
  2. Survey to select participants
  3. qualitative / quantitative data
  4. coding and triangulation

The first step of designing the experiment was to conduct a blind study. The blind study consisted of three participants. One wore the headwear while watching a movie, one wore it while watching a cartoon, and all three wore it for one hour while they completed various tasks. This was done to assess the reliability of the headwear and to account for spikes or similarities between “typical” interactions and environments and the experiment space.

A survey was created to make sure participants were not familiar with the content of the instructional videos. This survey also collected data on the age, gender, native language and phobias of participants these where then included and coded into the qualitative data.

When comparing and correlating data qualitative and quantitative data was collected. As mentioned previously a pre survey was give, a post survey to see what the participant reported as the positive or influences of the environment and two short exit examines on the content presented.

Lastly all of the qualitative data was coded for similarities, phrases and trends. The quantitative data then was compared based on the mean of specific individuals and the total mean of all participants.

The procedure of the experiment was as follows. First the participant was fitted with the headwear and asked to fill out a pre-survey. Then the participant was placed into a typical classroom. This classroom consisted of florescent lights, two projection screens and one large table and 3 chairs. Participants watched a video about birds with the door closed. After the video they filled out a short assessment of the video. The participants where then moved into the second plant environment. In this environment the participant watched a second video about cardinals on an ipad. When they finished they filled out a short assessment. The headgear was then removed and participants filled out a post survey.

Space Design: 

It was difficult to find a space that could be used for an installation for more then one week. I decided to build my own small room and found a quite space that adhered to the fire codes of the building. The room was constructed using sustainable materials which gave the overall piece a mixed aesthetic. The found wood consisted of various composite woods, and many two by four pressure treated pine lumber. I used cable wire to cross brace each side to add stability to the structure.

The space was designed to create a room that was constructed of plat walls. To create the illusion of a wall made from plants each four by six panel consisted of a frame and then three shelf like flower beds which held soil and plants. Each flower bed was four feet long with three inch high siding. The structure only consisted of three walls as adding more would of created a smaller confident which would be dark and could cause claustrophobia. The basic initial sketches can be seen in the attached figures.

Headwear Design: 

IMG_1742

In the beginning of the project the wearability of the headwear was not the main focus. Instead the headwear was simply supposed to be unobtrusive and functional. I was focused on the weight of the head gear and the ability for it to collect data and send it wirelessly to the computer.

To collect the brain wave EEG data I used a hack that can be found on the link posted on my blog. This hack walks you thorough how to use a Mindflex headwear which is made for a toy by Metal. This toy reads raw EEG signals which then controls a balls action within the game. The key is the Nueroscky chip which is within the Mindflex headgear. There is a pin which you can connect the arduino to receive the data on your computer. The arduino must have its own power source separate from the Mindflex. I then used the brain library, to test the serial read of the EEG reader. Once I got that to work I augmented the example code to make an LED light blink based on the signal strength of the attention information signal.

After having played with the Mindflex and understanding the data I embarked on the task to make the headgear wireless using a rx and tx receiver and transmitter. This turned out to be very difficult. I got the transmitter and receiver to communicate in hex code by using the virtual wire library which can be found on my blog. I changed the original code to include the brain library and received DEX (numeric) data. The data the computer received and the order in which it was received it was incorrect.  I worked with the code for many days and finally concluded that it must be a problem with the buf and bit length between the two libraries. I hacked the header file for each library but was not able to change the correct areas to make it work. I will be continuing to pursue this task but due to the time limit of the project I ended up continuing to pursue wireless by using the SD card breakout board that can be found on Adafruit.

The code that I used for the SD card reader was a combination of the brain library and the example SD card library found in arduino. I also then augmented code provided by a colleague Sarah Weaver who’s work can be found on my blog.

After user testing and receiving feedback that the headwear was too heavy and distracting I decided to move forward with a different design. The design idea came from a friends unity scarf. This scarf when worn on the head was soft warm and comforting. I used this design and added pockets so that the machine pieces could rest on the shoulder of the participant. These pockets were created to be movable so that based on the participants height they could still rest on the shoulder. The unity scarf had a headband in which the EEG reader pushed against the forehead.  The EEG was concealed and the headband was made of elastic and velcro so that it could fit correctly.

SD Card Raw

Tree Ring Statement:  

It has long been understood that humans’ interaction with their physical space effects cognitive development, physical development, brain development, and success in life. (Eberhard, 2011; Bingler,1995; David & Wienstein, 1987 ; Taylor, 1995 ; Bradley, 1998) Recent studies show that enriched environments and our interaction with them effects brain development (Baroncelli et all, 2010 ; Davis, 2004 ; Kempermann et all 1997). Therefore the architecture and physical facilities of schools, homes, and workplace need to be designed with neuroscience research in mind to facilitate positive productivity and overall success. Architects have an overwhelming responsibility to use this knowledge to make sure that schools create enriched environments to support neuron growth during optimal development periods and take into account the plasticity of the brain (Eberhard 2009). Many researchers have argued about how to impact brain development, and student achievement within schools. Studies have looked at the effects of light, sound, air quality, pedagogy, furniture, open space, and meeting the basic needs of humans as identified in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (Hardiman, 2010 ; Letterick, 2010 ; Eberhard, 2008). This piece is the culmination of a study that explored the use of  plants to enhance the environment of a classroom by comparing quantitative and qualitative data and engraving this data on cross sections of trees.

Tree rings reflect the climatic conditions of the given year in which the tree grew. Droughts, heat and rain all effect the color and width of a ring. I have chosen to display the data visualization comparison of EEG brain wave and test score data on these cross sections because of the similarities that the growth of trees have to that of a developing brain. In both cases the environment plays a key role in the development and growth of the entity.

Findings / Discussion: 

Seventy-five percent of participants had a higher level of concentration within the plant structure as compared to the typical classroom. One hundred percent of participants had higher levels of meditation within the plant structure as compared to the regular classroom. In total the meditation level mean increase was twenty three percent higher within the plant inclosure. It was found through coding the qualitative data that most participants mentioned the smell of the plants as a factor for why they found the plant structure more desirable.  Many participants also noted that they enjoyed the warm feeling of the headwear. They also noted that when the headgear was worn they felt focused and calm. Overall there was only a small increase in mastery of the lesson components. The mean increase was four percent which is statistically significant.

Images of data viz:

Conclusion: 

There needs to be more explorations like this one into the various design elements and its effect on learning.  Many other aspects that have been researched are the use of natural light, open space versus enclosed space, acoustics and air quality. Research in this field has been based on the collection of qualitative data. In order to know how to construct and design interior spaces within a school to reach learning goals we must focus on creating similar experiments. Moving forward I have found that the smell of fresh plants have supported a calmer learning environment. My next step is to prototype various products or integration of plants into everyday school objects to support optimal learning.

References:

Code: 

Brain Hack Instructions:

http://frontiernerds.com/brain-hack

Brain Library:

https://github.com/kitschpatrol/Arduino-Brain-Library

Virtual Wire Library :

http://www.open.com.au/mikem/arduino/

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One response to “Fresh Air for The Brain

  1. Pingback: Hack-A-Brain Recap | Brain Interface Lab·

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