Interviewing the amygdala: National Trust uses MRI machine for research 6/11/2017

In the first piece of research of its kind, the National Trust has used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the brain (fMRI) to pin down how people respond to places. The work was carried out in partnership with the University of Surrey and Walnut Unlimited, focusing on brains areas including the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the Parahippocampal Place Area (PPA), which responds specifically to places. 20 people were scanned and a larger group of 2,000 people were interviewed about place. The study found:  

  • The PPA responds more strongly to ‘meaningful’ rather than ordinary places.
  • The amygdala responds more strongly to meaningful places than it does to valued objects, such as photographs or a wedding ring.
  • 78% of people are drawn to places which are meaningful to them, which in the study was 42% urban and 21% rural areas, and which related either to childhood memories, friends and relatives or the present.
  • The research suggests that places support people in four areas: wellbeing, nostalgia, security and survival. Self-identity is also an important aspect of valued places: 86% say the place is ‘part of them’ and 58% agree they ‘feel like I belong’ when visiting.

The unchanging nature of some heritage sites was valued by some people quoted in the report. Jan says: “I have been coming to Blaise Castle since I was a child and it’s never changed in all the years I’ve been visiting. I love that, because it means it’s the same in my memories as it is in real life, and I can recreate the memories easily when I visit. It’s my safe place and I’d be very sad if it were to change.” National Trust, Guardian, Telegraph