Functional brain imaging predicts population-level visits to urban spaces

Urbanization is increasing around the world, and urban development strategies focusing on sustainability and the welfare of urban residents are needed. In response to this need, the field of neurourbanism has emerged, which leverages research on the human brain to understand and predict the influence of urban environments. For example, studying brain regions involved in reward processing and value-based decision making, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), may help us understand how people interact with and navigate through urban environments. In this study, we aimed to ascertain whether neural activity within the vmPFC can predict population-level visits around the urban spaces of a city – in our case, Lisbon, Portugal. We used the density of photographs taken around Lisbon as a proxy measure of these visits. To do this, we created a stimulus set featuring 160 images of Lisbon sourced from the social media platform, Flickr. Then, study participants in the U.S. who had never visited Lisbon, viewed these images while we recorded their brain activity. We found that in our sample, activity in the vmPFC predicted the density of photographs taken around Lisbon, and hence, the population-level visits. Our research highlights the crucial role of the brain, especially reward-related brain regions, in shaping human behavior within urban environments. By shedding light on the neural mechanisms underlying urban behavior in humans, our research opens exciting possibilities for the future of urban planning. With this knowledge, policymakers and urban planners can potentially design cities that can promote well-being, social interaction, and sustainable living.