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Why changing the world is so important


This shows a dark railway station platform with a train on the right hand side, tactile paving in the centre with a white line on the edge of the platform next to the train a yellow line
Fenchurch Street Station in London on a random day in March 2023

PEARL is all about learning and understanding how people interact with their immediate environment. We study this by looking at how individual people do this so that we can begin to understand what happens when we encounter an environment - we can then start to factor in what happens when more people encounter this. Every person carries out these interactions slightly differently and we can learn a lot more by understanding each of these differences. This learning then goes into a number of possible 'next steps'. For example, it could help us design a new way of creating surfaces to walk on, new designs of buses to travel in, new ways of lighting the world we see in, new soundscapes for the world we hear in - or all of these together in the form of a new design of a railway station. Basically it is all about how each of us senses the world and then interprets it: different sensory capabilities, interpreted through the lenses of different lived experiences, and different ways the environment 'talks' to us mean that everyone perceives the world in a slightly different way.


One of the intriguing things about working in PEARL is that most of our work involves detailed study of how people sense things, using devices and sensors that have been devised for clinical purposes. For example, sensors designed to measure a person's gait were originally designed to help diagnosis and treatment of people with clinical problems related to walking, brain scanners were devised to help analyse and diagnose tumours and other problems in the brain. None of this equipment was really designed for use outside the very particular conditions of a clinician's office, clinic or laboratory, where the environment is deliberately sterile, with no unintended stimuli to distract from the primary purpose of diagnosis. Eye tests are conducted under very specific lighting conditions, hearing tests are performed in very particular acoustic conditions, gait tests are done on very flat smooth floors, and so on. All extremely useful for diagnosis.


However, we, as human beings, do not normally live in such environments, and we have not evolved to do so. Our world is one of distractions, uneven surfaces, complicated soundscapes, confusing sightscapes, changing smellscapes and more - and to make things even more complicated, we encounter these all at the same time. In order to understand how we combine all these inputs from the outside world (called "exteroceptive stimuli"), we have to blend these with similarly different information from inside our body (called "interoceptive stimuli") so that our brain can derive and update its particular perception of the world. There are very few protocols for doing this, because before PEARL came into being, it was not possible to be sure about what the combined stimuli of the world actually are in enough detail to understand what the body was receiving in terms of stimuli at any one moment. PEARL enables us to control the environmental stimuli and this makes such experiments possible. Basically, PEARL enables us to find out what the brain is doing to manage the body in the face of all these stimuli so that we can survive the next moment.


However, it also means that we have to devise the ways of doing this in suitably controlled and scientific conditions and this means that our experiments often require a massive amount of preparatory explorations of the environments, sensors, techniques, data collection and processing, analysis and synthesis of the results so that we can understand what is going to happen in an experiment. Some experiments might take more than a year to figure out the methods we will be able to use, and this involves a huge amount of testing, small-scale trials, experiments, construction, design of lighting, sound and smell environments: there are no 'standard' methods here - pretty much every experiment needs to be worked out individually. Each experiment is like a multisensorial opera, with many different parts having to come together to create the performance. Just as a composer has to understand all the workings of script and storyline, voices, instruments, action, scenery and lights in order to create the score, so it is also necessary that they understand how the musicians, lighting, sound and scenery designers will come together to create each unique performance. The opera is a culmination of many different - and sometimes possibly incompatible - parts, coming together simultaneously to create that larger-than-life magical performance. So it is with each of our experiments.


We are currently in the process of designing experiments in relation to railway stations. For some aspects of these we can call on our previous work on small parts of this problem - for example the boarding and alighting of trains, or the detection of different irregularities in the floor surface under different lighting conditions - but in fact the whole experiment will be a massive number of these and other experiments in combination and under a wide range of environmental conditions, all coming together to create that 'performance' so that we can in turn create a true understanding of how people respond to the design of the station, and thus how the design might change in order to enable a more satisfactory outcome.


The photograph above shows just some of the conditions that we will need to take into account - the platform surfaces, columns supporting the low roof, lighting, including the low light level in the foreground and the bright level towards the front of the train, the train itself, the physical height differences between the train and the platform and so on. But there is also the noise, the intermittent announcements on the public address system, the smell - and we should not forget that those surfaces are not just about appearance but also how we sense them through our feet, their impact on the acoustic environment, their smell and so on. To understand how we should design a station, we need to have some understanding of all of these features in combination and of how the human body and brain respond to them.


Ultimately, our best and most comprehensive sensor is the person - human beings are the only 'sensor' that measures all of these stimuli in combination at the same time. The trouble is that we do not know how human beings actually interpret these stimuli in real time, beyond quite superficial knowledge of how each sensory system works in isolation of the others. This is why we need to carry out these experiments in PEARL, and why we need to conduct a lot of work in advance of the experiments to work out how we can set about understanding how individual people - with all their different capabilities and lived experiences - interpret what is out there in the station environment. This understanding will enable us to figure out how stations should be designed so that everyone can interact with them well and in doing so have access to the possibilities afforded by travelling on the railway.


Oh, and yes, how changing the world to make people and planet more sympathetic to each other could enable the brain, body and the immediate environment to become healthier as a result of their interactions with such well-designed infrastructure.

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