Skip to main content

Building a healthy body and mind: understanding how interaction with the physical environment shapes human cognition

Principal Supervisor: Dr Jackie Chappell - School of Biosciences

Co-supervisors: Dr Sarah Beck (Psych), Prof. Peter Kraftl (GEES), Prof. Christopher Baber (EEE)

PhD project title: Building a healthy body and mind: understanding how interaction with the physical environment shapes human cognition

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Recent decades have seen a marked decline in children’s independent mobility in outdoor environments. Fewer children travel to school alone, and a greater proportion are transported by car (O’Brien et al. 2000), while a number of interacting factors have constrained children’s opportunities for unstructured play outdoors (Veitch et al. 2006). In addition, a trend for increased ‘screen time’ is associated with obesity (Boone et al. 2007) and sedentary behaviour, as well as potentially limiting the diversity of perceptual experience. However, most studies have focussed on the effect of these changes on children’s activity levels (and the consequent effects on the incidence of obesity and diabetes), and social relations among children. Few studies have considered the effects on cognitive development, or the influence of independent, active interaction with environments (Rissotto and Tonucci 2002).

Humans’ cognitive abilities have been a key factor in our success as a species, allowing us to adapt to and spread into diverse and often hostile environments. While social and cultural factors have undoubtedly influenced our cognitive abilities, the role of our physical environment in shaping cognition during development has been significantly underestimated. Our actions alter the form of our environments, and our cognition is in turn shaped by these changed environments, mediated by perceptual information. Fundamentally, in order to determine the potential impact of changes in children’s independent exploration of outdoor environments on the development of healthy cognition, one needs to understand the integrated, dynamic and complex system which forms between the mind, the body, and the physical environment. This requires a new approach, testing individuals in naturalistic, field-based environments with novel cognitive experiments which combine sensor technologies, kinematics and biomechanics to fully describe and quantify the individual’s interaction with their physical environment.

The main research question is how cognition, morphology and the physical environment all interact to shape intelligence, decision making and problem solving in healthy individuals. Within this broad framework, the objectives are to study:

  1. How individuals perceive and explore the physical properties of their environment, relevant to the task at hand;
  2. How individuals choose among the variety of options available in the environment to make their decisions;
  3. How these aspects change during development from childhood to adulthood.

In this project, we will use the forest environment as the setting for our field experiments. This environment provides suitable mental and physical challenges (such as making tools and structures from wood, and planning routes through tree canopies) for participants today since its constraints and opportunities are unfamiliar to most Western humans. We will test both adults and children (aged 4-14) to study developmental changes over a period when we know children’s cognitive abilities (including executive organisational processes, problem solving, causal reasoning, physical strength, dexterity and coordination) are all changing radically. Considering the interplay between cognition and physical skills in children is a highly novel venture.

The methods will combine techniques from biology, psychology, biomechanics and engineering, to characterise the functional variation present in the environment, quantify the details of individuals’ motor and perceptual interaction with their environments (through the use of grip force sensors, eye-tracking units, kinematics, heart rate monitors, etc.), and evaluate the energetic efficiency of the choices they make in relation to the available environmental variation. In addition, we will record the influence of any dynamic feedback from the environment (e.g. encountering an unexpectedly flexible branch) on the subsequent choices of the individuals.


  1. Chappell, J., Cutting, N., Apperly, I. A. & Beck, S. R. 2013 The development of tool manufacture in humans: what helps young children make innovative tools? Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 368, 20120409.
  2. Casteren, A. van, Sellers, W. I., Thorpe, S. K., Coward, S., Crompton, R. H., Myatt, J. P. & Ennos, A. R. 2012 Nest-building orangutans demonstrate engineering know-how to produce safe, comfortable beds. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 109, 6873–6877.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Molecules, cells and systems

Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

  • Designing, planning and running novel field-based cognitive and motor tasks
  • Kinematic analyses
  • Quantification of energetics (combining the use of EMG, heart rate monitors, portable VO2 etc.) and analysis of resulting data
  • Use of various sensors to record interaction with the environment (e.g. grip force sensors, eye trackers) and analysis of the resulting data
  • Qualitative methods (questionnaires for participants etc.)
  • General Linear modelling statistical methods

Contacts: Dr Jackie Chappell, University of Birmingham