Jane Bradley: Holiday selection technology is a brain wave

Jane Bradley tries out new technology which picks your ideal vacation - and finds she's destined to climb Kilimanjaro

Jane Bradley found that brain scanning equipment reckoned her ideal holiday would be a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro.

As I was leaving work last Sunday night, I suddenly remembered I’d forgotten to tell the newsdesk that I was going to be late in the next day. Sticking my head back around the door, I shouted: “I’m off to get my brain waves scanned in the morning to see where I should go on holiday - I’ll be in at about 11am!”

My news editor just nodded and agreed he’d see me at mid-morning the next day. That’s news editors for you. Nothing phases them, however out of the ordinary it may seem.

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I was the public guinea pig for a brain wave technology adapted by a Glasgow-based tech firm to help apparently overwhelmed travellers decide on their next holiday destination.

Donning a headset and settling into a large, egg-shaped chair in the middle of a busy shopping centre, I was faced with a TV screen displaying a series of images of exotic holiday destinations.

Iceland. Africa. Burma.

As I watched, the technology analysed my brain’s response to the images. After about two minutes, the video ended and I was shown a bright criss-cross pattern on another screen. My brain waves.

“Wow,” said Grant Gibson, deputy managing director of tech company Bright Signals, which adapted the brain mapping software to compile the experiment. “I’ve never seen it do that before. We’ve tested it a lot on people in the office and your brain is off the scale.”

Nice to hear, I suppose, though I’m not absolutely sure he meant it in a good way. He explained that I apparently had quite extreme reactions to the images.

When I saw shots of people on a cycling holiday - first travelling through country fields and then traversing a busy city - I panicked. Or my brain did, shooting an orange line to the maximum “stress” line on the graph. Personally, relaxing in the giant egg, I felt fairly neutral about it all.

“I take it you’re not a cyclist?” asked Grant. “No,” I agreed. I am definitely not a cyclist.

Where I was most in my comfort zone, the computer told me, was when looking at cultural images - sightseeing in European cities, wandering through African villages. My stress levels, through the roof at the idea of getting on a bike, dropped to absolute zero, while “excitement”, “interest”, “engagement” and “relaxation” scored well. This makes sense. I am happiest on a city break, or somewhere I can meet local people, join in the culture, try the food and drink.

Yet the best place for me to go, everything considered, the software claimed, was hiking Mount Kilimanjaro.

My stress levels, now no longer connected to the computer, soared once again. A mountain? A really big mountain? Were they serious?

But when I had a think about it, I realised that it probably wouldn’t be a bad option. I’ve got into fitness a bit more recently. A bit of training and I could probably manage it. There’s just the four-year-old to consider - but I can’t expect even the cleverest of computer software to work out something that would include her.

After I exited the chair, other members of the public began to queue up to have a go.

The gadget uses a technique known as electroencephalography, or EEG, which tracks people’s emotional reactions to visual stimuli.

The program then interprets the subsequent electrical activity from the scalp and measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain. It then interprets the neurological activity to decide if the subject is finding something pleasurable.

The idea, commissioned by adventure travel firm Explore, is that by sorting through the brain’s emotional reaction to different travel destinations in a scientific way, the would-be travellers can more easily identify places of interest - welcome help, it is claimed, to the more than 50 per cent of Scots who apparently spend longer planning their two-week annual break than the holiday itself lasts.

Gimmicky, yes. But fascinating, definitely.

For pregnant Mairi Ferrigan, 22, the result was surprising - with images of elephants on safari sending her stress levels soaring.

“The giraffes I didn’t mind as much, but the elephants?” she shudders. “They are usually my favourite animal, but for some reason, when I was watching it, I felt uncomfortable. I wonder if it’s because I’m pregnant, that I’m feeling protective towards the baby of anything that might hurt it?”

Instead, she was told by the computer, she should go diving in the Galápagos Islands.

“Maybe it’s a sign that I’ll have a water birth,” she laughed.

Jean MacDonald, 81, demonstrated a far less dramatic reaction to the pictures. Her brain waves were, Gibson told her, fairly steady throughout, showing no major signs of stress, excitement or intense interest. Her top holiday destination, the computer claimed, was Burma.

“That’s not surprising,” she said. “I’ve been to Burma.”

It turned out that Ms MacDonald had been to most places shown on the video. “I travelled a lot through my father’s job as a teenager, especially in the Far East,” she explained. “I probably wasn’t showing any stress or excitement because those places were all familiar to me. I was reliving my own experiences in my head when I was watching it.”

Linda McCoole, 66, had a highly stressed, yet hugely interested reaction when she was shown a picture of Venice.

Gibson was at a loss to explain, but Ms McCoole, who is originally from Canada, had a theory as to why she is so conflicted about the destination.

“I’ve never been to Venice,” she said. “Everybody says it is terrible, but secretly, it has always been my dream to go there - in the back of my head I think it is going to be wonderfully romantic.”

Whether Ms McCoole will go to Venice, if Ms MacDonald will make a return visit to Burma or I will ever go hiking in Tanzania, I have no idea.

But the concept of our brains reacting to stimuli in a way that our conscious minds are unaware of was an interesting one to explore.