Brain Science and Mental Barrier-Free

Ai Koizumi

Fitting environments to brains to achieve a mental-barrier-free society

Today, "changing oneself" is a common societal pressure for individuals who struggle to sit still in a classroom or are too anxious to function effectively in a workplace. For instance, when someone doesn't fit well in the school or workplace, they may be advised by their community members to seek some interventions or medications to help them adapt to their environment by altering their intrinsic neural functions.

While the approach of "adapting individuals to the environment" is valuable, I am also investigating an alternative approach, which involves "adapting environments to individuals." Based on neuroscience, I am developing methods that allow environments to align with an individual's natural brain functions, aiming to dissolve mental barriers between humans and the environment.

When we hear the term "barrier-free," many may immediately associate it with assistive technologies for physical disabilities. For instance, when we look around our city, we can see features such as audible signals for visually impaired individuals and ramps for those with mobility challenges.

But how could we make the environment mentally barrier-free to better accommodate those with complex cognitive and mental difficulties, such as "restlessness" and "excessive anxiety"? Unfortunately, there is still limited understanding of how to make environments more accessible for neurodiverse populations. Currently, our team is developing a unique approach to enhance mental accessibility by addressing both the "soft" and "hard" aspects of societal environments.

As an example of our approach to the "soft" aspects of the environment, we have collaborated with a subsidiary of the Sony Group, Sony Kibo-Hikari1, on an experimental employment initiative for individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Considering that some individuals with autism face challenges in verbal communication, we developed simulated tasks that allowed them to showcase their skills and abilities through various means of communication. We introduced an assessment framework that evaluated their suitability based on their approach to these tasks, leading to successful employment.

As an example addressing the "hard" aspects of the environment, we are investigating methods to create mental barrier-free offices that are accommodating to individuals with sensory sensitivities and anxiety. Currently, we are developing a section of the Sony Computer Science Laboratories as a model room to experiment with the implementation of such office designs. Additionally, we are advancing fundamental neuroscientific understanding of the environmental effects on cognitive and mental functions using experimental tools such as electroencephalogram (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and virtual reality (VR).

Although some neurally originated traits, such as hyperactivity, are typically considered maladaptive in modern society, they may have played vital roles in ensuring survival through the 7 million years of human history. When we reflect on human history, which was predominantly spent in natural environments with inherent dangers, hyperactivity and hypersensitivity to subtle environmental cues could have been rather adaptive.

Some may argue that referencing ancient human history is no longer relevant to modern society because time has changed. Yet, the modern society we live in is merely transient and by no means a final form of human habitat. Societal environments will continue to evolve, driven not only by human-made changes but also by unforeseen challenges, including disasters.

For instance, our team has conducted preliminary research suggesting that traits considered maladaptive in modern society might serve as deterrents in the face of new threats such as COVID-192. Moreover, diagnostic criteria for mental disorders are updated every decade or so, and the distinction between adaptive and maladaptive can shift in response to societal trends3. When we exclude a place for individuals who may not be the fittest in this moment, and neglect their participation in societal initiatives for renewal, our communities can become vulnerable to unforeseen environmental challenges in the future.

In the Japanese novel "The Witch of the West Is Dead"4, the grandmother talks to her grandchild who is struggling with school refusal, "Just because a polar bear chooses to live in the Arctic rather than Hawaii, who can blame the polar bear?"

During the process of modernization, classrooms and offices underwent rapid massification, transforming into more standardized and uniform environments. As a result, it became the norm to adapt to these standardized school and office settings, and those who couldn't easily adapt could struggle to find their place in society.

Throughout history, there are records of "geniuses'' like Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein facing issues in conventional school systems and even being pushed towards expulsion5,6. Today, there is a stigma attached to those who cannot attend school or work, labeling them as minorities. Consequently, there may be fewer places left in the current society where these budding geniuses can flourish and showcase their talents.

With the standardization of school and office environments, it is possible that many individuals, except for a portion of individuals with typical and average brain functions, may secretly struggle in a mismatched situation, akin to a polar bear trying to live in Hawaii. Instead of pressuring these "polar bears" (symbolizing individuals facing difficulties) who are striving in their way within "Hawaii" (symbolizing the mainstream societal environment) to change themselves to fit, we earnestly hope to envision a societal environment where people can learn and work comfortably as they are.

Nowadays, the concept of neurodiversity has gained significant traction. We aim to leverage the growing societal awareness of the importance of embracing such diversity as a tailwind, propelling us toward the next phase of action-building the knowledge and putting it into practice.


  1.  Sony Kibou-Hikari.
  2.  Kusztor, A., Alemany-González, M., Tsuchiya, N., & Koizumi, A. (2022). Stage 1 Registered Report: Do psychological diversities contribute to preventing the spread of coronavirus? Testing a neurodiversity hypothesis amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. F1000Research, 11(432), 432.
  3.  Cockerham, W. C. (2020). The 11th edition of Sociology of Mental Disorders. London: Routledge.
  4.  Nashiki, Kaho. (2010). The Witch of the West is Dead. New Chou Bunko.
  5.  West, T. G. (Author) & Kusuhon Katsuo (Translator). (1994). Geniuses Hated School. Koudansha.
  6.  Grandin, Temple (Author) & Nakao Yukari (Translator). (2023). The Brain of Visual Thinkers: The World of Those Who Think in "Pictures." NHK Publishing.