Monday, January 12, 2009

How the City Hurts Your Brain (and Nature Helps)

Jonah Lehrer wrote this article for the Boston Globe about how the city and nature affect human minds. I really liked this article because it helped me make sense of why I both adore living in the city and at the same time desire daily exposure to nature. Here are some excerpts:

For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of inhabiting wide-open spaces, we're crowded into concrete jungles, surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent years, it's become clear that such unnatural surroundings have important implications for our mental and physical health, and can powerfully alter how we think.


Consider everything your brain has to keep track of as you walk down a busy thoroughfare like Newbury Street. There are the crowded sidewalks full of distracted pedestrians who have to be avoided; the hazardous crosswalks that require the brain to monitor the flow of traffic. (The brain is a wary machine, always looking out for potential threats.) There's the confusing urban grid, which forces people to think continually about where they're going and how to get there.

The reason such seemingly trivial mental tasks leave us depleted is that they exploit one of the crucial weak spots of the brain. A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren't distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception -- we are telling the mind what to pay attention to -- takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

Natural settings, in contrast, don't require the same amount of cognitive effort... Natural settings are full of objects that automatically capture our attention, yet without triggering a negative emotional response -- unlike, say, a backfiring car. The mental machinery that directs attention can relax deeply, replenishing itself.


"We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species," Fuller says. "But we're also affected by it. That's why it's so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief."

When a park is properly designed, it can improve the function of the brain within minutes. As the Berman study demonstrates, just looking at a natural scene can lead to higher scores on tests of attention and memory. While people have searched high and low for ways to improve cognitive performance, from doping themselves with Red Bull to redesigning the layout of offices, it appears that few of these treatments are as effective as simply taking a walk in a natural place.

Given the myriad mental problems that are exacerbated by city life, from an inability to pay attention to a lack of self-control, the question remains: Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory -- the crowded streets, the crushing density of people -- also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the "concentration of social interactions" that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs, just as the density of Cambridge -- one of the densest cities in America -- contributes to its success as a creative center. One corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. (Source)
What do you think of this? I personally do find the city extremely stimulating in a myriad of ways, and always loved Kansas City because of the large forests and fields that exist pocketed throughout the area. I love that the front yard of where I live is a garden that attracts all sorts of wildlife and that through most of my windows most of the year I see beautiful trees and nothing else.

Growing up I spent most of my time outside and the powerfully relaxing nature of nature (ha ha) was very impressive to me, seeing as I was so freaking high strung. Sometimes I wish I didn't live in the city so I could get more nature, but I would miss the mental stimulation of others way to much to ever go live someplace where I couldn't walk to get what I needed. I would go absolutely crazy being that alone. I don't even like being by myself in the apartment for long periods of time. I get crazy cranky.

So I agree with Lehrer that the trick is finding a balance between being with people and being with nature, at least that's what I seem to need to be perfectly happy.

Related posts:
For the Birds
Giving Nature a Helping Hand
Being Zen on the Mountain

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Donna said...

I love my wide-open spaces, but what I miss about the city (not that I'd trade, mind you) is convenience: accessibility to things like bus transportation, libraries, concerts and restaurants. And even grocery stores. We have to drive at least eight miles to a grocery store, and fifteen miles to the nearest (tiny) Walmart.

Joe Pontillo said...

I am a city lover through-and-through. Sometimes it can be too much. But as long as I can find the balance of enough private time, I'm happy. Last year I was able to move from a busy, noisy, 6-lane street to a quiet community... and I still get all the benefits of being in the middle of a city. Loving it.