January 4, 2009

Is living in the city bad for your brain?

Some science-y crap:
Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it's long been recognized that city life is exhausting -- that's why Picasso left Paris -- this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

"The mind is a limited machine,"says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. "And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations."...

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....

But the density of city life doesn't just make it harder to focus: It also interferes with our self-control. In that stroll down Newbury, the brain is also assaulted with temptations -- caramel lattes, iPods, discounted cashmere sweaters, and high-heeled shoes. Resisting these temptations requires us to flex the prefrontal cortex, a nub of brain just behind the eyes. Unfortunately, this is the same brain area that's responsible for directed attention, which means that it's already been depleted from walking around the city.
But what is life for, if not to walk around a complicated city, receiving and responding to the stimulation? Do you have something better to do? If you leave the city, you won't be living in a beautiful mansion, with a beautiful garden and a sun-filled studio where you're painting Picassos. Will you?

Is the brain in the city impaired or is it just used? Now, it's true, our brains evolved in a non-urban environment. But does that mean these brains of ours are hurt whenever we use them for things they didn't evolve by doing? You'd have to also say that our brains are hurt by reading, by climate-controlled interiors, by the knowledge of the news of what's happening in other countries, by YouTube....

Let it be a good city!


Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

My nearest neighbour is a mile away. That does not make me smarter. On the one hand, therefore, the premise is a crock. Living in the city may make you dependent and thereby affect your political voting patterns, but it doesn't make you stupid.

OTOH, what may be involved is the normal human tendency to screen out excessive stimulus. This even happens at a primitive level with odours and what-not.

I am usually aware of any vehicle within about a mile and a half of my farm, yet I doubt anyone in a city would know or care about some truck a mile away. Probably not even a block away.

The urban world is highly intensive in its focus. Out here in the boonies our focus is much more extensive. Not better, but definitely different.

We have thousands of people a year coming out to our greenhouse business, and when we try to get some sense of the sun orientation of their houses no more than 10% of suburbanites have any sense at all of which way their house faces, and then only generally, as in "Sort of south ... I think..."

Every single one of our rural customers, however, knows in detail, as in "Oh, a bit east of southeast, and our land slopes maybe a foot in ten towards the sun."

TitusReachForTheStars said...

I do believe living in a large city ages you more than someone who lives in a small city. Just my view. Thank God we have the best in skin care products, facials, etc.

City life can actually be draining. When I first moved out of Wisconsin I was planning on moving home for 2-3 years after my move (please no sarcastic comment palladian). Everything was a hastle. Going to the bank (which we don't have to do anymore); sitting in traffic, driving, going to a Walgreens, Macy's, a walk, finding a place for your dogs to take a dump, finding a parking spot, finding a HONEST mechanic, good doctor, dentist, basically anything. Everything was such a chore and usually incredibly inconvenient. And people in the city generally don't give you an inch...well unless it is late at night and you are looking for 8 inches-than the city can be very friendly and accomodating.

Everything is easier in a smaller town in terms of being able to get things done. The lines aren't as long and people are much more helpful and friendly. Sometimes scarey friendly.

It becomes stressful and makes you bitchy (again please Palladian).

Walk down the street and look at peoples faces in a big city. They are full of stress. God Bless Kiehls.

I have found that everything tends to be easier in a small town. I have lived both in a small town and large city. But I wouldn't trade the amenities of the city for anything and I have learned to live with the wait. It doesn't phase me at all anymore. When I first moved to a large city it did but now I seem immune to it.

Lastly, and most importantly, I would not be afforded the variety of hog in a small city that the large city offers. Thank God for small victories.

Ann Althouse said...

Yeah, when I was living in NYC last year, I'd come back to Madison once a month, and every time, I had this intense appreciation for this place. I would drink it in. What was it that I was drinking in? I can't even notice it now, but I can remember how I felt when I came back from NY. It's similar to the way you don't stop and think how great it is to be sober or to not be sick. You have to remember the other condition for it to seem like anything at all. But it's very real.

"Lastly, and most importantly, I would not be afforded the variety of hog in a small city that the large city offers. Thank God for small victories."

Ha ha. It's also hard to appreciate not having sex.

TitusReachForTheStars said...

I am glad that I have experienced both small town and large city living though.

When I moved out east I was always down because I came from a small town and was exposed to all these people that came from these fabulous cosmopolitan cities. Most of them came from money too and that bummed me out. Most never worked during school while I worked all through college. I don't think that way anymore.

I have embraced my small town roots and am proud of them. Sure, I have friends that still kid me about them but I don't give a shit.

Methadras said...

More junk science. Another article to be vilified if not ignored.

TitusReachForTheStars said...

There are many cool small towns too. I read about them daily wondering what life would be like living in them.

I can't see myself 70 years old living in a large city but I would like to live in a cool small city.

Wisconsin has quite a few cool small cities. I like Baraboo and Mount Horeb.

Massachusetts has quite a few cool small cities too. Northampton is awesome and they have a Kiehls store.

The small city that I live in would need to have a decent cultural life, be open to the gays, have decent restaurants, a university, good shopping and a close proximity to a larger city.

Later in life I could see myself getting out of corporate America and moving to a small city and working in HR at a university somewhere.

TitusReachForTheStars said...

I would like to do a small city tour through America.

Places I would like to go to are:

Asheville, NC
Belfast, Maine
Livingston, Montana
Jamestown, VA
Traverse City, Michigan
Sault Saint Marie

And many others.

I have liked many of the small towns in Vermont:

White River Junction

Not only are the beautiful but they are cool too.

TitusReachForTheStars said...

Getting back to the question, is the city bad for your brain?


Palladian said...

"I have liked many of the small towns in Vermont:

White River Junction

All places ruined by an influx of dumb urban liberals trying to become smarter by escaping their urban homes.

It doesn't seem to have worked. Indeed, the isolation of small towns further deprives the already insular and stupid urban liberal of any connection with reality, thereby allowing even greater stupidity to fester and grow, like mold between the walls of a Habitat For Humanity house.

Palladian said...

"Getting back to the question, is the city bad for your brain?"

Not my brain, though, as your example shows, your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

Is the brain in the city impaired or is it just used?

The word I'd pick is exercised.

dick said...

I think the answer is yes. Living in the city makes you dependent on others to the detriment of your gaining the skill for yourself. I would think that you should only depend on others for those things you cannot or will not do. That may be easier to do in the city but it is not to the betterment of the mind.

I also think that if you look at where things are invented, the answer would be more than likely not in the city. The city may develop what the small town does and extend it to the max but the initial development is probably something that the small town people invented. The same goes for the food and the other things as well. The city takes most of what it does and twists it. Look at NYC when it became fashionable to eat American food. The things that were done to a poor meatloaf in the name of fashion were outrageous.

Unknown said...

What's funny about the studio version of that Stevie Wonder tune is that the southern boy hadn't stepped off the bus in the city for more than a minute before he got tossed in the slammer. DIdn't even have a chance to "live in the city."

KLDAVIS said...

Even amongst large cities, I think the effect would have to be varied. I was speaking with an artist friend in Paris a few weeks ago, and he mentioned that the femininity and ease of Paris made it difficult to create art, that he had to travel to grittier, dirtier, more masculine cities in order to be inspired, that Paris left him in a dreamlike state where it was difficult to create.

So, "city life is exhausting -- that's why Picasso left Paris" may be true, but perhaps not in the way the author intended it.

ricpic said...

"I sing the city electric,"
Said the young man, heart all afire;
"I lament the city hectic,"
Said the old man, spent of desire.

Unknown said...

I wonder if any of these hippies grew up in the city.

Bender R said...

But, but, how can this be?

Those who know better than any of us, those elites who are all-wise, keep telling us that the way to paradise is "Smart Growth" -- creating "urban villages" where everyone lives in hyper-density areas, is "conveniently" able to walk everywhere and enjoy the "covenience" of public transportation, and can enjoy the beautiful view of concrete and buildings everywhere, instead of having to look at the hell that is open sky, grass, and trees. Surely, such a utopia would make us all smarter and happier, not dumber and more miserable.

I mean, who wouldn't want to live in the world of Soylent Green?

somefeller said...

Bullshit study. Stadtluft macht frei.

Anonymous said...

Articles like this are irritating because they talk about the studies in the most superficial way, so that you can't really evaluate the information very well. Personally, I think living in a city is so exhausting that you just don't want to pay attention to more than you have to, so maybe it's more filtering out noxious stimuli than being 'stupid', or 'bad'. See how I use the quotations?

I suppose it depends on the city,too . It's been years since I've done a 'Boston!' rant online, perhaps because I've moved and filtered out that particularly noxious stimulus.

Newbury street, that busy street with the sort of high-end on one side, Louis Boston in the middle, and the students and ice-cream place on the other end! Oh, wait, what was I going to say? I have become stupider.

When you are young you yearn for the city, and then you get to the city, get older, and realize the city makes you cranky and you dream of a 'cool small city' as titus put it. Yearning seems to be an essential human quality....

Dust Bunny Queen said...

I wonder if any of these hippies grew up in the city.

I would be willing to bet that 100% of them did. What retards.

Having lived in a big city for several years (San Francisco) and now in a small town, I can attest that, for me at least, the small town is much more relaxing. Less stress for a lot of reasons mostly to do with the familiarity of people and places.

Sure you can get used to living in a big city and for some people it is a compatible lifestyle. But for most people, we are genetically geared to be on the watch for danger, movement and wary of the stranger. While you might say you like the excitement and fast pace, your body internally is trying to cope with the stress.

David said...

Herd mentality is what adversely affects the brain. Small towns, despite the stereotype of smallmindedness, are less likely to produce herd mentality. Smaller herd, less yipping cowboys trying to herd them.

Add Beaufort, S.C. to your visit list for small towns. And Sturgeon Bay, WI.

MarkW said...

More junk science. Another article to be vilified if not ignored.

No it's not. This study is consistent with many others that show the capacity for self-control is a limited resource. The same resource used in concentrating on difficult mental tasks is used in inhibiting and ignoring distractions and resisting temptations. Force people to spend time resisting temptation (tasty cookies sitting withing arm's reach, for example) and they'll perform worse on task requiring concentration. And the reverse is true as well.

Of course, it's possible to create quiet, green places within cities, and people will pay large premiums to live in those places (high rise overlooking Central Park, anyone?) It also may be doable to make urban design changes to reduce the cognitive load for ordinary city residents. Why dismiss that out of hand?

amba said...

What living in NYC impaired was my hearing. My brain was exceedingly nimble. But the city was so noisy that I'd unconsciously shut down my hearing, tune it all out. Then after being someplace like Montana, come back and be hammered by the noise and realize -- for a day or two -- how much of it I had been successfully and chronically protecting myself from.

Generally speaking, cities can be hard on the senses -- not sight so much but maybe smell and touch as well as hearing. They make different demands on the brain, not greater or lesser.

Moose said...

You find people wearing odd clothing and talking to themselves in the country, but they're called farmers.

City life if great if: 1) you're rich, 2) you're single, 3) you have no kids. Or any combination thereof.

After I lived in Chicago for a decade, I was able to step over people lying in their own waste on the street with nary a thought.

Now, is that healthy behavior? On part of either party?

Palladian said...

"After I lived in Chicago for a decade, I was able to step over people lying in their own waste on the street with nary a thought."

I think that's a perfect metaphor for life in general, don't you think?

blake said...

You know, with modern electronics, we can bring most of the brain-damaging effects of the city to the country.

Anonymous said...

Human beings evolved in quiet places. Most can't cope with a lot of noise, which is why most parents tell their kids to shut up in the back seat when they're struggling to find the right turnoff on the freeway. It's also the reason Michael Jordan continually trash talks to his opponent when he's dribbling down a basketball court. Walking down a noisy street is like struggling through thick underbrush. It psychologically wears you down.

Moose said...

Palladin - as metaphors go, I could do without that one.

Which is why we moved to the western side of Michigan. Lots of rather naive very religious folk who still don't know you're not supposed to be nice to each other....

Anonymous said...


What part of western Michigan?

My wife is from Grand Rapids and her mom's family is in Grand Haven.

We visit frequently, especially summers in Grand Haven.

traditionalguy said...

Does any study compare Big City life 20 years ago to current experience? The noise and the business of life has always been there but the 5,000,000 + cellular and other digital radio sources have done the famous hockey stick graph trick straight up in the last 20 years. I always "feel" a wave of tension that hits me as I near Atlanta from a week off in a Smokey Mtn valley.

David said...

Tradguy--That's not the city's fault. The city can't help it if you don't like your life.

Simon said...

Well, the story tends to confirm my prejudices and instincts about the city, so I suppose that the sensible response on my part is skepticism.

traditionalguy said...

I love the city -born and bred in the city- and will live here no matter what changes, but acknowledging a new development is OK to do.

Fatmouse said...

Does city life effect one's intelligence? Dunno. But it sure as hell effects one's ego.

Urbanites, especially those from NYC, seem compelled to immediately and vociferously defend their habitat against the slightest challenge, whereas those of us in the wastelands react to the latest "life in the suburbs is so phony and, like, totally plastic" screed by sighing and getting on with our lives.

knox said...

All places ruined by an influx of dumb urban liberals trying to become smarter by escaping their urban homes.

LOL. I will be moving to a small town, hopefully in the next few months. As soon as we can sell our house, basically. I really, really, really hope that the above doesn't happen. I like it the way it is and I'd be pretty annoyed if like, organic smoothie stores started popping up.

heywoot said...

I won't be painting Picassos because I have a different name.