It was very important to me that I go to college in a city. The people! The opportunities! The public transportation! Surely you must develop certain skills navigating through streets full of academics and artists and doctors, all with very cool places to go and things to think, right?
Some research suggests that city life is less exciting and stimulating and more… draining us of mental resources. Walking down that busy street dodging people on cell phones, hopping over that crumbling bit of sidewalk, staying aware of the honking, aggressive city drivers, all while trying to spot a restaurant without an hour and a half wait on a Friday night. Your mind is forced to allocate an extreme amount of processing power to execute such controlled navigation. We are simply asking too much of ourselves to maintain awareness of such noxious, disagreeable stimuli and to still function at a normal level.
Marc Berman, psychologist at the University of Michigan, recently published a study measuring cognitive deficits after a short urban walk. Berman sent University of Michigan undergraduates on walks either through an arboretum or downtown Ann Arbor. After the excursion and several psychological tests, those students who walked through the urban environment scored significantly lower on test of attention and working memory. The study goes on to claim that even looking at a photograph of a city leads to significant impairments when compared to the effects of looking at a photograph of nature.
Researchers give a long list of symptoms exacerbated by city life: Reduced attention, reduced ability to handle major life stresses, reduced self-control, reduced memory, reduced emotional control, and increased aggression. At the same time, the research supporting nature’s calming, restorative qualities are numerous: hospital patients recover more quickly when there are trees visible from through their windows, women focus better when their apartment overlooks greenery, children with attention deficit disorder show fewer symptoms in nature.
And yet, research from the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complicated algorithms only to find 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.”
Minimize concentration of disagreeable stimuli. Maximize concentration of social interaction. But how?
“It’s not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan,” says Berman. “They needed to put a park there.’” Urban landscape architects look for ways to integrate nature into your urban playgrounds. In fact, the more biodiversity, the better. Richard Fuller at the University of Queensland found that subjects scored higher on psychological well-being tests when parks had a larger variety of trees.
A walk through the park may be more effective than your third Red Bull.
How the city hurts your brain – The Boston Globe