A mental break from the urban roil

When I first read the first paragraphs of this, I thought: hmm, this doesn’t bode well for the urban, cosmopolitan New Jerusalem described in Revelation 22. But going further, I recalled: “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” So that, research suggests, should help even things out.

And yet, city life isn’t easy. The same London cafes that stimulated Ben Franklin also helped spread cholera; Picasso eventually bought an estate in quiet Provence. While the modern city might be a haven for playwrights, poets, and physicists, it’s also a deeply unnatural and overwhelming place.

Now scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. 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.”

One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the urban roil.


from “How the city hurts your brain,” by Jonah Lerner, The Boston Globe, 2 January 2009 :: via Crooked Timber

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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