Is living in a city damaging your brain?

August 28, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More
Unidentified aerial view, Richmond- photo from Library of Congress, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Unidentified aerial view, Richmond- photo from Library of Congress, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

If we are to believe the results of a new study from Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, the answer is “yes”.   These finding come at an interesting crossroads– for the first time ever, more humans live in cities than in rural settings.  The findings argue that the brain becomes confused and tired as it is forced to respond to the massive amounts of stimulii that are present in cities.  The brain is constantly searching its surroundings, trying to anticipate threats.   Not only does one have to negotiate traffic and constantly re-assess the changing visual landscape, but this is often done while carrying on a conversation or mentally planning a route through the city.  Quoting from

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.

Interestingly, the researchers found that just showing people a picture of an urban environment was enough to cause substantial impairment to the test subject’s levels of attention and working memory.  Similarly, a different study quoted in the article shows that even very small amounts of exposure to nature were enough to confer significant improvement on subjects’ cognitive abilities and sense of well-being.

Additionally, the research indicates that living in cities may also have a harmful effect on one’s level of self-control. Consider all the temptations that may assault a person walking down a city street: various food and drink options, a variety of clothing alternatives, and perhaps some snazzy electronic gadgets on sale at 1/2 price.

Related research has demonstrated that increased “cognitive load” — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

But, as with so many things in life, the harm from living in a city is not so black-and-white.  The density of urban populations also forces people to interact in unpredictable, and often beneficial ways.

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.

So, should we continue to innovate at all costs?  Innovation in financial products is argued to be either one of the causes of the financial crisis or the way to promote desirable competition, depending on who you ask.  The article seems to suggest that the benefits of urbanization are realized at the societal level, while many of the costs are born by the individuals.  This is the opposite of the results we’ve seen from recent financial innovations (Collateralized Debt Obligations, Credit-default swaps, etc..), where the benefits accrued to a few people who got incredibly rich, but the costs were ultimately born by the taxpayers.  At what price does innovation come, and when do we start to question whether more innovation is truly beneficial?


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Category: American Culture, Economy, Health, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jeff B says:

    This article looks at the possible harm of living in a city. Another side to this argument is the vacuum being created in the rural areas. As fewer jobs are available and farming is less viable for small operators, the rural communities are drying up across the Midwest. This causes some unwanted byproducts in my opinion.

    1. Corporate farms are increasing. As with most corporations, the focus is not necessarily on quality, but on driving up profits and reducing the bottom line. This is dangerous when talking about some of our food supply. Food is mass-produced, having fewer nutrients now than ever before in history. More and more farmland is being used to provide feed to giant cattle feedlots that supply fast food companies. Most of us are aware of the quality of fast food and the harm it can do to its customers.

    2. Mega farms look at increasing efficiencies by using more herbicides, pesticides, and genetically-altered crops. The water tables, streams, and rivers are affected by the runoff from the chemicals. Nitrate levels are dangerously high in rural community water supplies.

    3. As more land becomes centrally-owned, taxes and legislature can be manipulated by the owners (similar to lobbying in Washington). Rural public schools derive most of their income from land taxes. If corporations are allowed large tax cuts, the schools will continue to consolidate and eventually disappear. This has already happened several times in the communities where I grew up.

    4. Corporate farms consume more fossil fuels in the production of crops than smaller farms. Fossil fuels also go into the fertilizers, so the more used, the more energy needed, increasing our dependence on foreign fuel sources.

    So in conclusion, the increasing urban populations and the decreasing rurals ones have a significant impact on our nation's health, fuel consumption, and pollution levels. Just another side to think about when considering the possible dangers of urban life…..

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Jeff B: You raised some excellent points in your comment. With regard to the shrinking number of responsible family farms, and their replacement by relatively small numbers of chemically drenched unsustainable corporate-owned mega-farms, see the recent Time Magazine article entitled "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food." Our country faces some massive challenges when it comes to feeding ourselves safe food over the coming decades.,8599,19

  3. Jeff B says:

    Thanks Brynn, that's a good article. Everyone needs to realize what the current food production system is doing to the environment and our health. The national discussion over health care is a side-effect of bad nutrition. More and more individuals are obese, diabetic, and malnourished because of the national diet. Nutrition and prevention are very important over the long run.

    When it comes to food, buy fresh and buy local. Here's a great website for local Nebraska farms promoting that very idea.

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