The Urban Brain

I had a longish article in the Boston Globe Ideas section yesterday exploring some recent research on how living in a city affects the brain:

The city has always been an engine of intellectual life, from the 18th-century coffeehouses of London, where citizens gathered to discuss chemistry and radical politics, to the Left Bank bars of modern Paris, where Pablo Picasso held forth on modern art. Without the metropolis, we might not have had the great art of Shakespeare or James Joyce; even Einstein was inspired by commuter trains.

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.

A historically minded-skeptic might note that there's nothing new, or even particularly modern, about such anxieties. Charles Rosenberg, a historian of science at Harvard University, has done some marvelous work documenting our tendency to "pathologize progress." He has shown that the fast-pace of "contemporary" life has always been seen as harmful to the fragile human brain. The influential 19th century neurologist George Beard, for instance, blamed the telegraph and the steam engine for an epidemic of what he termed "nervous weakness".

So I'm certainly not advocating that people get up and move to the suburbs. I think the real lesson of this research is that we should pay more attention to our urban parks. Olmsted was right.

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You forgot to mention that Pol Pot, in Paris' Left bank cafes, mulled on how to get rid of urban brains in Cambodia.

By Pierre Roussin (not verified) on 05 Jan 2009 #permalink

A very interesting theme.

Architectural planning, male/female oriented designs of space layouts (i believe we can foster and tap gender differences in the brain depending on how the city is designed), lack of green zones etc... have deleterious (or beneficial) effects on our brain.

Interesting timing on this post. I am a writer just about to head out of town (I live in the SF Bay Area) to a friend's remote cabin in order to finish work on a novel. While I love living in proximity to the city, it does take a toll on my ability to concentrate - just too many things demanding attention or interfering with my ability to concentrate on the creative work. While many artists thrive in the urban environment, I think you would find that many do the bulk of their creative (creation) work away from that environment - hence the love artists have for colonies like McDowell and Yaddo - and save execution and revision for their urban studios.

By Diane Glazman (not verified) on 05 Jan 2009 #permalink

Yeah, I dunno. This sort of stuff always strikes me as assuming something is true, then scraping together any little thing to support your position instead of actually testing it. Bear in mind I haven't read the article, checked citations, or anything, so that's just an off the cuff response, loaded with my own bias.

Massachusetts Horticultural Society has planted and maintains five acres of interesting gardens on The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, in Downtown Boston. As the oldest horticultural society in the country, Mass Hort values the importance of greenspace and biodiversity. On these five acres, Mass Hort has planted twenty-one specimen trees which will grow seventy feet with wide shade canopies; hundreds of shrubs; and 3500 perennials and annuals in a wide array of color, texture, and form. Your article supports the daily comments of residents, workers and visitors who share their appreciation of Nature in the urban setting. Thank you for spreading the word...

By Diane Valle (not verified) on 05 Jan 2009 #permalink

I read your article in the Globe on Sunday and totally resonated with the idea. While reading I couldn't help but think back to one of my undergraduate philosophy seminars when we read some writings of Edith Stein on "paying attention" and how our sensory experiences play a role in persuading the development of our value judgments. I will often go sit in the garden at the Longfellow House here in Cambridge just to hear the birds chirp in the garden and feel somewhat less unhindered space and am definitely making it a priority - especially after being reminded by your article of the mental benefits. I really enjoyed your last book and am looking forward to the next.

This reminds me of learning about the Barbizon School of French painting ( They were right before the Impressionists, who are credited with creating an emphasis on nature painting, but Barbizon was first to it in France. The painters created these huge landscapes in which, even if the subject was a Biblical story or Greek myth, the figures were rendered very small on the canvas. The emphasis was on nature. In the lecture I heard on the School, it was argued that the paintings became popular because the newly formed bourgeoisie wanted to look at nature landscapes in paintings as a form of relaxation after a hard day of life and work in the city. I suppose their brains needed it, although they had no consciousness of it. I wonder if looking at representations of nature has a similar positive effect on the brain as the actual outdoors?

Access to daylight and views of nature are considered important in the design of green buildings. The LEED green building rating system gives points for these things - one point if 75% of occupants have access to daylight and views, and two points if 90% of occupants do.

Studies by the California Energy Commission (and others) have found that in workplaces with direct lines of sight to windows, productivity increases (in the range of 15% increase), memory retention improves, and absenteeism goes down 5% to 10%.

It would be interesting to learn how much of this effect is a result of daylight and how much is a function of views. Probably both are important, but another study by CEC documented an increase in sales in retail spaces with a significant amount of daylighting.

Still other studies show improved test scores for students in daylit classrooms.

As a transportation planner, I wonder if anyone has looked applied this sort of analysis to the impact on our brains of various modes of commuting. Driving alone could certainly overload the brain but so could riding a bike, especially in heavy traffic. It's also been noted that ferry commuting is very attractive because it's so relaxing but maybe it's more pleasant because it's closer to nature. Walking to work has the lowest environmental impact but, based on the studies cited, it's not very good for one's mental health. If anyone knows of any research in this area, I'd like to hear about it.

I really enjoyed your article and the comments people posted. Many of the comments requested further information on this subject and Jess person posed the question "I wonder if looking at representations of nature has a similar positive effect on the brain as the actual outdoors?"

According to an article I read a couple days ago depictions of nature do have an effect that is similar to seeing nature.
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