This is Your Brain on Cities

The Boston Globe looks at how cities hurt your brain. I would not be entirely surprised to discover that the Internet enervates the brain in very much the same ways, which may explain why I’ve taken to yanking out the DSL line in the mornings until I’ve written a sufficient amount of pay copy for the day.

25 Comments on “This is Your Brain on Cities”

  1. John, jsut how do you find all these links? Are there particular sites that help you find interesting tidbits, are you inundated with constant cool links that you actually take the time to go through, or do jsut spend endless hours with the DSL surfing and surfing and surfing and ….

  2. Are the Zombies living in the cities now?

    No, I didn’t read the linked article. For some reason I got a dangerous spy ware pop up window when I went there.

    Probably so I wouldn’t find out about the Zombies infesting the cities and run away…

    8D Jeff S.

  3. Jeff S.:

    It’s to a Boston Globe article, so if you’re getting a spyware pop-up window, you might already be infected. Alternately, disable pop-ups on your browser.

  4. You get the same thing from office cube farms—too many stimuli in the form of other people’s conversations, phones ringing, and random noises, all usually reflected rather than muted by bare walls and thin carpet. The cube farm is making the American worker stupid.

  5. Jim G: not to mention the stress-effect of having to be polite to customers who are so stupid and/or rude that being polite is really the last thing you feel like doing. I know it stressed me out.

  6. I guess the effects described are ‘negative’, but the writer fails to take into account that for some people, living in a city can be a lot of fun, or at least stimulating. I think it also needs to be said that people go out of their way to get those same negative side effects with alcohol and drugs, so maybe there’s something more complex going on there.

    What about the effects of being in a huge crowd, surrounded by people at all times? I’d say that once people adapt to it, the effects are mixed.

  7. That sort of thing is why I’m much happier since I moved from NYC down here to Virginia. Charlottesville isn’t all that rural, and getting around is a bit annoying for a non-driver, but there’s a heckuvalot more green around me, not to mention the local river with its hiking trails.

  8. Well, it’s hard for me to say, because I haven’t seen the research in question, but I have to wonder if everybody reacts the same way. Or if he’s discovered a group of people for whom cities drain mentally. I find them stimulating.

    (RE: Somebody’s comment about cubicle farms–I’ll take the cube personally because I’ve worked in an open office before, and I can NOT settle down for work. I have to have headphones on and be able to retreat to a sort of closed off space before I can concentrate. )

    On the other hand, my favourite writing workshop takes place on the Toronto Islands which combines close access to the city with a removed park surrounded by trees, and I do indeed write very well for the week I spend there.

  9. re: unplugging your dsl

    Sometimes I think email was the most evil invention ever inflicted on the human race (now superseded by twitter I suppose). At other times, not so much…



  10. Thanks John,

    It was a “disable pop ups” thing. Then again, my virus protection package sometimes gets upset at CNN and the Seattle Times pages. I think it’s jealous…

    Having now read the article, I can see where they’re coming from, but I also was reminded of a post you made last year about how city folk, when they escape to the countryside, freak out cause of either the quietness or the unusual night sounds. Oh yes, and smelly country smells that they try to have outlawed.

    Owls can be scarier than police cars if you’re used to the sirens.

  11. Feeling stimulated by city life doesn’t necessarily mean that your brain is working efficiently. This research seems to indicate that you think more clearly when you’re not surrounded by so much stimuli or in more natural settings. I see nothing surprising about that.

    What I really found interesting was the conclusion that while city life might have some negative effects on brain activity it also is more likely to spark innovation. Which makes sense as there’s more information for your brain to play with and create ideas out of.

  12. But it was not a proper DOUBLE BLIND EXPERIMENT.

    First, the experimental team chooses the people in a correctly randomized method, with respect to all demographic and biomedical variables in their model.

    The team has a unique ID number automatically assigned to each subject person, and the team itself cannot see the Person-ID mapping.

    Then half of the subjects are transported to Cities, and half to Rural venues.

    The subjects are misled as to whether they are in a city or a rural venue. This is done by eldritch methods too CREEPY to be explained here.

    Then, after the experimental period, the surviving subjects are rounded up and shoved into brain scanners, by a data-gathering experimental team, who have a unique ID number automatically assigned to each subject person’s scan data, and the team itself cannot see the Person’sData-ID mapping.

    Then all data is analyzed by the original experimental team, who don’t know which subject is which, which was in a city, or much of anything.

    The analyzed data is graphed in color slides which are shown at conferences too quickly for competing teams to write down exactly what they saw. This builds useful “buzz.”

    After the paper has undergone peer review, and published in Nature, Science, or the UrbSci journal that I edit, NYCTOS (New York City: The Other Side), the archived data is available for independent analysis if any of the experimenters are accused of scientific fraud, or sued by outraged family members, or denied tenure.

    They all write new Grant Proposals, which unfortunately are received by the granting agencies just as the world slides into the worst Global Depression in a century.

    And that, boys ands girls, is how Science, she is done.

  13. I hated cities, until I lived in one. Now I rather like them! But I’ve always had an overactive mind, reading tons of books to keep myself from going crazy while I lived in subrural PA, and reading less and just soaking it in now.

  14. Central Park and Walden Pond are “wilderness”. Wow. I think the writer needs to go to some actual wilderness, possibly with large numbers of crocodiles, and see how stimulated and alert he is then!

  15. I don’t understand why people would feel more relaxed in natural settings than in cities. Nature is full of things that want to kill and eat us, and not necessarily in that order.

  16. I enjoy some of both- I can be in the city or my busy job, or at a Worldcon, but if I don’t get to retreat to my own quiet place now and then, look out!

  17. Almost nothing’s quite as relaxing as taking a walk in the woods behind the neighborhood school, smelling the loam and duff, or watching the dappled shadows shift with the breeze.

    Or, as I did last evening, watch a fire popping and snapping in my wood-burning stove.

    Or a walk on a beach, with the surf’s sussuration and caw of wheeling gulls overhead creating a white noise to lose oneself to one’s thoughts.

    On the other hand, about ten minutes of driving is enough to set me on edge, demonstrable from whenever I donate blood and the screener does the mini-physical where my blood-pressure spikes after making the ten minute drive.


  18. This reminds me of when I lived in Kobe, Japan. I was there for a year in university, and by the time I went home, it was quite clear that if I had stayed any longer, I would have had to start grabbing weekend jaunts to the countryside, just to give myself a chance to relax.

    I loved Kobe, and it’s a beautiful city, but it’s not exactly what one would call natural. I found trips to some of the smaller Japanese cities (Nara, Matsuyama, Himeji) to be far more relaxing. They actually had things like grass.

    On a related note, I found it was surprising how much I missed seeing some open fields of grass, especially when combined that I hadn’t really noticed that I hadn’t seen them until I saw them again. It was like a switch flipping, and I relaxed as if finding the missing piece of a puzzle.

  19. I have increasingly found cities (Melbourne, Australia, in my case) to be awful places and this article vindicates my feelings! Why anyone would choose to live like caged battery hens baffles me. Unfortunately, with the rapidly increasing world population, cites are only going to get worse.

  20. Well, I know the proximity of nature has always been a major factor in any thoughts of ‘Could I live in this city?’.

    It’s certainly one of the reasons I find Vancouver so easy to live in.

    “Nature, you say? Hmm… (looks north) Found it!”

  21. The fact that you correlated the article with “ripping out the DSL line” is very interesting to me. I think it is very fair to say that my work life is taxing my brain to its limits and that the number of different “things” I have to respond to at any one time is more than I can remember, let alone process. This is before I look to see if I have any new Twitters, Gmails, or if a cat has wandered into the kittycam we set up at home.

    If the theory about cities is true, then we are in big trouble, because I’d argue technology has brought the cities to our desktops. It is only our own self control that will stop overload…good luck with that.

    I could go on forever with this topic, but I’ll stop after two things: 1. I’ve been reading Jonah Lehrer’s (article author) blog for a few months now and am looking forward to his new book, and 2. this past weekend, when my three year old nephew was asked “what were you told about running and eating at the same time,” he answered, “I’m multitasking.” I think we are all doomed.

  22. @Nadai

    Cities are also full of things that want to kill us and eat us….and also not necessarily in that order.

%d bloggers like this: