cities and mental functioning, cities and cognitive functioning, cities and mental stress

Are Cities Bad for You?

January 08, 2009 12:28 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Recent research has found that urban environments have a detrimental effect on cognitive functioning. Exposure to nature may be the cure.

City Life Is Mentally Taxing, Study Shows

A study published last month in the journal Psychological Science found that college students given psychological tests after taking a short walk in an urban environment experienced significant cognitive defects, including low scores on attention, working memory and overall mood.

Boston Globe contributor Jonah Lehrer says it is just one example of the growing body of research on city life’s harmful effects, and that they have important implications now that most of the world’s inhabitants reside in urban areas.

“The mind is a limited machine,” said Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who was a lead author in the study, to The Boston Globe. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”

Other studies have shown that the crowds and mental overstimulation that accompany urban environments increase levels of aggression and affect emotional control. Lehrer points out that cities assault people with temptations from every corner that require self-control that depletes mental attention, and yet the “cognitive load” of city life makes us more likely to give into them.

Scientists say that nature, even in small doses, is the key to making cities less mentally damaging. One theory, called Attention Restoration Theory, even posits that exposure to nature has a restorative effect on human attention, as natural settings require less cognitive effort than urban environments do.

“I would highly recommend going away for a little break in the country or simply going for a walk in a park in a town,” Berman said to The Daily Telegraph. “Our research has shown that this really is not subjective—the effects on memory and attention are real.”

Gardens are becoming more common sights in many urban areas, but the cities adding them are doing so with the goal of circumventing increases in food and fuel costs, rather than improving residents’ cognitive functioning. In Detroit, for example, some residents are using agriculture to make use of ubiquitous vacant land.

But don’t write off city life completely. The same features of urban life that impair cognitive functioning—such as crowds and high density—can be a source of innovation that makes cities intellectual and creative centers.

And living in a city might be unhealthy for your mind, but it is healthy for the planet. The Brookings Institution released a report early last year that suggested that urban dwellers have smaller carbon footprints than their rural counterparts.

Opinion & Analysis: Do cities make us stupid?

The blog Bostonist comments that the Globe “has finally confirmed something we’ve long suspected: the city makes you stupid.”

The environment news blog Grist also comments that the news is not surprising: “I don’t need a psych study to tell me that a walk in the park is good for the mood. Or that traffic jams are less fun than lakes and butterflies. Point taken. But to the extent that scientific studies can help make the case for innovative urban design, including greener, airier homes and apartments, wilder public parks, and less concrete in between, then I’m all for them. And hey, it’s a good argument for a corner office.”

Related Topics: Cities today

Despite the drawbacks of city life, people continue to flock to city centers. American cities across the country are seeing a “demographic inversion” as more affluent residents in city centers are pushing lower-income residents to the outskirts, and some are even predicting the death of the suburban way of life.

As people leave small towns, some of them have resorted to creative tactics to lure residents back. The small town of Luverne, Minn., is giving away $2,000 per person to families who buy lots to build new homes there.

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