The city hurts my brain

January 17, 2009 at 2:00 am 6 comments

image_331If you’re a regular ThinkingShift blog reader, you would know I live in “the sticks”. Well, not entirely in some remote desert, but I do live “in the bush” near Newcastle and I travel to Sydney by train every day (about 4.5 hours per day travel, yeah, I’m insane I know).  I live here because I HATE cities. They do my head in.

I particularly dislike getting off my train at Central every morning and making my way to the platform that takes me to Town Hall or Wynyard stations – people rushing this way and that, people elbowing you as you get on or off the train, mayhem basically. And then there’s Pitt Street mall during the lunch hour rush. The overstimulation to the senses from people talking loudly, the dazzle of seductive shopfront windows, the smells wafting from The Brands’ perfume counters – all too much for me sometimes. I can actually end up with a headache and feel overwhelmed. Seems to be a good reason for this – cities can actually make your brain ache.

An article in the Boston Globe points out that whilst metropolises are often thriving hubs that stimulate intellectual and artistic life, at the same time they can be harbingers of epidemics and are unnatural, constructed spaces. Proverbial crowded, concrete jungles. To quote:

“.. 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.”

So that’s why I seem to forget large slabs of my day! And here’s something I think we all intuitively know: glimpses of nature soothe and comfort and scientists are now finding that a stark lack of nature in a city negatively affects brain performance.

70% of the global population will live in urban cities by 2050 according to a UN report. So it will be increasingly important to design cities that are soft to the eye, with parks, trees and aesthetic landscaping.

The cognitive effort needed to navigate city streets, avoid being run over by cars and sidestepping strangers as they hurtle towards you on their way to the latest 50% off sale, saps the brain’s processing power. And whilst the brain is keeping track of all this, it can be distracted by flashing neon signs or strangers yapping away on mobile phones (and in my case, the tantalising smell of a vanilla latte).

A recent test equipped undergraduates with GPS receivers. One batch of students took a casual stroll in a leafy, nature-filled arboretum; the other batch walked down a busy city street. No surprise here: the results showed that those who had walked through the cavernous city streets were in a worse mood and scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory than the dudes who took a relaxing stroll in the arboretum.

And here’s something else we know: after the assault on our brains and cognitive overload, we often lose self-control and give in to the temptations of fast-food or max out the credit card during a shopping binge.

I blogged recently about Maps of the Future, one of which deals with sustainability and the link to today’s post is that the sustainability map talks about the rise of “eco-cities” and how, through greener strategies, eco-cities will attract the creative class.

Personally, I envisage a future that is part village, part city. Small locally-focused neighbourhoods linked together and to the city by rapid transport. Derelict shopping malls (remember my post on what to do with a dead shopping mall?) or office buildings could be turned into structures that house pigs, cattle or grow vegetables for the benefit of the local community in the vicinity. City centres should be stripped of those ugly parking stations and cars clogging up streets and tree-lined walkways should take their place. If during the lunch hour office workers could take a stroll in an aboretum (without having to dodge cars) or bring their bikes into the city and spend the lunch hour cycling around special bike pathways – well, I think that would make people a lot less stressed and healthier.

Entry filed under: Science. Tags: , , , , .

Maps of the future Yep, you’re really being watched

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Luke Naismith  |  January 17, 2009 at 2:51 am

    Perhaps you should contemplate living in Canberra!!!

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  January 17, 2009 at 3:06 am

    the thought has occurred to me Luke!

  • 3. Paris  |  January 17, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Living in the heart of the most populated west-european urban area (Paris and its suburbs=10 to 12 million folks), I can relate to the ‘nightmare’ described in that article.
    It seems I have developped ways to relax my brain
    It’s no surprise that on weekends, I avoid any ‘artificial’ mean of transportation, walking only to nearest shops, which are also smaller and less crowded! I can’t stand malls, they remind me too much of busy subways.
    I usually prefer to stay quietly home than stepping onto busy streets…which is a delight for my bank account anyway!
    From spring to autumn on weekends I also walk on the smallest, least crowded paths to nearest PARKS!!
    I loved the issue about plant diversity in this article, because i’ve allways prefered going to that park which has many different flowers, trees, roses bushes, exotic orange trees and japanese ponds, instead of usual city gardens with grass, sand and benches…and the article explains why, beautifully.

    Unlike you Kim, I chose to live inside the city where I work to minimise my transportation time.
    I feel transportation time is way too much stress (more than city dwelling): delays, gangs of youngsters, strikes, hours standing side by side with strangers in their ugly smells,etc…
    Anyway if I wanted to live in the less crowded suburbs I’d have to drive a car and shop industrial goods at the malls, which is against my environmental values.

    sidenote: a friend recently back from Australia told me how australian people are nice compared to impolite and violent french people….which might explain why I don’t even consider long distance commuting an option.

  • 4. thinkingshift  |  January 17, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Hi there Paris

    You seem to have a very thoughtful strategy worked out to avoid stress and live more harmoniously with the environment. I decided about 2 years ago to consciously stay out of the malls and if I have to go, I duck in and out FAST. If I can, I go at lunchtime to our Botanical Gardens in the city, simply to feast on the greenery and get some peace and quiet.

    I’m interested in your friend’s comments about Australians – personally I don’t agree. I am finding Australians more aggressive and ruder but that could me getting crusty and old.
    My step-kids are French incidentally – they don’t like Australia or Australians!!

  • 5. Otto Mann  |  January 17, 2009 at 10:06 pm

    cities are a cancer on earth.

  • 6. Ahmed Money  |  January 18, 2009 at 2:34 am

    The rest of the brain is the hindbrain and midbrain.


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