“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.”
January 9, 2009 at 5:52 am
I wonder, moving away from nature may not be such a bad thing. Interesting article, but it also reminds me of the ol’ tenet about A.I. from Jacques Vallee:
“If you want to make something that flies, flapping your wings is not the way to do it. You bolt a 400-horsepower engine to a barn door, that’s how you fly.”
If our minds are concentrating their efforts on the abstraction of written language and constant interfacing with computers, maybe grounding to nature isn’t as beneficial in such work. If the constant buzz of electronics is the new babbling brooks, perhaps cities are the new barn door?
January 9, 2009 at 10:32 am
Interesting. I’m not sure reduced self control is any different than switching between tasks and lines of thought in this case though.
That would also explain why the memory is worse. If you keep juggling tasks and don’t have time to repeat them, you’re not gonna remember them too good either.
Or maybe I’m wrong here. Not sure, but I don’t live in a very big city by most standards. It’s just right for me though.
January 10, 2009 at 1:20 am
Interesting perspective Theoretik.
Personally, (speaking as someone who’s lived in the big city for most of my life), I’ve found it absolutely necessary for me to get out to some natural area at least once a week. Some of my best ideas have come from long hikes out in the wilderness. It really helps keep me centered and focused
Though I also know a few “type A’s” who thrive on, and even some who are addicted to the intense energy of the city.