Your Brain and the City
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Your Brain and the City

Walking down Queen West can be an obstacle course. We’ve got to navigate the hazards of traffic, meandering pedestrians, and patches of ice at the same time as car stereos, bits of overheard conversation, flashing signage, and the temptations of shop windows all fight for our attention. The chaos of street life can be lively and invigorating, even comforting. Yet a new study from the University of Michigan (as reported by Jonah Lehrer in the Boston Globe) concludes that streets like Queen West are hard on our brains.
Our brain tires out by having to constantly sort through the overwhelming array of stimuli encountered in urban settings to figure out where it needs to direct its attention—towards monitoring the traffic hazards of crosswalks or towards mapping the route to our destination, for example—and what it can block out as irrelevant, like snatches of conversation and the freshly baked goods in the window. To investigate the impact of urban life on our brains, psychologist Marc Berman had some students walk through downtown Ann Arbor while others visited an arboretum. In tests of their memory and their ability to focus attention afterwards, Berman saw that those who’d walked along streets scored much lower than those who’d encountered trees and plants. Surprisingly, Berman discovered that, in Lehrer’s words, “just glancing at a photograph of urban scenes led to measurable impairments, at least when compared with pictures of nature.”
Interacting with nature, on the other hand, dramatically improves our ability to focus because, while sunsets and shrubbery provide interesting stimuli for the brain to process, it doesn’t take a concentrated cognitive effort to enjoy them. Nature, in essence, allows our brains to relax and recharge. Berman found that even images of natural landscapes or fleeting exposure to trees and green space had this positive effect. Rather than reflecting an anti-urban/pro-rural bias—after all, Berman is talking about park-like settings, not about a struggle to survive in the true wilderness—the study is a stark reminder of just how important our parks and green space are for urbanites. And it’s a reality that ought not be forgotten when cities and developers plan hospitals, condos, and retirement residences.
Photo by ~EvidencE~ from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.