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Science

How the City Hurts Your Brain 439

Posted by kdawson
from the but-not-paris dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The city has always been an engine of intellectual life and the 'concentration of social interactions' is largely responsible for urban creativity and innovation. But now scientists are finding that being in an urban environment 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. 'The mind is a limited machine,' says psychologist Marc Berman. 'And we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.' Consider everything your brain has to keep track of as you walk down a busy city street. A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to redirect our attention constantly so that we aren't distracted by irrelevant things. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. Natural settings don't require the same amount of cognitive effort. A study at the University of Michigan found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20 percent after people spent an hour interacting with nature. 'It's not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan,' says Berman. 'They needed to put a park there.'"
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How the City Hurts Your Brain

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  • Good exercise? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Narcocide (102829) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:28AM (#26340867) Homepage

    Just because its more distracting doesn't mean its bad for you.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by davester666 (731373)

      Hell, if I've got something to think about and somewhere to go (either walking or driving), I'll find myself there without being aware of actively avoiding people and/or cars.

      Then again, I am Vulcan. Human's may not be capable of this.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Then again, I am Vulcan. Human's may not be capable of this.

        I can. But I'm not sure what that means. Can humans do this or am I Vulcan as well? We should have a poll over this.

      • by Nursie (632944)

        I wonder if they studied city people or country folk?

        Personally I like having that level of movement and activity around, I find it somehow comforting. I certainly don't find "coping" with city streets stressful, except when it's nearing christmas and all the f*ck-damned tourists are crowding up the place and getting in the way.

        Guess I've lived in the city long enough to not find it a problem.

        • by ta bu shi da yu (687699) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:18AM (#26341113) Homepage

          I'm feeling very ambivalent about this study. Sure, walking down a busy street requires concentration. And? If you look at it this way, it's actively improving your concentration.

          The truth is that most people work in office buildings that are not that busy, and they only spend a tiny fraction of their day in a busy and distracting environment. Honestly, this sounds like a study that was trying to find evidence that supports a predetermined conclusion.

          • by adrianwn (1262452) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @08:58AM (#26341641)

            The truth is that most people work in office buildings that are not that busy, and they only spend a tiny fraction of their day in a busy and distracting environment.

            An office environment is not distracting? Have you ever heard of e-mail, youtube or slashdot?

            • by trolltalk.com (1108067) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @09:03AM (#26341675) Homepage Journal

              The truth is that most people work in office buildings that are not that busy, and they only spend a tiny fraction of their day in a busy and distracting environment.

              An office environment is not distracting? Have you ever heard of e-mail, youtube or slashdot?

              Or shared cubicles. Or cubicles where you can hear EVERYTHING your coworkers are doing. Or the noise of dozens or hundreds of PCs.

              Since the city is supposed to hurt the brain, can I get a doctors' note to go work in the country instead of the office?

              Seriously, it's no wonder that I get more work done when I work from home than from the office.

            • by easyTree (1042254) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @10:33AM (#26342371)

              An office environment is not distracting? Have you ever heard of e-mail, youtube or slashdot?

              No. Certainly not the last one; it sounds like somewhere freaks would live.

              University of Michigan psychology research in the December issue of Psychological Science explored the cognitive benefits of interacting with nature and found that walking in a park in any season, or even viewing pictures of nature, can help improve memory and attention.

              Because the test subjects' brains were so bored during the *walk in the park* they jump for joy when given something to do. Ever see a hamster given a wheel for the first time?

          • by Mab_Mass (903149) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @11:31AM (#26343039) Homepage Journal

            I'm feeling very ambivalent about this study. Sure, walking down a busy street requires concentration. And? If you look at it this way, it's actively improving your concentration.

            Your arguments reeks of truthiness but turns out to not be true. It turns out that relaxing your mind and focusing on single tasks promotes good health and positive mood.

            This has been scientifically demonstrated [psychosoma...dicine.org] (The quick summary of the above link, for those too lazy to dig through the reference is that researchers found that a group of people receiving some mindfullness mediation training showed improvements in mood and in immune response compared to a control group.)

            If I may spin the article in this context, it seems that having a quiet mind is a very, very good thing, and that quiet, natural settings are more conducive to quiet minds that busy urban environments.

          • by drsquare (530038) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @12:20PM (#26343677)

            I'm feeling very ambivalent about this study. Sure, walking down a busy street requires concentration. And? If you look at it this way, it's actively improving your concentration.

            Except the more things you have to concentrate on and worry about at once, the lower your attention span becomes.

            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              by mrchaotica (681592) *

              I bet it works the same way as exercise: if you do a lot of sprints, you'll build fast-twitch muscles and become better at sprinting, while if you do marathons you'll instead build slow-twitch muscles and become better at marathon-running. Similarly, concentrating on one thing for a long time makes you better at concentrating while multitasking makes you better at multitasking.

              I don't think this is all that revolutionary of a concept, by the way...

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            Anecdotally, I just went away for a week and camped by a creek surrounded by trees. I went from being really stressed and unable to concentrate to being relaxed and focused. Co-workers have all commented on how healthy and happy I look and yesterday I did a days work in half a day, I'm sure because everything seemed so easy.

            As a comparison, last time I took a week off, I stayed in town and got back to work about the same as when I left.

            So I think this good exercise/stimulation argument is bollocks. If you a

        • by Omestes (471991) <omestes@gmail.CURIEcom minus physicist> on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @02:34PM (#26345847) Homepage Journal

          I am a city person, and I wholly agree with the study (personally). But then again I think some degree of silence and solitude are necessary for the intellectual life (actually for focus, with is necessary for the intellectual life).

          I grew up in the city, but had the good fortune of going to college in the boonies, and I could tell the difference. A 20 minute hike would put you in the woods, completely away from anyone. There were no distractions. I could actually sit and read (in a deep way, not in the leisurely way) for hours without anyone talking to me ("what are you reading" is the most damnable question ever, btw).

          Part of this was because the lack of people, cars, etc... And part of it was due to the change in context. In the city we have constant reminders of our bust life, escaping the city escapes this context.

          It always is nice to get out of the range of the nearest cell-tower, off the roads, and away from the mindless chatter of others.

          For some reason I feel that the people who are against this study are the typical Americans who are frightened of silence since it allows introspection. Most people in cities, IMHO, exist largly as interactions, and are frightened on some level of what remains (if anything) when there is no more superfluous stimulus.

          Which brings me too; why the hell is there canned music EVERYWHERE in cities?

          Yes, I'm a slightly pissy misanthrope, so this might have something to do with it. And yes, I grew up in the 5th largest metropolitan area in the US, so I'm not a country boy.

    • Re:Good exercise? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mh1997 (1065630) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @08:58AM (#26341645)

      Just because its more distracting doesn't mean its bad for you.

      Exactly, I've seen people drive a car while putting on make up, talking on the phone, reading the paper, and drinking a cup of coffee all at the same time and have yet to see a single car accident in any city I've ever lived in. And we've never heard of someone not paying attention on the street and stepping in front of a car/bus.

      Hell, my kids tell me that they can do homework while watching TV and chatting online.

      Yes, distractions are not bad for you large cup of coffee with cream and an egg mcmuffin please and they actually help.

      • by mysticgoat (582871) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @12:01PM (#26343419) Homepage Journal

        Yes! Whether distractions are bad depends completely on what you are doing (or how you do it).

        For instance, people who use Python need a fair bit of distraction to keep their minds occupied and thus find some kind of satisfaction while working in that highly restrictive environment. But people who program with Perl need a low distraction environment while they exercise their creative potential.

        There is so much more to programming than whitespace can contain :-)

    • Re:Good exercise? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by smoker2 (750216) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @10:19AM (#26342267) Homepage Journal

      Just because its more distracting doesn't mean its bad for you.

      Yes it does. The ancient equivalent of a city would be on the veldt surrounded by predators. You are constantly on edge looking for the flash of colour which could mean you're on the menu. Your ears are straining to hear the danger signals through the constant noise. Constant exposure to such stress is very wearing and can result in various nervous malfunctions and lead to physical manifestations. Ever heard of hypertension ?

      I recently (6 months ago) gave up driving a truck (18 wheeler for the US residents) because although the physical act of driving was easy, the mental stress of being abused by just about everybody else on the road led to me being pissed off the whole time. Once you get into that condition, you need serious training in Buddhism to learn to relax. I haven't had the training, and I still can't drive (even a car) without getting stressed almost immediately, and it has even affected me as a pedestrian. All this is happening to a person who in 2001/2002 drove across the US 3 times (FL -> WA, WA -> FL, FL -> CA) in a month and a half for fun, then drove almost all the way around Australia, then travelled all the way round NZ by bus. Hint: it's not the driving or travelling.

      The human mind can't stand up to being attacked all the time. My condition is starting to become agoraphobic as it is impossible to go anywhere without encountering traffic. I recently spent time in Scotland [google.co.uk], well away from large population centres, and it was like a large dose of valium. I was completely relaxed within a day or so. Unfortunately I still have to earn a living so moving there permanently isn't an option right now. And not having worked for 6 months means my savings are almost exhausted and my options are dwindling to zero.

      Just because you don't notice the effect, it doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist. It is cumulative and one day it will hit you hard. Your brain gets used to the default state of mind being stress, and suddenly one day it gets stuck there. Very hard to get back from, and very hard to withstand real stress when it occurs, because you have so little energy left in reserve.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ukyoCE (106879)

        You sound like you've really taken it to the extreme, but there are a few things I do that help when I start feeling the same way driving.

        1) Be glad that fast/aggressive/crazy person is past you and gone. Better to let them cause an accident somewhere up ahead (hopefully with a tree) instead of with you. I also like to thank them (in my head) for catching any speed traps up ahead by going 10mph faster than me.

        2) No matter how slow you have to go, it really doesn't matter. You could drive 30mph on the int

  • Just visit Manhattan (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Guido del Confuso (80037) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:29AM (#26340877)

    Just head to Manhattan and look at the people around you. Everyone is constantly glancing around at everything. It's not just the tourists either--very nearly every single person is constantly shifting his gaze from point to point like a coked out monkey with ADD. It's one of the things that I hate about New York.

    • by wisty (1335733) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:34AM (#26340893)

      Is the damage reversible, or do New Yorkers stay like that indefinitely?

      • by Guido del Confuso (80037) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:16AM (#26341101)

        Presumably they eventually manage to recover at least somewhat, but I can tell you from personal experience that they remain permanently insufferable. Ask anyone who has lived in New York about pizza, or public transportation, or pretty much anything else for that matter and the conversation will eventually turn to how much better New York is than wherever it is they currently happen to be. One wonders why they don't just go back and stay there.

        I have yet to meet an ex-New Yorker who isn't excessively proud of the fact that he once lived in "The City". They're worse than Texans.

        • Well, no... (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          You seem kind of bitter about it. New York has some things going for it--if it didn't, it wouldn't be such a huge place economically and culturally.

          The public transportation is pretty good, except that they haven't put in new subway lines since the private sector got less involved. But the subway is 24-hour, which is pretty great, and it basically never shuts down for maintenance. That doesn't mean it's always safe, but it's nice. (At 3 in the morning, there are places you don't want to go.)

          The pizza's

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            Thanks for proving my point. There are things to like about New York. New Yorkers are not one of them. Ex-New Yorkers even less so.

            The only thing I'm less interested in than how awesome New York is would be hearing people talk about how awesome New York is.

            • Re:Well, no... (Score:5, Insightful)

              by emilng (641557) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @10:44AM (#26342507)
              You can't just generalize about a city of millions. Try replacing New Yorker with a person from any country and listen to how offensive you sound.

              I was born in NYC and am still living there currently. I also get really annoyed with the all the people who think New York is the greatest thing ever too, but you don't find me bashing it every chance I get on Slashdot. The amount of disdain you have for New Yorkers borders on the amount of homophobia you would find from a closeted homosexual. I'm not saying you're a closet New Yorker, but that's just what it comes off as... just saying...
          • Re:Well, no... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by trolltalk.com (1108067) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @09:18AM (#26341803) Homepage Journal

            New York has some things going for it--if it didn't, it wouldn't be such a huge place economically and culturally.

            You seem to have spent the last year in a coma. Let me bring you up to date. Financial market crashed. Banks bailed out. Wall Street decimated.

            the subway is 24-hour, which is pretty great, and it basically never shuts down for maintenance.

            It's also noisy. Maybe they should do some maintenance, and switch over to a rubber-tired system.

            The pizza's good because the water's right for it

            Must be all those pollutants in the river. Maybe they've permanently altered your taste buds.

            Seriously, the air absolutely stinks and the streets are filthy. About the only thing going for it is it ISN'T New Jersey.

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              by Shakrai (717556)

              Must be all those pollutants in the river.

              I realize your probably just trolling but you do know that NYC doesn't get it's water [nyc.gov] from the Hudson right? They get it from Upstate. It's one of the things I love to remind them about when they start bitching about how much money the city pays out in State taxes. "You can have your money back when you can secure your own water supply and stop sending us your felons"

              About the only thing going for it is it ISN'T New Jersey.

              Well, there is that ;)

            • Re:Well, no... (Score:5, Informative)

              by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @11:45AM (#26343191)
              "It's also noisy. Maybe they should do some maintenance, and switch over to a rubber-tired system."

              That would be difficult, since the NYC subways use the rails for grounding. The main reason the subways in NYC are so noisy is the speed that the trains operate at, which is typically 10-20MPH faster than other subway systems in America (which is why similarly old systems, like the Boston subways, are so much quieter). There is an effort with the newest subway trains to reduce noise, but that is mainly aimed at the passengers riding the train, not those standing on the platforms.

              One of the things that the NYC subway system has going for it, that other systems do not really have, is the ability to operate 24x7x365 with few disruptions in service. There are several reasons for this, but the primary two are the distributed nature of the control system (which is unfortunately due to be centralized as part of a plan to install computers to replace the ancient equipment they use) and the large number of lines and tracks which make reroutes possible. It is possible to perform maintenance on the NYC subways, and in fact, this is done on nights and weekends, which is why there are route changes every weekend, with the exception of holidays.

              "Must be all those pollutants in the river. Maybe they've permanently altered your taste buds."

              NYC's water supply does not come from the rivers that surrounding Manhattan. The water in NYC comes from a large reservoir in the mountains in the middle of New York State, and is carried to the city using three enormous pipes. The tap water is actually among the cleanest in the US, and NYC is one of the few places where the majority of contaminants in tap water come from old pipes in the final stages of delivery, rather than the supply itself.

              "Seriously, the air absolutely stinks and the streets are filthy."

              This is not unique to NYC, it is the case in any large city. Large cities always have been and always will be more polluted than small cities and towns. When you have millions of people living in such a small area, it is difficult to keep the ground and air pristine.
        • by Nursie (632944) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @08:37AM (#26341537)

          Londoners have the same disease, to a slightly lesser extent.

          I'm moving away from *my* City, London, in a few months and I just hope I don't turn into one of those people.

          "Oh, well when I was in London..."
          "In London you can get..."
          "Well in London these things are open 24 hours..."
          "What, you don't have any sushi/thai/dim-sum restaurants within walking distance?"
          "Oh but in London I could always find..."

          Yeah.

          • by C_L_Lk (1049846) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @11:38AM (#26343095) Homepage

            Unfortunately, it's very hard to not become one of those people. I did. But I personally can affirm the story in my personal case.

            I lived in San Francisco for 7 years after university, and became accustomed to urban life - having things open 24 hours, having china town a few steps away, having everything so close and easy to get to. On the other hand I always felt distracted, stressed, and like I was unable to do half the things I wanted because of crowds, traffic, too long of lines, waiting lists for restaurant reservations, you name it. I was not being very productive as I was always thinking about the logistical ramifications.

            I left. I went to the opposite corner of North America - I bought a cabin on a remote lake in north central Ontario Canada - no phone line - electricity was solar and a generator - heat was a wood stove and a fireplace - internet was via 2-way Satellite - I can get in my car and drive an hour in any given direction and see no more than 5 cars. No more lines. No more traffic. No more logistical nightmares. When your biggest concern for a week is if you should drive in for provisions on Wednesday or Thursday depending on the weather, and if there's enough firewood split to last the month out. However I did catch myself saying "When I was in SF, I could get Chinese delivery in 20 minutes, and if I wanted a part for something I was working on there were so many stores to choose from!".

            I lived there for 5 years - the most productive and happy 5 years of my life - but in the end it did get a little lonely and I've now moved to the fringes of a small city (100,000 ppl) - I'm still surrounded by trees and not people - but now I'm only a 10 minute drive to stores and supplies - rather than close to 2 hours. I still feel able to think here - there's nowhere near the horrible stress of urban life.

        • by Shakrai (717556)

          Ask anyone who has lived in New York about pizza

          Actually, with respect, this is one that I'd have to agree with them on. Not so much New York City by itself but the Northeast as a whole or any other region with a large Italian-American population. One of the things I most despised about living in the South was the lack of good pizza. Southerners seem to think that good pizza comes from Little Caesars......

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ultracool (883965)
        Perhaps there is more to the article... Have they compared people from cities to people who already live in the countryside? A person who grew up in a big city would be used to all the stimulus, so when the extra "load" is removed, they improve 20% according to TFA. Does this 20% surpass the mental abilities of people who grew up in the countryside?

        So city people are some kind of mental superhumans, and once removed from their highly stimulative environment, they ourperform the non-city people.

    • by unitron (5733) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:06AM (#26341065) Homepage Journal

      Everyone is constantly glancing around at everything.

      Probably trying to avoid muggers and eye contact with the crazies.

      • by hey! (33014) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @09:50AM (#26342027) Homepage Journal

        I find that people who have this view of Manhattan only know it from movies and TV shows. Generally, I have found people in Manhattan to be pleasant and helpful ... although one must make allowances for their adaptations to living in large crowds. The first time I went into Grand Central Station, I got swept along by a crowd that had just been disgorged by a subway entrance. My experience of Manhattan crowds is different from the GP's; generally I find the bulk of them very focused on going about whatever their business is. The sheer size of the crowds means that you can probably find any kind of behavior you're looking for. I find I can observe more people walking down a Manhattan block than I normally do in the course of a month.

        Generally speaking, Manhattan feels as safe as any other city, especially if we are talking from Central Park south during the day time. There are a lot of human friendly aspects to Manhattan's urban landscape. First and foremost are the very very wide sidewalks, which other cities would do well to emulate. This gives plenty of space to large volumes of pedestrian traffic, fed by a dense public transit network. This creates a vibrant street level commercial economy, which may seem overwhelming at first, until you realize that a Manhattan block is like a city in miniature. You don't have to walk a mile to find something you want; as often as not it's no more than a block away; further and you take transit.

        Overall, I find Manhattan to be very comfortable and convenient, once you've adapted a bit to the rhythm and pace. I wonder if the study was perhaps confounded by several things. First, are the subjects accustomed to walking in an urban landscape? If you repeated the experiment a dozen times, would the score for city walkers change? Secondly, are the routes chosen pedestrian friendly? If not the results may simply reflect the results of stress.

        I don't deny that nature is important, and don't doubt that experiencing natural settings regularly is a contributor to mental health. But in many ways, dense urban landscapes are both good for people and the environment, when compared to sprawl.

    • by drunkenoafoffofb3ta (1262668) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:24AM (#26341143) Journal
      Perhaps it's because I've only visited as a tourist, but I find Manhattan's busy-ness and bustling quite energizing, and the memory of it makes me want to visit again. As I type this at my desk. In a managed office building. In a business park. Looking at a motorway. Zzzzzz....
      • I think what you take as energizing really is the opposite. It takes energy to be in such a busy place. Your attention is all over the place so your mind is running full speed. You walk a lot so you do more physical exercise. Its great for a little while because it's like getting a work out. When you work out you get endorphins goin and your heart rate goes up and it feels good. If you were working out non stop all day you would no longer get those endorphins goin and just be tired. Living in the city is ti
      • by xaxa (988988)

        I haven't been to Manhatten for many years, but I live in London which is easily comparable. I also find the bustle energising. Everything is nearby, I can always be doing something if I want to. If I want nature, there's also lots of green spaces (more than any other city, apparently). The only downside is the traffic pollution (ban cars!), and the higher cost of living.

    • by Servo (9177) <dstringf&gmail,com> on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:48AM (#26341259) Journal

      I disagree. The tourists are the only ones looking at everything trying to catch it all in, not the locals going about their daily life. The rest of us are just avoiding eye contact and only paying attention to where we are going and what's going to intersect our path getting there.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by elrous0 (869638) *
      Well, it does explain why our nation's most rural areas are so well known for their intellectualism and scholarly accomplishment.
      • by Trepidity (597) <delirium-slashdot@@@hackish...org> on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @12:54PM (#26344097)

        A disproportionate number of top universities, relative to population, are in rural areas and small towns: Ithaca, New York; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; Hanover, New Hampshire; Durham, North Carolina; Terre Haute, Indiana; etc.

        Many of those that do find themselves in large cities were actually founded way out in the countryside, too, but have since been swallowed---Columbia was sort of in the middle of nowhere in far-upper Manhattan, most of the Boston universities are in Cambridge rather than Boston proper, Stanford was way off from San Francisco, Caltech was considerably outside Los Angeles, etc.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          A disproportionate number of top universities, relative to population, are in rural areas and small towns: Ithaca, New York; Urbana-Champaign, Illinois; Hanover, New Hampshire; Durham, North Carolina; Terre Haute, Indiana; etc.

          That's just because their large plots of land were cheap when they were founded, or else were large areas of unused land bequeathed or granted by the government for the purpose.

        • While building a University by purchasing, evicting and razing city blocks might sound like fun to you I imagine it might be costly.
  • by Per Abrahamsen (1397) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:36AM (#26340901) Homepage

    Natural settings don't require the same amount of cognitive effort.

    A jungle or other wild forest does. It is living in cultivated land (farmland or even managed forests) that requires an unnatural low amount of cognitive effort.

    • by TheP4st (1164315) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:53AM (#26340991)
      Having spent significant time in both subtropical wild nature and Scandinavian forrests as well as busy cities like New York, Hong Kong, Manila I beg to differ. While the amount of sounds in a subtropical forrest can be very large they in no way compare to the unnatural sounds of blaring car horns, screaming cab drivers, car engines, hordes trampling another (somethimes to death) during sales season. The former I (and probably most people) find peaceful and the latter stressing. The danger of getting harmed is also much greater in the latter, be it by crossing 5th avenue at the wrong moment or looking at a unstable stranger. Sure, being in the wild also involve a certain amount of danger and it's subsequent cognitive effort but, I am convinced that it is not even anywhere near to what is the case in a modern large city.
      • > be it by crossing 5th avenue at the wrong moment

        When I was a lot younger (and spacier), after about a year and a half of living in Manhattan, I was walking on 51st St. and suddenly a ladybug landed on my hand. I was so surprised and thrilled at that (being the opposite of a real "city boy") that I crossed 5th Av. against the light (or mostly against the light) and only a few minutes after understood what I had done.

      • by xaxa (988988)

        So for you the problem isn't the city, the problem is the traffic, both the noise and the danger. (Without the huge amount of road space given over to cars, there'd be a lot more room for hordes in the sales season.)

        Pedestrian-only areas in cities are great :)

      • by wickerprints (1094741) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @08:15AM (#26341393)

        This is not only incorrect, but it is also not the point of the original article. First of all, I will address your specific statements. Being in the wilderness is not less stressful than being in civilization. That flies in the face of our entire human history. You, a modern human, only enjoy the wilderness now as a convenience brought to you by the comforts of modern technology. Where and how do you get your food, shelter, water, safety? It is illogical to compare being run over in the street with some romanticized notion of idyllic nature, because you have been far removed from primary threats to existence such as disease, predation, exposure, and starvation.

        Second, the point of the article is that urban environments are cognitively distracting compared to a natural setting. That may be true but it is also pointless. What is the base level of cognitive ability? Did the study compare attention and mental focus for individuals who are simply sitting comfortably in their home doing nothing? It stands to reason that if there is a correlation between environment and cognition, the most safe and peaceful environment would provide the best result. But I object to this kind of weakly disguised propaganda that continues to romanticize and idealize the superiority of "nature." Don't get me wrong, I enjoy being outdoors. But I have no illusions that my ability to enjoy being outdoors is ENTIRELY predicated upon the fact that my safety and well-being is facilitated by the comforts of modern human civilization and technology.

        I accept the fact that I don't have the ability to be tossed into the wild and survive. I don't need to. Moreover, I don't WANT to. Why would I want to spend most of my day worrying about where my next meal is going to come from, or providing for basic safety? That is how we all lived thousands of years ago, and that is how many people in underdeveloped countries continue to live today. There is a very good reason why humans discovered the benefits of civilization long ago. The notion that civilization is evil and we should embrace nature and return to a nomadic life is yet another insult to those who live in squalor and desperation among us.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Lumpy (12016)

          In the wilderness you can rely on your ears and even your nose to help alert you to danger.

          In the city the only thing you got are your eyes. and that does in fact stress out the brain because it no longer has any ability to spread around the processing. Plus Humans are not Herd creatures, and we honestly are uncomfortable in a herd. Yet oversized cities stuff us into the giant herd and it stresses us out.

          Yes I cant think as well when in a large herd of people. Go to a hockey or baseball game and try to t

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by wickerprints (1094741)

            Huh??? Your ability to sense and process that sensory input is not a function of the surrounding environment; it is mainly a function of physiology.

            I'm not talking about herds. I'm talking about living in a human societies, pooling resources, and the very clear anthropological and sociological advantages to collective living. In case I am still not being understood, we humans have developed and adapted to the civilization model. That has nothing to do with going to crowded baseball games. I am trying t

            • by AaxelB (1034884) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @11:48AM (#26343245)
              Whoa whoa whoa, who the hell brought up eschewing city life for an idyllic nature fantasy? (hint: you did) Stop jumping to other people's conclusions for them. Here's a quick summary of the discussion so far, as I see it:

              Someone: Nature is feels safer and is less distracting than busy, urban environments.
              You: That's wrong! The only reason you find nature relaxing is that you have the comforts and conveniences of modern civilization to protect you and to go back to.
              Someone else: It's easier to think clearly in nature than in a crowded, loud place like cities.
              You: No, nature is not superior to civilization, and the only reason you think so is that you're romanticizing nature while taking advantage of all the benefits of society.

              It's very true that being immersed in nature would likely be much less relaxing (and less distraction-free) if not for civilization, but does that change the fact that nature is indeed relaxing for many (most?) people? And that is indeed a better place to think (for many)? Nobody's suggesting stripping naked, smearing ourselves with mud, running into the woods, and hunting deer with a stick, but thanks to modern civilization much of nature is a safe, relatively tranquil place which is good for deep thinking.
    • Exactly. Both the jungle as the city require constant attention. Otherwise you get eaten by a random animal or hit by a car.
      On cultivated land the worst that could happen to you is peeing on a electrified fence.
      • by bentcd (690786)

        Exactly. Both the jungle as the city require constant attention. Otherwise you get eaten by a random animal or hit by a car.

        Large predators are pretty rare and those that do skulk around will generally be skeptical at attacking something as large and unfamiliar as a human. They will tend to need to be rather desperate to even try. Paranoid prey animals are probably more dangerous but often occur in herds so are easy to spot and avoid. (Malevolent mother moose notwithstanding.)
        The real dangers of the jungle are those that I am not trained to spot anyway so I might as well not waste much effort in trying: poisonous critters, unsaf

    • by little1973 (467075) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:57AM (#26341019)

      bush, bush, tree, bush, tiger, bush, oh wait...

  • Brain Overload (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bossanovalithium (1396323) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:52AM (#26340977)
    Isn't this similar to the report a while back saying that our brains are becoming affected by google browsing - information overload if it arrives in huge chunks is difficult to assimilate. Imagine you are on a plane for 10 hours - the white noise of the engine, and the bland colours - then you are off the plane, into the airport, a bustling place - you are tired, the airport is busy, and you feel overwhelmed.
    • I must be even worse the pilots. Especially doing a Trans-Ocean flight, Say LHR to JFK each end completely manic, multiple commands from ATC, lots of other aircraft to watch out for, reconfiguration of the aircraft but in the Middle Several hours of not a lot.
      That's one job I'd hate to do.

  • by martin-boundary (547041) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:52AM (#26340983)
    Nonsense. This is the kind of semi-plausible revisionist bullshit that gives scientists a bad name. The park is a result of politics, New York simply wanted a stylish park to rival other big cities at the time, and they evicted the poor who already lived there to achieve that goal. It's got nothing to do with the need to improve people's mental faculties by communing with nature.
    • ...and they evicted the poor who already lived there to achieve that goal. It's got nothing to do with the need to improve people's mental faculties by communing with nature.

      You could say that it has something to do with improving the mental faculties of wealthier people?

  • What a bunch of BS (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mbone (558574) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @06:56AM (#26341011)

    First, Central Park was put on the edge of the city when it was built. In the 19th century people tended to think ahead more.

    Second, I would bet the author has never actually been in a truly wild setting, where there are animals around that might hunt you. The wild is no place to be oblivious.

    Third, note this from the original article (really a press release) :

    The researchers also tested the same theory by having subjects sit inside and look at pictures of either downtown scenes or nature scenes and again the results were the same: when looking at photos of nature, memory and attention scores improved by about 20 percent, but not when viewing the urban pictures.

    If looking at pictures can help your memory its clearly not so much where you are, as what you are looking at. I wonder what city views they were showing, and whether, say, views of Paris or Prague would cause the same reaction.

    If what they are saying really boils down to that we need some beauty in our surroundings, they are a few thousand years behind the times.

    • by dword (735428)
      That's because, after living in a city for tenths of years, you're just sick of the same things: cars, crowded streets, artificial light, etc. If were to take someone who lived in the jungle and show them pictures of cars, crowded streets and put them in a room with artificial lightning, I bet they'd be very interested in everything and their attention will increase by about 20 percent.

      The article is slightly misleading, because it doesn't mention that anything in excess is bad (small doses of alcohol are
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      He did not say it's better to live in the 'wild', rather, it's better to be in a more natural environments, small city's, village's ... etc.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by dword (735428)

        He did not say it's better to live in the 'wild', rather, it's better to be in a more natural environments, small city's [theworldac...tokang.com], village's [theworldac...tokang.com] ... etc.

        The plural for "city" is "cities" and the plural for "village" is "villages." No grammar nazism here, just helping a fellow.

    • by Carewolf (581105) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:54AM (#26341295) Homepage

      There are more dangerous animals that would hunt and kill you in the middle of New York city than any wild area in the world.

      Please try to go outside once in a while, and don't believe the scaremongering.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Cadallin (863437)
        Of course there are, now. But you don't see that many Smilodon out in your local park now do you?

        For the vast majority of human evolution, nature has been filled with large predators that were perfectly happy to eat a relatively slow, defenseless primate. It's only in the last 10,000 years that situation has been reversed.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Abcd1234 (188840)

        There are more dangerous animals that would hunt and kill you in the middle of New York city

        Riiight... it's the GP that's the one who's scaremongering...

      • by vertinox (846076) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @01:48PM (#26345089)

        There are more dangerous animals that would hunt and kill you in the middle of New York city than any wild area in the world.

        Actually, NYC has less murder to population ratio than even most rural areas these days.

        If you were talking about Detroit, Camdem, or Philadelhia...

  • If only advertising could be better targetted. There are garish billboards everywhere, many of which don't apply to lots of the folks who see them.

    Advertising directed only at the folk who actually might use the product or service, would give us all back some minutes/hours every day.

  • by YourExperiment (1081089) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:18AM (#26341109)

    'It's not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan,' says Berman.

    For real? I thought they'd just forgotten to build shit there.

  • As far as i can tell it was a ncie enough compromise to lead us to where we are, and maybe even further beyond. I leave the attention span and nature life to my short lived ancestor.
  • True! (Score:3, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:25AM (#26341145)

    Its true! Since i moved from Ironforge to the gardens of Dalaran i gained +20 int!

  • by evil_arrival_of_good (786412) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:53AM (#26341287) Homepage

    According to my MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science: Cities function as a cognitive artifact. Cognitive artifacts are external physical things that aid cognition.

    Humans are not all the same, and what most humans were 10,000 years ago has little to do with our default abilities and preferences today. There is not even a linear progression, various climate and cultural filters have output humans with vastly different ideal environments.

    The nature-would-do-us-best thesis is a feelgood mythology for people ill suited for the present technological norms most humans practice.

    On a personal note have lived in Seattle, Akutan AK (island in Bering Sea), Kanab UT, and Antarctica. My mind did fine in all four places.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Cro Magnon (467622)

      Humans are not all the same, and what most humans were 10,000 years ago has little to do with our default abilities and preferences today. There is not even a linear progression, various climate and cultural filters have output humans with vastly different ideal environments.

      There's really not that much difference between the city and the jungle. I watch out for cars, muggers, and mall bargins. My great-great-great grandpa watched for bears, wolves, and nice fresh fruit to eat.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Thaelon (250687)

      what most humans were 10,000 years ago has little to do with our default abilities and preferences today.

      Tell that to my desire to mate with as many attractive females as possible.

      Or my preference to be warm in cold climates

      Or my preference to be cool in hot climates.

      Or my preference to consume both plant and animal matter.

      Or my preference to often associate with other humans.

      Or my ability to become enraged when my desires are frustrated or when I'm attacked either emotionally or physically.

      Or my ability to

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by perp (114928)
      The nature-would-do-us-best thesis is a feelgood mythology for people ill suited for the present technological norms most humans practice.

      It is only in 2007 that the world became more urban than rural [ncsu.edu], up until then "most" humans lived in a rural environment.
  • OS analogy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by theheadlessrabbit (1022587) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @07:59AM (#26341313) Homepage Journal

    being raised in a rural town, i suspect that I notice this effect much more strongly than urbanites. when i'm in the city, everything is fighting for my attention simultaneously, so i just tune everything out.

    I wonder if something similar occurs when using a multitasking operating system.

    in the old days, a personal computer would be set to do one thing and one thing only at any one time. now i have music running in the background, along with gimp and pidgin, while i try to post on Slashdot. I'm so distracted, this post took me nearly 45 minutes to type up, and i can almost guarantee I wont get a +5 insightful.

  • by antifoidulus (807088) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @08:54AM (#26341621) Homepage Journal
    I mean, I can post this from my cell phone while walking in the city...sorry what....was I talking.....gotta go, I see something shiny!
  • by zenyu (248067) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @11:00AM (#26342663)

    A city park is a contrived environment intended to promote feelings of well being and safety. In reality they increase crime on their margins and are the least safe places to be in a city at night. While they have their deleterious effects they are like processed food in another way, every element is there to serve a purpose. The landscape architect believed those elements would help the user relax and as a rule they do.

    A walk down a city street is like a walk in actual nature, you need to pay attention to your surroundings. Instead of being mortally wounded by a bear or a snake, you get plowed over by a feckless tourist. A small portion of your mind is at all times dedicated to the task. If you engage in some artificial mental test during or shortly after completing this task you will be a little distracted. Duh!

    It goes without saying that this study says nothing about the obvious benefits to the mind of living in a city. These are primarily due to your interaction with other people who share your interest or otherwise are part of your social sphere, but are also due to smaller effects such as better overall health (the pollution is balanced by more exercise than average and much better medical care).

  • by MrCrassic (994046) <deprecated AT ema DOT il> on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @11:38AM (#26343093) Journal
    When I was working in my last co-op, I took one morning to do my work outside. I thought that working indoors all day made me really lethargic, and that changing scenery would fix that. Not only was I more productive, I could listen to my music in the open air of the courtyard and nobody would bother me! I had no cow-orkers to worry about, and full exposure to natural light and a beautiful campus.

    I wasn't allowed to do that again. It wasn't a coincidence that my favorite part of going to that job was riding my bike and taking a train for two and a half hours getting there (and the same amount of time coming back).
  • by MaWeiTao (908546) on Tuesday January 06, 2009 @12:38PM (#26343869)

    I can see the argument. But when I was living in a big city in Asia I felt more stimulated and motivated than I've ever felt anywhere else. I felt like there was always something going on, something to take a part in, something new to see, something to absorb.

    Now I'm back in the US, back in the suburbs, and in some ways it feels like a wasteland of blandness. I live in an area where the homes are all very close together, but there just isn't much life to be found. It's all hidden away indoors.

    I recall getting back and over the first few weeks feeling this sense of emptiness, similar to hearing silence. I can see where too much stimulus might be a problem, but to me it isn't much different than being bombarded by crap on TV, but I think television is worse.

    The problem I see with big cities is the impersonal nature of life there, how a person can feel isolated even in the midst of millions of people. That leads to all sorts of problems. But with culture today it seems to be a problem everywhere but small towns.

    To be honest, if I had the opportunity to move back I would.

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