How city life hurts your brain

Does living in the city harm the brain? New research suggests it does:

“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 …

Consider everything your brain has to keep track of as you walk down a busy thoroughfare like Newbury Street. There are the crowded sidewalks full of distracted pedestrians who have to be avoided; the hazardous crosswalks that require the brain to monitor the flow of traffic. (The brain is a wary machine, always looking out for potential threats.) There’s the confusing urban grid, which forces people to think continually about where they’re going and how to get there.

The reason such seemingly trivial mental tasks leave us depleted is that they exploit one of the crucial weak spots of the brain. A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception — we are telling the mind what to pay attention to — takes energy and effort. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power …

But the density of city life doesn’t just make it harder to focus: It also interferes with our self-control. In that stroll down Newbury, the brain is also assaulted with temptations — caramel lattes, iPods, discounted cashmere sweaters, and high-heeled shoes. Resisting these temptations requires us to flex the prefrontal cortex, a nub of brain just behind the eyes. Unfortunately, this is the same brain area that’s responsible for directed attention, which means that it’s already been depleted from walking around the city. As a result, it’s less able to exert self-control, which means we’re more likely to splurge on the latte and those shoes we don’t really need. While the human brain possesses incredible computational powers, it’s surprisingly easy to short-circuit: all it takes is a hectic city street.

‘I think cities reveal how fragile some of our higher mental functions actually are,’ Kuo says. ‘We take these talents for granted, but they really need to be protected.’

Related research has demonstrated that increased ‘cognitive load’ — like the mental demands of being in a city — makes people more likely to choose chocolate cake instead of fruit salad, or indulge in a unhealthy snack. This is the one-two punch of city life: It subverts our ability to resist temptation even as it surrounds us with it, from fast-food outlets to fancy clothing stores. The end result is too many calories and too much credit card debt.

City life can also lead to loss of emotional control. Kuo and her colleagues found less domestic violence in the apartments with views of greenery. These data build on earlier work that demonstrated how aspects of the urban environment, such as crowding and unpredictable noise, can also lead to increased levels of aggression. A tired brain, run down by the stimuli of city life, is more likely to lose its temper.”


8 thoughts on “How city life hurts your brain

  1. Having grown up in an urban setting (Chicago), having just recently visited there, and having also seen a fair bit of modern suburbia, I strongly disagree. We’re talking about things like sheer noise level, crowdedness, number of vehicles, and the like. You can hate the suburbs as much as you like, but this city girl can tell you that they looked like paradise when I was young and got a chance to visit a friend who lived in them.


  2. I think this, while having a grain of truth to it, is hardly universal. There’s a reason why many of the best thinkers, writers, artists, and musicians were city-dwellers.

    More often than not, cities are the foundries where culture is forged. This is because they are essentially collaborative places, filled with a rich mix of personalities and ethnicities from which to draw on for inspiration.

    I think of men like Mozart, who, while not well accepted in his home country of Austria, found solace and inspiration in the quite cosmopolitan city of Prague. It was there that he went to do some of his best work.

    Having lived in both the city and the country, I can see the benefits of both, but they are markedly different benefits. Everyone needs to retreat to the quiet and isolation to recharge and reflect, but I find that it’s in the city that I want to get things done. The energy is contagious.


  3. I grew up in bland suburbia – and am still here.

    I’ve listened with envy over the years as family and friends would describe growing up in a large city in the early/middle 20th. century, cities which had clearly defined ethnic neighborhoods. Within those Italian, German, Polish, Irish neighborhoods, everyone was Catholic, and everyone (or so it seems) knew each other. My Father grew up in one such neighborhood, and all the guys with whom he played sandlot ball in his neighborhood grew up and went to the same Catholic boys’ high school. Every mom and grandma knew all the kids, and would scold – or feed – any of them as if they were their own. Friends have related stopping in at the neighborhood bakery after Mass on Sunday with all the other early-morning low-Mass attendees, and how you could get certain pastries related to certain feast days if you got there in time. There seems to have been a shared community that gave a sense of extended family – not only connected by culture and language, but most importantly by a shared religion.

    I realize that for many, such memories are distant, and I’m sure in some cases oversentimentalized. Cities can be gritty and harsh, and I myself treasure the ability to “lift mine eyes unto the hills” in my own little corner of the world. But I look to those memories as an idea of how things should be; if only some right order could be found. Thankfully, right order flourishes in Catholic homes around the country – rural and urban – but it must be sheltered as a hand shelters a small flame from a draft, because there will not be right order in community until our Lord returns.


  4. We have moved recently (in the past 15 months) to a dilapitated farmhouse where we have a view of pine woods and absolutely no neighbors. Our friends are appalled at the condition of the house and I do not understand it. We are happy here. We are at peace. And we can concentrate on and engage *one another* without the distractions of bustle.

    I truly do not know how you can enjoy family life in the city but I suppose it’s possible.


  5. One can be at peace anywhere, I suppose. I have had a taste of all three – city, suburbs, rural. Far more opportunity for reflection, for me, in the rural. Not in suburbia. I do miss the city sometimes… but it can’t beat the rural, for me, anyways…..


  6. Also… the burbs have radically changed… since many of us born “urban” were young. Wholesomeness sold to our forefathers is gone, replaced by liberal consumerism, which is Suburbia, for the most part, these days.


  7. I think it’s also worth noting that debauchery may be concentrated in the city, but it’s hardly restricted to it.

    Country living can give rise to high levels of boredom, causing young men and women to get in all kinds of trouble. I’ve known farmers who were drunks, been to rural Idaho parties, and have come to realize that we can romanticize any way of life, but it’s about the character of the people living there as much as the environment.


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