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Boston Globe article on cognitive function in cities vs nature

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  • Christopher Miller
    An article in the Boston Globe about researchers studies that show negative effects of urban vs natural environments on cognitive functioning. The general
    Message 1 of 2 , Jan 8, 2009
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      An article in the Boston Globe about researchers' studies that show
      negative effects of urban vs natural environments on cognitive
      functioning. The general assumption is that urban environment = the
      current car-centric urban milieu we all know and love (so little -- I
      wonder why...). Parts of the article seem to point to the advantages
      of a carfree urban environment though I think, from what I am able to
      glean from the article, that it would actually be useful for research
      to be done (or cited if it already has been done) that compares the
      two extremes with car-free urban environments including fully
      pedestrianised areas in large cities such as Copenhagen's Str�get
      shopping street, and the kind of thing Joel has been arguing we should
      move toward, namely more human-scaled environments such as those found
      in Venice and many other smaller European and other Old World cities.

      Since the article is a popularising overview of research, it glosses
      over important questions about the precise factors (implied in the
      paragraph above) that contribute to strengthening or weakening of
      cognitive abilities: human density per se as opposed to crowding on
      sidewalks combined with roads crowded with roaring and speeding cars;
      oversized versus human-scaled buildings and street spaces; degree of
      planting/greenery versus quality; absence of overall natural stimuli
      versus natural stimuli for all the senses (and so on...). I wonder
      what thoughts people here might have for an experimental paradigm that
      would produce more solid and interesting results?

      http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/01/04/how_the_city_hurts_your_brain/


      =========================================================

      How the city hurts your brain
      ...And what you can do about it

      By Jonah Lehrer
      January 2, 2009
      Email|Print|Single Page|Yahoo! Buzz|ShareThisText size � +
      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."

      One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is
      surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for
      instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can
      see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing
      are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy
      courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain
      performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the
      urban roil.

      This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For
      the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities.
      For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the
      African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of
      inhabiting wide-open spaces, we're crowded into concrete jungles,
      surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent
      years, it's become clear that such unnatural surroundings have
      important implications for our mental and physical health, and can
      powerfully alter how we think.

      This research is also leading some scientists to dabble in urban
      design, as they look for ways to make the metropolis less damaging to
      the brain. The good news is that even slight alterations, such as
      planting more trees in the inner city or creating urban parks with a
      greater variety of plants, can significantly reduce the negative side
      effects of city life. The mind needs nature, and even a little bit can
      be a big help.


      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."

      One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is
      surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for
      instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can
      see trees from their windows, and that women living in public housing
      are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy
      courtyard. Even these fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain
      performance, it seems, because they provide a mental break from the
      urban roil.

      This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For
      the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities.
      For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the
      African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. Instead of
      inhabiting wide-open spaces, we're crowded into concrete jungles,
      surrounded by taxis, traffic, and millions of strangers. In recent
      years, it's become clear that such unnatural surroundings have
      important implications for our mental and physical health, and can
      powerfully alter how we think.

      This research is also leading some scientists to dabble in urban
      design, as they look for ways to make the metropolis less damaging to
      the brain. The good news is that even slight alterations, such as
      planting more trees in the inner city or creating urban parks with a
      greater variety of plants, can significantly reduce the negative side
      effects of city life. The mind needs nature, and even a little bit can
      be a big help.

      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.

      Natural settings, in contrast, don't require the same amount of
      cognitive effort. This idea is known as attention restoration theory,
      or ART, and it was first developed by Stephen Kaplan, a psychologist
      at the University of Michigan. While it's long been known that human
      attention is a scarce resource -- focusing in the morning makes it
      harder to focus in the afternoon -- Kaplan hypothesized that immersion
      in nature might have a restorative effect.

      Imagine a walk around Walden Pond, in Concord. The woods surrounding
      the pond are filled with pitch pine and hickory trees. Chickadees and
      red-tailed hawks nest in the branches; squirrels and rabbits skirmish
      in the berry bushes. Natural settings are full of objects that
      automatically capture our attention, yet without triggering a negative
      emotional response -- unlike, say, a backfiring car. The mental
      machinery that directs attention can relax deeply, replenishing itself.

      "It's not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of
      Manhattan," says Berman. "They needed to put a park there."

      In a study published last month, Berman outfitted undergraduates at
      the University of Michigan with GPS receivers. Some of the students
      took a stroll in an arboretum, while others walked around the busy
      streets of downtown Ann Arbor.

      The subjects were then run through a battery of psychological tests.
      People who had walked through the city were in a worse mood and scored
      significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory, which
      involved repeating a series of numbers backwards. In fact, just
      glancing at a photograph of urban scenes led to measurable
      impairments, at least when compared with pictures of nature.

      "We see the picture of the busy street, and we automatically imagine
      what it's like to be there," says Berman. "And that's when your
      ability to pay attention starts to suffer."

      This also helps explain why, according to several studies, children
      with attention-deficit disorder have fewer symptoms in natural
      settings. When surrounded by trees and animals, they are less likely
      to have behavioral problems and are better able to focus on a
      particular task.

      Studies have found that even a relatively paltry patch of nature can
      confer benefits. In the late 1990s, Frances Kuo, director of the
      Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois,
      began interviewing female residents in the Robert Taylor Homes, a
      massive housing project on the South Side of Chicago.

      Kuo and her colleagues compared women randomly assigned to various
      apartments. Some had a view of nothing but concrete sprawl, the
      blacktop of parking lots and basketball courts. Others looked out on
      grassy courtyards filled with trees and flowerbeds. Kuo then measured
      the two groups on a variety of tasks, from basic tests of attention to
      surveys that looked at how the women were handling major life
      challenges. She found that living in an apartment with a view of
      greenery led to significant improvements in every category.

      "We've constructed a world that's always drawing down from the same
      mental account," Kuo says. "And then we're surprised when [after
      spending time in the city] we can't focus at home."

      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.

      Long before scientists warned about depleted prefrontal cortices,
      philosophers and landscape architects were warning about the effects
      of the undiluted city, and looking for ways to integrate nature into
      modern life. Ralph Waldo Emerson advised people to "adopt the pace of
      nature," while the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted sought to
      create vibrant urban parks, such as Central Park in New York and the
      Emerald Necklace in Boston, that allowed the masses to escape the
      maelstrom of urban life.

      Although Olmsted took pains to design parks with a variety of habitats
      and botanical settings, most urban greenspaces are much less diverse.
      This is due in part to the "savannah hypothesis," which argues that
      people prefer wide-open landscapes that resemble the African landscape
      in which we evolved. Over time, this hypothesis has led to a
      proliferation of expansive civic lawns, punctuated by a few trees and
      playing fields.

      However, these savannah-like parks are actually the least beneficial
      for the brain. In a recent paper, Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the
      University of Queensland, demonstrated that the psychological benefits
      of green space are closely linked to the diversity of its plant life.
      When a city park has a larger variety of trees, subjects that spend
      time in the park score higher on various measures of psychological
      well-being, at least when compared with less biodiverse parks.

      "We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species,"
      Fuller says. "But we're also affected by it. That's why it's so
      important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief."

      When a park is properly designed, it can improve the function of the
      brain within minutes. As the Berman study demonstrates, just looking
      at a natural scene can lead to higher scores on tests of attention and
      memory. While people have searched high and low for ways to improve
      cognitive performance, from doping themselves with Red Bull to
      redesigning the layout of offices, it appears that few of these
      treatments are as effective as simply taking a walk in a natural place.

      Given the myriad mental problems that are exacerbated by city life,
      from an inability to pay attention to a lack of self-control, the
      question remains: Why do cities continue to grow? And why, even in the
      electronic age, do they endure as wellsprings of intellectual life?

      Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of
      complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same
      urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory -- the
      crowded streets, the crushing density of people -- also correlate with
      measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in
      unpredictable ways. It is the "concentration of social interactions"
      that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the
      scientists. The density of 18th-century London may have triggered
      outbreaks of disease, but it also led to intellectual breakthroughs,
      just as the density of Cambridge -- one of the densest cities in
      America -- contributes to its success as a creative center. One
      corollary of this research is that less dense urban areas, like
      Phoenix, may, over time, generate less innovation.

      The key, then, is to find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of
      the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits. Kuo, for
      instance, describes herself as "not a nature person," but has learned
      to seek out more natural settings: The woods have become a kind of
      medicine. As a result, she's better able to cope with the stresses of
      city life, while still enjoying its many pleasures and benefits.
      Because there always comes a time, as Lou Reed once sang, when a
      person wants to say: "I'm sick of the trees/take me to the city."

      Jonah Lehrer is the author of the new book "How We Decide." His first
      book was "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." He is a regular contributor to
      Ideas.
      � Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

      =========================================================

      Christopher Miller
      Montreal QC Canada



      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
    • Ron Wolf
      Fascinating backup to what I m sure many of us feel. That Car Free is about much more than reducing CO2 or traffic deaths. Its about the very enjoyment of life
      Message 2 of 2 , Jan 16, 2009
      • 0 Attachment
        Fascinating backup to what I'm sure many of us feel. That Car Free is
        about much more than reducing CO2 or traffic deaths. Its about the
        very enjoyment of life and our sanity.

        On your question as to whether the high-density shopping area
        (Copenhagen's Strøget in your example) or the smaller scale
        city/village (Venice in Joel's example) is the most probable Car Free
        locale/modality, the probably answer would be both. That each modality
        fits some people and some places. Do we need to choose?

        And then the question, can a low density sprawl (Silicon Valley for
        instance) - function Car Free? Or is that just impossible?

        BTW, Vienna has a wonderful Car Free downtown. On NYE 800,000 people
        celebrated there. Really great! On the other hand, I would like to see
        us expand our vision and hopefulness for Car Free beyond these
        shopping areas. Sure one step at a time. But I'd like to see a vision
        for an entire area (village, city, whatever) - not just the prime
        shopping district - to become, or approach, Car Free.

        ______________Ron


        --- In carfree_cities@yahoogroups.com, Christopher Miller
        <christophermiller@...> wrote:
        >
        > An article in the Boston Globe about researchers' studies that show
        > negative effects of urban vs natural environments on cognitive
        > functioning. The general assumption is that urban environment = the
        > current car-centric urban milieu we all know and love (so little -- I
        > wonder why...). Parts of the article seem to point to the advantages
        > of a carfree urban environment though I think, from what I am able to
        > glean from the article, that it would actually be useful for research
        > to be done (or cited if it already has been done) that compares the
        > two extremes with car-free urban environments including fully
        > pedestrianised areas in large cities such as Copenhagen's Strøget
        > shopping street, and the kind of thing Joel has been arguing we should
        > move toward, namely more human-scaled environments such as those found
        > in Venice and many other smaller European and other Old World cities.
        >
        > Since the article is a popularising overview of research, it glosses
        > over important questions about the precise factors (implied in the
        > paragraph above) that contribute to strengthening or weakening of
        > cognitive abilities: human density per se as opposed to crowding on
        > sidewalks combined with roads crowded with roaring and speeding cars;
        > oversized versus human-scaled buildings and street spaces; degree of
        > planting/greenery versus quality; absence of overall natural stimuli
        > versus natural stimuli for all the senses (and so on...). I wonder
        > what thoughts people here might have for an experimental paradigm that
        > would produce more solid and interesting results?
        >
        >
        http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/01/04/how_the_city_hurts_your_brain/
        >
        >
        > =========================================================
        >
        > How the city hurts your brain
        > ...And what you can do about it
        >
        > By Jonah Lehrer
        > January 2, 2009
        > Email|Print|Single Page|Yahoo! Buzz|ShareThisText size – +
        > THE CITY HAS always been an engine of intellectual life, from the 18th-

        ---------------deletage--------------------
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