Cities can be places of great creative excitement and inspiration, but as anyone who spends a lot of time there can tell you, the urban landscape can be draining as well. Recent research has shown that all the hectic man-made activity occurring on the average city street can lead to a dramatic kind of mental fatigue. The brain, only able to handle a certain number of processes and inputs at any one time ends up using much of its processing power just drowning out all the irrelevant stimuli. It’s been discovered however, that natural setting do not have the same detrimental effect on the mind. A University of Michigan study had one group of students walk around an arboretum, and the others through the streets of downtown Ann Arbor. The group interacting with a natural environment displayed better moods and increased scores on tests of attention and working memory. Even looking at pictures of urban environments led to impairment in the skills measured. So the good news is that even small doses of nature can take the edges off of urban atmospheres and improve mental functioning. Think I’ll go for a walk in the park now.
The Boston Globe reports:
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.