03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How The City Hurts Your Brain And What You Can Do About It

Can city life harm your memory and stunt your ability to control yourself?

New research is revealing how urban living can actually harm the human brain.

After millennia of living surrounded by nature in small tribes and villages, ancient peoples began to gather in early cities in the Middle East, Egypt, China, Europe and the jungles of the Americas. Since then, humans have come to treasure the intellectual, economic and cultural stimulation that urban life offers. But modern cities are also what Boston Globe essayist Jonah Lehrer, author of How The City Hurts Your Brain...and What You Can Do About It, calls "deeply unnatural and overwhelming places."

Lehrer tells us:

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, this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so.

Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, is the lead author of a study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short walk in the city.

One of the most fundamental things about life in modern cities is the lack of connection with nature, which a growing body of research is proving to be beneficial for brain health. A view of trees from a hospital window will speed post-operative recovery and "women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard." Lehrer believes that "fleeting glimpses of nature improve brain performance...because they provide a mental break from the urban roil."

This research has special urgency because, for the first time in history, the majority of people now live in cities. Lehrer reports

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.

I bolded that last phrase because I think it encapsulates the core message of ecotherapy. The human psyche cannot be healthy in the absence of contact with the rest of nature.

Lehrer believes that the key is to "find ways to mitigate the psychological damage of the metropolis while still preserving its unique benefits." Nature-connection, even in a city park, is "a kind of medicine" that modern city-dwellers desperately need.

So, is living in the city driving you nuts? Or have you found ways to calm your brain by connecting with wild nature even in the heart of the metropolis?

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