How City Living Makes Us Stupid

05/25/2011 01:00 pm ET

Cities have long been thought of as incubators of progress. In his Great Society speech in 1964, Lyndon Johnson reminded Americans of the growing importance of cities to national and societal development, calling them "the frontiers of imagination and innovation." A similar perspective, albeit five decades prior, was shared by Ezra Pound, who believed the metropolis to be the mother of all great art. Truly, for many, the city is an Ideal -- an object of hope, desire, and aspiration. It's also one helluva great place to meet singles.

For these reasons and countless more, hyper-urbanization has become a prevalent characteristic of modern culture. In fact, 2007 marked the first year in human history in which more than half of the global population lives in an urban area, and the transformation continues at full tilt.

As urbanization is proving to be such a powerful (and perhaps irreversible) force, a recent study by scientists at the University of Michigan on the affects of urban living on the human brain should be of serious interest to at least a handful of people - as it may conflict with some of our basic feelings and beliefs about our cities. Unfortunately for this new urban majority, the study reveals an inconvenient truth: the city is dimming our wits.

Say whaaaat?

In an effort to discover how exposure to city living affects the human brain, these psychologists at UofM split their subjects into two groups: one group took a walk through an arboretum, while the other strolled down the streets of Ann Arbor. Afterward, the students were exposed to a battery of psychological tests, many of which evaluated the brain's ability to process, retain, and recall information. Their findings showed that the group exposed to a natural environment out-performed those who strolled through Ann Arbor by at least 20 percent across the board.

The reasons for this discrepancy are numerous. Primarily, we often forget that cities are, simply put, unnatural. For the most part, they tend not to blend into their immediate surroundings (cough, Las Vegas, cough), or integrate at all really, nor do they traditionally make effective use of proximate natural resources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the features that make cities "unnatural" have adverse psychological effects on the brain.

For example, on a basic level, it takes our brains quite a bit of energy to sort out the complex and often overwhelming stimuli washing over us on the typical city block. Factor in crowds, traffic, lights, noise, and there's little wonder why our brains spend most of their energy on maintaining concentration. Obviously, the brain is limited in resources and is forced to prioritize; when there's a whole mess of irresistible, artificial information to be processed quickly, the mind does so at the expense of other areas of cognition. The profusion of stimuli taxes our self-control and our attention, making it more difficult to resist temptations and unhealthy choices.

As an animal that evolved in grasslands, forests, and rural jungles, it is fascinating (and perhaps unsurprising) to learn that human beings might not yet have the mental dexterity to cope with the concrete streets. Someday, no doubt, our brains will adapt to the challenges and requirements of a multimedia-permeated urban landscape -- but we're not there quite yet.

Luckily, the cure in the short-term is simple, and it doesn't involve moving to the suburbs. The Michigan study reveals that a visual cue as simple as a picture of a mountain or a river -- anything from nature -- can have a positive affect on viewers suffering from mental fatigue and over-stimulation. So how about an Ansel Adams poster? Natural images inside, combined with the simple act of taking a walk outside, improves our ability to sustain mental and emotional control - and our mood - exponentially. Nature, surprise, surprise, is restorative and may hold a few answers to important riddles, just as it did for ole Isaac Newton.

With this in mind, it is interesting to consider how "study drugs" have extended beyond the university campus - that their widespread use has begun to constitute something more than a trend. Their popularity might lead one to conclude that concentration is more difficult to achieve in today's culture than ever before. Or perhaps we put a greater value on performance today as a result of a better understanding of the extent to which concentration is integral to this performance.

Whatever the cause, Ritalin and Adderall, the most common attention-deficit drugs, raked in a combined $4.7 billion in 2007. A generation of kids (probably the same rascals that caused Facebook to be valued at $15 billion and that demand free music) has come of age in academic settings where these drugs are proliferated and accepted. And it's more than just students. Now, according to BusinessWeek, these drugs are at the tipping point, poised to go mainstream.

Interestingly, multiple psychological studies prior to the Michigan report have found that children with attention deficit disorder display fewer symptoms in natural settings than in those that are not. So, if the character of today's cities is contributing to our collective lack of attention, and if you feel that there are a few unresolved health and ethical issues in a Ritalin-cure, all the more reason to build that summer shack in a place that has a few deciduous and/or coniferous trees. Or we might begin encouraging the people who pull the strings to incorporate a greater amount of simplicity and biomimicry into urban development. After all, green is good.

In conclusion: if someone you care about is currently living in a city, ask him or her when he or she last saw "a star." If their answer sounds anything remotely like, "Well, yesterday I saw that famous dude from that MTV show on his laptop in Starbucks," then your mission is clear: buy them a canoe. Or at least a turtle.