It’s official: Living in a city is bad for your brain–or so says some new research by University of Michigan scientists. Specifically, the team of psychologists found that being in an urban environment depresses memory performance and attention spans.
It’s a fascinating discovery, to say the least. Our modern society has progressed in leaps and bounds as people converse, exchange ideas and develop new technologies in urban environments. The city is an intellectual meeting place, center of commerce and transportation. But it seems from this new research that even ten minutes spent walking in a busy city street affects our core mental functions.
The researchers collected data by equipping volunteers with GPS tracking units, and having them walk different routes through Ann Arbor–some down main city streets, some through Nichols Arboretum and the University’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The volunteers then underwent psychological tests that profiled their attention span and memory performance. Those who walked through natural environments scored significantly higher on both aspects. Fascinatingly, similar results were achieved when the subjects were subjected to a sequence of photos of urban or natural environments: 20% higher scores for those who had a glimpse of nature.
“Interacting with nature can have similar effects as meditating,” according to team-member Marc Berman, also noting that “People don’t have to enjoy the walk to get the benefits.” It seems that it’s just the presence of a natural environment that makes the difference–the team found similar results in balmy weather or when it was freezing outside.
Natural settings, it seems, apply less of a load on our cognitive processes, compared to the flurry of inputs and choices an urban environment–with all its people, traffic, technology and artificial shapes and sounds–makes. Somehow this has knock-on effects deep in our brains. Of course this study simply exposes the results, and an understanding of the mental mechanisms that drive this behavior is much more complex. But it’s clear that our brains developed as we evolved in a natural environment.
And at least the study found that the beneficial effects of a natural environment counteract the negative effects of an urban one–to sharpen up your brain, you simply need to go outside and find a park to stroll in.
The team’s work is likely to have an impact on helping people suffering mental fatigue, and is sure to pique the interests of urban planners. As Berman puts it “It’s not an accident that Central Park is in the middle of Manhattan. They needed to put a park there.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m instantly switching my screensaver to a bunch of photos of forests and lakes and waterfalls–as long as I can concentrate long enough to remember that’s what I want to do.