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The city and our mind


Just being in an urban environment, scientists 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. …

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. …

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. …

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.

By Jonah Lehrer, Boston Globe; excerpts, edited by Ellopos Blog – read complete. Cf. Emerson, Nature gives second birth to itself in poetry



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1 Comment

  1. James

    But also more crime due to the diminishing space between people (and not just physical space). There’s something both oddly perverse (considering the actual amount of free-space on the planet) yet strangely hypnotic about new modern cities- sometimes they appear to be nothing more than parts of its designed functions, so you often get the impression, while strolling, particularly after normal business hours of an essentially ghost city illumed by the shadows of the vacant ultra high spec office complexes. During other moments, the very same physical same can be occupied by the crowd or a particular type of crowd that somehow becomes coloured by the actual functions of a given district in the city, which again, like the progress of the sun around the buildings throughout the day, can literally “throw out” or cast a different reflection which can be perceived almost as a new phenomenon, say in the late afternoon, or in a different season.

    Baudalaire, I think was one of the first great modern poets who seemed to be able to both discern and capture this (negative?) aura in his poetry.

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