Although living in the city has wonderful social, cultural and career benefits, research reveals that city life can take a toll on mental processes including attention and memory. In fact, just being on a busy street for a few minutes affects a person’s ability to focus and even hinders self-control.
The findings are relevant to many, as more than half of the world’s population lives in an urban area, according to the United Nations.
In a particular study by the University of Michigan, one group of volunteers took a walk in the park, while another group navigated the busy city streets. After taking several psychological tests, the individuals who walked the city streets scored far lower on attention and working-memory tests compared to those volunteers who strolled in the park.
The researchers concluded that the sensory excitement of the city — traffic, sirens, neon lights, and the abundance of people — direct a person’s attention to things that are compelling, but only for a very short time, and that this variation of focus can occur so quickly that people become mentally exhausted.
“On a busy city street, it’s probably more adaptive to have a shorter attention span, ” says Sara Lazar, PhD, a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology and director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Laboratory for Neuroscientific Investigation of Meditation.
“If you’re too fixated on something, you might miss a car coming around the corner and fail to jump out of the way. ”
Lazar points out that although these city distractions are actually important bits of information for the brain, the extra stimuli end up draining the brain’s natural processing power. The end result is “directed attention fatigue” in which a person’s voluntary attention system becomes overworked.
Individuals with directed attention fatigue may have higher short-term feelings of distraction, forgetfulness or impatience. If it gets too severe, people can show poor judgment and experience higher levels of stress.
Fortunately, studies have shown that taking a short break—even as brief as 20 minutes—in a more natural setting can help the brain processes recover from the harms of city life. In fact, studies with hospitalized patients and public housing residents have shown benefits from staying in a room with a natural view.
For example, patients staying in hospital rooms with a window view of trees actually recover more quickly than patients without such a view. Also, in other research, women in public housing projects whose windows overlooked grassy areas were able to focus on daily tasks more easily.
“If people are stressed about basic survival, they will have more cortisol and a smaller hippocampus, and thus potential difficulties with memory formation,” says Lazar.
“Moving to a quieter place could help reduce stress, which in turn can reduce cortisol levels and create conditions conducive to neuroplasticity. ”
For those who would like to take a break from the strain of city life, but feel it impossible to move to a less demanding environment, Lazar suggests yoga or meditation.
This article is in the Fall 2010 issue of On The Brain. It is the sixth in a series on how internal and external forces affect the brain.
Source: Harvard Medical School