The problem is pretty straight-forward. Navigating city life requires a great deal of what is called 'controlled perception'. In other words we are constantly telling our brain what of the overwhelming stimuli around us is unimportant (street sign, lady's weird hat, some body's stupid stupid cell phone conversation) and what is important (traffic, directions to destination, guy over there with a knife and grumpy expression). Our brains are wary in general, so we see dangers easily, and something like a backfiring car panics us, just for a second, to no great purpose. Navigating the average cityscape demands a lot of this controlled perception. Unfortunately this process is not one of our brain's strongest abilities, according to the study, so having to do a lot of it wears us out more quickly. Since this part of the brain is also responsible for self-control, after day of city living we have depleted our ability to concentrate, retain memory, resist temptation and keep our tempers. That's right, after a day spent in the cement jungle, we're less able to focus and more likely to buy that expensive suit we don't need, gorge on cookies instead of salad, and fight with our partner.
Studies done in Ann Arbor showed that students who had walked around in city streets were in a worse mood, and scored lower on memory tests, than did students who spent the same time walking in an arboretum. Patients with views of trees from their hospital rooms heal more quickly than patients who only have a parking lot to look at. In a study of women in a housing project, people living in apartments with views of trees and plantings scored higher on tests of focus and "ability to handle life challenges" than did people living in apartments with views of parking lots and basketball courts. People in the latter category also experienced more domestic violence. Children with ADHD exhibit fewer symptoms when they're in natural settings. The numbers of children with ADHD has been rising for years. Some believe this just indicates fewer kids are falling through the cracks than used to. Others believe it merely shows that the medical industry has gotten more clever at getting people to buy more pills. Another possibility, however, is the number has risen as more people move to cities. For the first time in history, more people are living in urban settings than are not. If this other research is accurate, then I think it's safe to wonder if there's a correlation with a rise in ADHD. But that's just my own little hobby horse.
For a time the Savannah Hypothesis - the theory that we'll prefer wide open spaces like the ones we evolved from in Africa - led to many parks and civic spaces being designed basically as big lawns, but research now indicates that we're actually more helped by places with a wide variety of trees, plants, and fauna. According to the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), formulated by Dr. Steven Kaplan at the University of Michigan, our brains do notice all the things around us in beautiful natural settings (birds, animals, flowers) but doing so actually rests and restores our brains. We take it all in, but not only do we not feel threatened by it, we're actually the better for it. I assume we'll be appropriately worried at the sight of a grizzly bear or similar threat, but a simple walk in the woods will rejuvenate us in ways that a city street just won't.
This article goes a long way to explaining why I will feel tense, angry and exhausted after a twenty minute walk in Times Square, and upbeat after a walk in a park, woods or mountain-side. I had assumed the level and quality of noise was responsible, and presumably it's part of the picture, but apparently the difference in visual stimuli is not to be ignored either.
I've even noticed a difference in the kind of tiredness I experience. There's what I call a 'good tired' which results from good exercise or rewarding mental challenges (and to be fair, such urban activities as dancing in a club can cause it), then there's the 'bad tired' which results from things like sitting on a plane forever, waiting for a subway, or running one too many errands in Midtown. I'll be exhausted in either case, but mood and the quality of sleep is just much better in the former case. There is usually a better sense of accomplishment as well; even if a dance or gymnastics class has left me aching, it will be a good ache. Bad tired leaves me feeling cranky, worn down, and depleted. With any luck, I will use this information the next time I feel tempted to reward myself for a hard day by planting myself in front of the TV with a vat of sesame chicken. Even just looking at a photo of green space has a beneficial effect.
I think I mentioned last Spring, when I rediscovered the river walk near my place, that it had taken me a while to learn that I need regular infusions of sky and long vistas. I have a very slight case of claustrophobia, extended periods surrounded by skyscrapers will trigger it, and I assumed that was the whole story. Perhaps having grown up in the Mid-West means I'm just a bit more 'Savannah' focused than some. Certainly I experience rejuvenation from a sight many might find ugly or even depressing, that of a harvested field lying fallow in Winter. The many shades of brown, rust, sepia, the rustling stalks, the broken earth, I love it. I know my mother enjoys visiting places with hills and mountains, but after two weeks she definitely starts to feel claustrophobic. Her childhood on an Iowa farm means she now needs regular access to a 360 degree horizon. My claustrophobia isn't that strong; I love living in or near mountains, they just don't oppress me the way skyscrapers can. (I do acknowledge that being up high in a skyscraper can be thrilling, it's just not something I experience very often here.) Maybe I just find it much easier to find long vistas when I'm in woods or mountains.
Recently I noticed an additional nuance to this experience (appropriately enough during a walk on Epiphany). I don't like it if enormous things sneak up on me, or take me by surprise, and seriously, that happens to me in cities more than you might think. I'm talking about turning a corner and suddenly being confronted by an enormous building reaching to the heavens. No, it doesn't happen every time I walk around town, New York actually does pretty well with wide enough streets and a grid that gives me fair warning of encroaching behemoths. Nonetheless I will occasionally come across some huge construction (often coming up from underground, which worsens the effect) and feel like I should have had more warning.
See, in the country, even places with mountains, you will see enormous things from some distance away, and you can watch them slowly get bigger as you approach. You get some warning. You're prepared. Apparently I need that process more than most. This might also explain why I was so often disconcerted (though ultimately thrilled) by seeing Mt. Rainier in Seattle. For those of you who've never had the experience, Rainier is a two hour drive away from Seattle, and for about two hundred days out of the year, you can't see it from the city at all because of cloud cover. Even on days where it is sunny in the city, you won't be able to see the volcano (with spectacular iceberg) because it will be shrouded in clouds, you just can't tell. When the mountain does become visible though, it is ENORMOUS. HUGE. It looks like it's right smack dab in the city, like you should be able to walk to it on your lunch break. It looks like a freakin' movie backdrop, because nothing that huge should just SHOW UP like that. This is why Seattleites will talk about the mountain 'being out' as a noteworthy event. It is.
On a related note, I think this makes me understand my sister's objections to blimps a bit better. She hates, I mean HATES them with a passion that, to be honest, I used to think was a bit on the crazy side. One of the things she has said though is "nothing that big should move so quietly, and just SHOW UP." Maybe I'm way off here, but I think I get it now.
I'm not really sure where this all leaves me, but I understand my recent walks in a new light. Obviously I've enjoyed them for their own sakes, but it's nice to have confirmed that they were also doing my brain some good. Over the last few years I have felt like my concentration has gotten worse, and my ability to remember things had deteriorated. Names, for example, used to be something I got down without any effort at all. I could walk into a classroom with twenty students and have every one's names after a single go-around. Nowadays I have to concentrate on memorizing names, and often won't get them all in one try. I was attributing that to getting older, and I suppose I can't completely discount that influence, but the fact is my dad is similarly good with names (though he'll pretend otherwise when it suits him), and his ability doesn't seem to have lessened, despite being thirty-two years older than me. No, for the time being I may be blaming the city for a lot. And claiming scientific validation for it.
The article (which really is very interesting, and I'm not doing it justice) does acknowledge that city life has its own benefits, but I don't think it's just my prejudices that make me feel it's the weakest part of the essay. The assertion seems to be that dealing with strangers constantly may wear us out, but it also makes us good at innovation. So learning lots of ways not to rip each other's throats out makes us more flexible in our thinking.
I may be interpreting the data wee bit loosely.
Bottom line, I'm seeing that my need for trees is not a weakness, as I've occasionally thought in the past. Silly to think so, and even sillier to need scientific validation for it, I know, but there we are. I don't know that I'm any closer to skipping town than I was, but at least now I know that when I'm feeling burned-out, heading out to a park may do more for me than I think. And maybe I'm not a wimp if I consolidate my errands in Midtown a bit.