Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Resting My Brain

Back at the beginning of the year, friend Jeff sent me the link to an article he knew I'd find interesting. He may not have realized it might also make me want to skip town, but I can't really hold that against him. I've been threatening to skip town for years now. I say a lot of things. The article, appearing in the Boston Globe, is titled How the City Hurts Your Brain, and it confirms many things I've suspected for a while now. Okay yes, partly that's because some of the findings are in the category of "somebody got paid to study That?" Nonetheless I have found it interesting, vindicating and oddly comforting.
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.


Greg said...

Ahh, this blog post. Yes, you have been ruminating on this for a little while now, haven't you?

Fascinating study. It reminds me of my visit and how I felt a little overwhelmed by the end of the weekend...and how restored I felt after a walk along the river.

Love your pictures here. The sunset over Jersey is sweet and I like the sun at the top of St. Nicholas Park (is that where that is?)...but I think the one of the Silver Catsby in the store is a classic!

Java said...

It makes perfect sense to me. And actually, the blimp thing makes sense to me, too, though I've never thought of it like that.

There seem to be a lot of green spaces in New York. I suspect that makes the city as livable as it is. But no park in the city will be as beneficial as wide open spaces with no skyscrapers in sight.

Marta said...

What I love about the city is that I feel fairly certain at all times that no one is going to burn a cross on my lawn. (I also love Indian take-out five minute from my house.) But I will acknowledge that where I live in the city is not a concrete jungle (although folks who call Germantown the suburbs drive me crazy and obviously haven't spent any time here). I live about half a mile one direction from miles and miles of woods, trails and creeks, and two miles in another from the river. Running in these natural environments is a seriously important part of my mental health regime! Btw, I'm totally with your mom on the mountains -- a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. Give me the horizon any day!

tornwordo said...

Nothing rights you like nature I always say. And this reminded me of something my uncle always tells me. See he can't understand how I can live in a city. According to him, cities are ill-fit for human life. When we were driving back from Vancouver to the Seattle airport, the mountain was visible through a hole in the clouds a couple of times and it was like Holy Crap that's a big mountain. I had no idea it was two hours away though. Now I'm even more impressed.

Ultra Dave said...

Very nice post and cool pics too! If you do leave come south. Charlotte has lots of trees and parks and a great arts scene

Jeaux said...

Follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell used to say... I grew up in the suburbs and to no one's surprise, least of all mine, that's where I feel most at home. A quiet setting with the city comfortably, and reassuringly, nearby. While I don't for a minute set aside the restorative and healing power of nature and a natural setting, I always found the city's energy sustaining, like riding the crest of a wave, and necessary, in some form, to my mental health. Conversely, inner city life without any arcadian respite at all would be intolerable.

A deep country setting however, in which I've spent time as well, gives me the willies. I agree with Woody Allen - I know that statistically I'm safer in the country, but I don't *feel* safer there. The crime you're likely to encounter on the street, though possibly fatal, is usually venal, profane, and predictable. In the country, it's likely to be unpredictable and twisted. The metropolis may be dangerous, but it's still civilization, and the danger one is likely to encounter there is against a consensus that aberation is the departure, regardless of the prevalence, or rarity, of its incidence. In the country, all bets are off. Again, archetypes can only take one so far, nevertheless they do inform one's consciousness and ultimately, quality of life. I enjoy that country lane, yes, my beloved deserted beach, my wilderness trail... but only because I know that Barnes & Noble, Pizza Hut, and Fort Lauderdale have my back.

When I moved to Staten Island, it was partly to get away from unhelpful entanglements, but mostly because I went out on a whim and found a wonderful rambling old apartment overlooking the harbor. Beyond that, I felt I had come home. Inner city life is a young man's game, and at thirty-something I was done. But I moved there not as an alienation from the city, but by way of analogy, to live in a boat anchored offshore. In a way I ended up *deeper* into the city in the sense that I had done what many New Yorkers do... moved to the suburbs. And it was there that my social integration into the native population deepened dramatically. And the city itself, which sat glimmering in the harbor, was ever present as both a vision and a destination. I had come home, as I said, to the old paradigm.

"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...and what is important..." A friend of mine who was a yoga adept could see people's auras. He said that with a little practice everybody could, but it's a skill that we have collectively decided isn't important, possibly a distraction, and have filtered it out.

Nice photos, Patrick. I like the shot of the tree in the puddle. I always imagined as a boy that I could dive into that upside world and fall happily into the sky's infinite embrace.

Sh@ney said...


Hope you are Well & Happy


Patrick said...

Greg: yes, that river walk is becoming one of my go-to places for restoration. The roar of the Westside Highway is balanced out by the big sky, and the close proximity to my house. I thought you might like the enormous silver cat. It's about as big as me! I'd love to know who, if anyone, actually has one in his/her home?

Java: Yes, even the article itself mentions that it's no coincidence that Central Park is in the middle (or 'center, if you will) of Manhattan. I think the amount of greenspace here has made a huge difference. Apparently Olmstead designed his parks with the idea that it would provide needed access to nature for the poor.

Marta: Oh yes, the 'live and let live' attitude is much more likely to prevail in cities, if for no other reason than people are too caught up in their own lives really to care what the neigbhors are doing (unless it's too loud). I do appreciate that (and take-out), though I'm also aware of the difference between being tolerated and being accepted. It sounds to me like your geographic location would be just about perfect for me. I have easy access to some green spaces and am grateful for that... but 'miles of woodland' would be heaven. I need to take a day, and a train, to get that here.

Torn: I agree, in some ways, with your Uncle, but I keep other things in mind. One is the counter-intuitive fact that my carbon footprint is actually smaller because of living in a city. I don't own a car, apartment living means I use less heating oil than I would in a house, all sorts or weird things. I think I personally might benefit from a smaller city, in lots of way. Or at least one where you didn't have to sell a kidney in order to live near greenspace.

Ultra Dave: Thanks for the tip, I'll have to give Charlotte a look-see. There are some wonderful places out there, where the scale is just a bit smaller. I fell in love with Burlington a few years ago, and I know part of the reason I loved Dublin as much as I did was because there were (at least in the 80's) hardly any skyscrapers, and one could live outside the bustle easily/cheaply.

Jeaux: yes, the energy of the city can be very exciting. I have many friends who are enlivened by it, maybe even recharged. I can enjoy it, but eventually it leaves me feeling depleted. I may be more of a "love to visit, hate to live there" guy, but even that is an overly simple way of looking at it. I'd never thought of the difference in the kinds of crimes one might face in the country v. city. Marta mentions the burning cross, which is certainly less likely to happen here (though hate crimes do occur). You're talking more of the "In Cold Blood" kind of thing though. Very interesting. Not something that has ever occcurred to me. I often talk as if there are only two options -city and country- but that's not really how I see things. I could easily see myself moving to another borough, or one of the little towns on a metro-line, though the fact is those places are mostly beyond my price range now. Manhattan also has neighborhoods I'd love to live in, but Greenwich Village will never happen unless I suddenly become a billionaire.
Mostly this article just reassured me that my feelings and responses maybe weren't so rarified and whiny after all. I think I can strategize better because of it, and take my needs a bit more seriously. Taking a subway ride to a park (what I call 'visiting the tree zoo') does do me good, even if the commute mitigates the effect some. More than anything else, it was comforting to learn that maybe my increasingly faulty memory wasn't necessarily an irreversible result of aging.
The article also helped explain the last year of my blogging, in a funny way.

Greg said...

I love coming back to these comment sections for everyone else's perspective, and there've certainly been some interesting takes on it all.

On a sillier note, just think of the size couch a cat that size could shred...and yes, when I was pondering where to go for my sunset walk this evening, Riverside was one of the first things my brain threw out there as a preference. ; )