Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
17 May

City Living: Is It a Brain Drain?

I’m off to NYC next week to spend a few days at the BEA (Book Expo America) and attend a meet-up organized by John and Melissa. I get a real sense of excitement and anticipation – and maybe a little unease – whenever I leave my pastoral digs in Malibu for the bright lights and big city. I love a good visit to a major metropolis, but the impending trip did get me thinking about the effects of city living on mental well-being.

Those who live in a city (by choice and not just circumstance) love something about the bustle. Where others see mayhem, they see mosaic. There are the people (and people-watching), the cultural offerings, the sporting events, the restaurants, the public space, the public transit, the eclectic neighborhoods, open air markets, street musicians, and general tapestry of cultural, commercial, artistic, and architectural nuances that make for rich living. On the other hand, there are the massive throngs of said people and their vehicles moving at every speed, in every direction. There are the flashing lights from every corner and kiosk. There’s the perpetual roar of traffic, the horns, sirens, and car alarms that go off at 3:00 a.m. There’s the pollution, the crime, the buses that don’t stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Although our favorite cities (who we may be fiercely loyal to) offer the best of the contemporary age, we all know there’s that nagging bit about our evolutionary selves, vestiges of past millennia, parallel selves operating from a innate, Paleolithic framework. Yes, they’re total fish out of water. (Not to rain on anyone’s ticker tape parade.) As much as we may enjoy our metropolis, we pay a price for this incongruence. City living, research suggests, can take its toll in surprising physiological ways.

Scientists at a number of institutions have found evidence (PDF) that the brain suffers from overload when exposed to the busy array of urban stimuli. In a University of Michigan study, subjects who took at walk along an urban street compared with those who walked in a park setting performed much worse on tests of attention and working memory (the ability to “hold” pieces of information long enough to process and use them).

At issue is something called “directed attention fatigue,” the conscious attention we give to surrounding active stimuli in our environment. On an urban street corner, there are traffic lights to observe, vehicles to watch for, horns and other noise to listen for, people to circumvent, gaps and curbs to mind. It adds up to a whole lot of cues to potential threats. (No one wants to be hit by a bus.) And these examples are just a few features of the picture. There are the signs, the store fronts, the planters, the conversations, the Jesus handing out fliers on the corner. We naturally take in information about our environment, but the frenetic, dizzying montage of a city street is a whole new ball game for our Paleolithic selves. It’s a lot to process or try not to process. Either way, it’s effort, and our brains have had enough at some point.

Natural settings, on the other hand, elicit a different kind of attention that taxes the brain much less. It’s a “top down” mode of perception that allows us to fill in a picture on a less conscious level. Without all the flashing, movement, and noise, we naturally assemble our attention of a setting rather than joltingly move from stimulus to random stimulus. Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan dubbed this neurological rejuvenating “attention restoration theory.”

Before you relocate to Green Acres, however, rest assured there are plenty of ways to feed your Primal spirit in the urban jungle. The fact is, most city dwellers I know live outdoors, They love the public space and use the parks and beach fronts daily. Many of them live in relatively quiet, intimate neighborhood nooks where they enjoy a sense of community and have ready access to markets, produce shops, and old school butchers (because we Primal types have our priorities). A few have urban gardens. They walk or bike just about anywhere. Some don’t bother owning cars.

Despite the bustle of the city centers, their lives reflect a comfortable, social, ambling rhythm. They know their neighbors and feel their terrain in rich, if different, ways than country dwellers. They may not own much if any land, but if you ask them they say they feel a sense of belonging to place – perhaps in a deeper, more communal sense than many of their suburban or small city counterparts. The fact is, I’ve known plenty of people in the smallest towns with zero appreciation for their environment and more exposure to nature from their TVs than their front doors. Any place, after all, is what you make it.

What do we do, however, with the knowledge that city living imposes inevitable pressures on our psychic and physiological well-being? Some experts are already tinkering away, and creative models abound in some corners of the urban landscape. For example, forward thinking architects and urban planners are experimenting with small scale communal designs that establish micro-neighborhoods by spacing small multi-family dwellings around pedestrian boulevards and and common green spaces. Many older European cities preserve impressive pedestrian zones, ample park land, and even green promenade trails that circle their old city centers.

There are plenty of ways, too, to top off your brain’s processing power and feed the Primal animal within. Municipal parks and allotment gardens offer refuge for the concrete-weary, but don’t overlook botanical gardens and conservatories. Although they may seem a little too tailored for some peoples’ tastes, research suggests green space rich in biodiversity is more therapeutic than green space with less species variety. It’s not just quantity, but quality, that matters.

Finally, there’s something to be said for bringing nature indoors. Any exposure to plant life counts – no matter how contained. Set up your own mini-conservatory, a fern collection, or a windowsill herb garden. It’s a twofer, since many plant varieties are known to effectively filter pollutants from indoor air. Do you end up killing every green thing within your care? Put up some nature photos. Turns out those picturesque vista calendars might actually make a difference. Researchers in two studies found that subjects who looked at images of tranquil natural environments showed less mental fatigue and greater coordination in brain function (areas of the brain operating in sync) than those who looked at images of urban or highway scenes. (Nature pictures on the wall – how’s that for an easy button?) It’s not life in a remote mountain yurt, but it doesn’t involve giving up your favorite museums and corner deli.

Well, folks, what say you? Dwellers of city and country and everything in between, are you adequately preserving/refueling your brain’s processing power? What have you done to top off your Primal need for nature today? Thanks for reading.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Been in London for 10 years and moving to the country. Two words for the city-slickers….Keep it!

    Mike wrote on May 18th, 2011
  2. I grew up in the Southern US and moved to NYC for a few years. It was a huge change for me and it is overload with all the stimuli but I can attest that you just get used to it. You find that things don’t surprise you much any more and you can tune out the noise.

    However I did move back, because the air quality there did bother my lungs and I was sick more often than not. I was tired of living in a cramped apartment. But I do miss not owning a car and walking everywhere (except on days it snowed or rained.) I went to the Book Expo in the past, wish I could be there this year to meek Mark!

    Daria wrote on May 18th, 2011
  3. I live in the suburbs, but I am moving into Philadelphia for a variety of reasons. I would prefer to live in the middle of nowhere, on the extreme rural end of the spectrum (as long as there’s at least some place to go see and hear live music), but other factors play into it. As gas passes $4 a gallon (and slowly heads toward $10 or more), people will abandon the suburbs in huge numbers. Small groups of people will figure out how to make the country work without cars, while the vast majority of us will have no choice but to work, socialize, go to school, and obtain goods and services within a few miles of our homes. Welcome to the 21st century!

    Bob wrote on May 18th, 2011
  4. i am fortunate enough to live in an apartment complex that backs up to a beautiful nature preserve, and other wooded areas within the complex. there’s nothing like coming home, grabbing the dog, kicking off my shoes, and walking or running around in nature, especially after sitting at a computer all day (which i hope to change someday…). it’s very theraputic and feels sooo gooood.

    David wrote on May 18th, 2011
  5. We live in a little country town…but are renting a house in a housing area atm and totally hate the proximity of neighbors…

    I would deteriorate in a city. I don’t know how people do it without killing each other. Nature is what keeps me sane, if I was forced to live in a large city I’d end up in a nuthouse eventually.

    Suvetar wrote on May 18th, 2011
  6. I live in Cobble Hill, which is a really small town (it might even be a village) on Vancouver Island (which is on the West Coast of BC, Canada just in case some of you aren’t familiar with it). I absolutely love it. I do have to commute to Victoria, which is a pretty small city, but it’s quite a scenic drive. I lived in Vancouver for years, and I wouldn’t trade what I have now to be back living in a city. I can get up and hear frogs and birds, and it smells so good all the time. Plus, we’ve got the beach nearby and there’s a lady down the road that sells awesome roasting chickens. Oh, and there’s also a mountain at the end of my road with tons of hiking trails.

    Something I do miss about living in a big city, though, are the people (never thought I’d say that).

    Robyn wrote on May 18th, 2011
  7. I’ve lived in LA for 14 years and I definitely find that over time I have come to miss nature and less “bustle.” It’s so appropriate that Ely posted above me about Portland. Portland is my escape valve! I love that city because nature is RIGHT THERE, but ti’s still a great city. Love going for runs on the river in the mornings! My favorite place to visit and I go there often to get a break from LA.

    Becca ( wrote on May 18th, 2011
  8. I live in a rural area part of the time and in a city part of the time (where my job is). I have to say that my overall health is better in the country. But I don’t live in one of those “livable” cities: I live in a big sunbelt city with the least park space of any city its size. The beach is an hour away. I walk on a college campus sometimes, which is reasonably leafy; but there is too much crime around the edge of, and sometimes on, the campus for me to really relax there.

    In my rural neighborhood, we live on a dead-end road so there is very little traffic. On my daily walks I might encounter one or two cars going very slowly. This makes a huge difference to your stress level, I find. Also I know everybody here, and if there’s a problem, I can usually fix it, whereas in the city, I have zero influence on anybody. There are young men with guns that regularly prey on students in our urban neighborhood. I hate that, but I don’t know their families, so what can I do? Whereas here, if somebody gets out of line, I just tell their mother and the problem is solved.

    shannon wrote on May 18th, 2011
  9. Having recently moved from deep in the country to a moderate-sized city, I feel I can offer perspective on both. Ultimately it’s a personal choice. I prefer the occasional firetruck at 3:00 am to the frogs or cicadas (very, very loud) all night long. I can leave my windows open in the city, I can’t in the country. As for environmental toxins, don’t overlook molds, mildews and pollens in the country — I got horrid allergies every fall from decay in the country that I don’t get in the city. As for ecological diversity, I have far more species of birds at my birdfeeder in the city — the country’s great for insects (really big ones and lots of them) and weeds, but I prefer the beautiful flowers on the landscaped front yards (somewhat of an improvement over the cars on cinderblocks of my neighbors in the country). I read somewhere recently, and I can’t remember where, that the healthiest, most active elderly population lives in NYC. Walking probably has a lot to do with it, but don’t forget that we are ultimately social animals with an immense intellectual curiosity, and I find that the city fulfills that to a far greater degree than the country.

    Pam wrote on May 19th, 2011
  10. I’m a student living in a European city. Normally I work part-time at a customer-service which is smack in the middle of the city bustle in an uninspiring building and commute (the job itself is pretty uninspiring too but I imagine that’s pretty self-evident).

    I’m just about to finish up a short 5-week internship which I got to do at one of our big museums which allows me to take a completely different route in the morning. I take the train into the city, and then it’s a 30 min walk along the docks where you can look at the water and the old boats, smell the brine and look forward to entering the cities largest park where the museum is situated. That walk is so awesome I’m getting seriously depressed by the fact that tomorrow is my last day to enjoy that morning walk.

    Malin wrote on May 19th, 2011
  11. Ooh, Mark, I gotta disagree with you on this one. I concur that noise and air pollution are strong negatives in any given city, but I believe that living so close to other people, and partaking so much more often in public spaces, is quintessentially Primal. Also, as others have pointed out, the ability to go car-free is awesome for our well-being, and one of the things I love about up-and-coming city planning is the focus on “green space”- planted roofs, city parks, medians with shade trees, for example.

    I’ve lived in a variety of all three possibilities, and currently I am living in the countriest place in Connecticut. One of the things I must comment on is that “peaceful” country living is anything but- the wildlife around here TALK! The first thing that sprang to mind was mating season for the swamp frogs, holy smokes! It’s not the same noise as the city, true, but in terms of making me put a pillow over my head, it’s pretty similar. I think that a moderate and occasionally invasive amount of noise is uncomfortable but essentially Primal.

    I’d argue that the LEAST Primal living arrangement is the ‘burbs, which I grew up in. Overly quiet, overly isolated, requires cars to get around- nowhere to go on foot and nothing to do except run around “doing exercises”. Chumpy!

    Susannah wrote on May 19th, 2011
  12. The trouble I see with some of the arguments being made about carbs/fat by various paleo bloggers is that they’re largely basing their assumptions on archeological/anthropological data rather than a combination of that with current scientific knowledge about metabolism.

    Matesz is leaning heavily on one publication that estimated body fat composition in ancient African mammals. They didn’t have much fat, we’re told, so paleolithic HGs couldn’t have eaten much, he says. The big, fat elephant in the room is that fat isn’t distributed evenly throughout a mammal and such estimations don’t take into account what parts of the animals were preferred and harvested. Moreover, his argument is based on what I would call “The African Bias” which tosses out all the other evidence of paleolithic HGs eating megafauna and other mammals which most assuredly would have had plenty of fat in the them. Is it much of a stretch to suggest that part of the impetus to move to climes outside of Africa was in pursuit of these more nutrient dense forms of food? Matesz doesn’t deal with that.

    Guyenet has taken a similar inexact method by essentially arguing that “since there are more ‘healthy’ carb-based countries/societies then fat-based ones (he isn’t specific about what he means by health/carbs/fat) that starch-burning must be the default setting.” Well, no. This is the old error of “since it’s happening the most, it must be the best way.”

    Something akin Kurt Harris’ PaNu/Archevore/Paleo 2.0 ideas are the way forward as far as I’m concerned. We simply have to rely on what we are able to study NOW, at the molecular level, about metabolism and combine that with a little common sense based on the archeological and anthropological level. Of course, extrapolating dietary rules action from the existence of a single chubby figurine of indeterminate importance/meaning to those who designed it is, frankly, asanine. But Matesz is going down that alley right now.

    Todd wrote on May 20th, 2011

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