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.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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