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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78 thoughts on “City Living: Is It a Brain Drain?”

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  1. I live in a large city and absolutely love it but I can certainly feel the overload on occasion. One thing to keep in mind is that in the US most of the people who don’t live in cities live in fairly dense suburbs, which have a lot of the downsides of city living and a general lack of a tranquil environment without the upside of a lot of walking and generally closer community.

  2. I do get overwhelmed at times from all the noise (especially because I live on a very busy street in NYC… I’ll move to a quieter one at some point when I have more money).

    #1 for me though, is I never need a car to get anywhere. I can walk to most of the restaurants, bars, parks, stores, whatever, that I may need (or bike, or skateboard) or hop on public transport (and I always stand on the subway). Being forced to rely on cars is unfortunate (alas, a history of cheap gas does that for a country, but that’s a discussion for a different website).

  3. Big City here as well. I do live in a quieter neighborhood and walk or take public transpo almost everywhere. Didn’t own a car for about 6 years, but I do now so I can go pick up my large grassfed meat orders! 😉

    I love Chicago, and live about 2 blocks for the lakefront parks and beaches. So I do get to enjoy the outdoor space frequently.

    1. Hey homies – I’m in Chicago too 🙂

      I’m on the northside. I’m not into barefoot running (too many broken beer bottles), but I did see there is a group for Chicago paleo people. Check it out!

      1. Hey now!! Where in Chicago do all of you live?! My bro lives there so I visit him often. I am actually leaving Thursday morning to spend 2 nights with him. Then we are headed to Wiscy for a wedding.

        I am meeting up with another caveman for lunch on Thursday. Are any of you close to Wrigleyville by any chance?!!?!?!?!?!?

  4. I’ve found Phoenix to be a pretty good mix of environments. On the one hand, it’s a polluted sprawlfest where you pretty much have to own a car. On the other, there are several nice mountain preserves with good hiking right in the city.

  5. If ADHD or autism runs in your family, you all better live out in the country or closer to lots of nature.

    1.The city has tons of pollution, which these kids are allergic to and can’t handle. Their bodies don’t usually methylate or detox properly, among many other things. So reducing toxins is key, in addition to a clean, GFCF and low carb, whole foods diet.

    2. Living in the city can be way overstimulating to kids like these, who have sensory issues. they have sensory integration disorder, which causes the nervous to become easily overwhelmed, or in some causes understimulated.

    Most of our family is on the spectrum, thankfully at the less severe end. (Father has ADHD, borderline Aspergers growing up, I have Sensory Integration Disorder, oldest son has PDD-NOS, ADHD, and little one has sensory issues with no diagnosis.)
    We survive by getting the boys outside in nature as much as possible, limiting TV and electronics (also way overstimulating), and through dietary interventions, in addition to traditional approaches for folks on the spectrum.

    1. Although Autism does not run in our families, my 7-year-old son is the first one to be diagnosed on the spectrum. His younger brother and sister are typical.

      You are absolutely right about cities not being optimal environments for kids like my son. We lived in an urban neighborhood in Boston until he was almost five and were exposed to tons of noise and environmental pollution on a daily basis. We walked several miles within the city each day, but those walks may have been doing us more harm than good given all the fumes we inhaled.

      We also follow a strict grain and dairy free diet
      for all the children and find that they are far healthier and happier since we moved to a peaceful suburb of Atlanta.

      I personally considered myself an urbanite through and through and never thought I would end up living in the burbs. In retrospect though, I think moving turned out to be a great decision for the collective health of our family.

      I still find being in the city to be invigorating, but there is also an unease that I feel while trying to squeeze through swarms of people with a stroller and two kids on foot. Not to mention the urge that I feel to cover my son’s ears each time a fire truck races by.

      1. Many theories have been bandied about in regards to the etiology of Spectrum disorders, particularly the reason for the seemingly rapid increase of these conditions over the past few decades. I have yet to hear much about our sensory enviornment, with it’s increasing number of distractions, being a huge contributor. We know these enviornments are tricky for individuals with these conditions but what if some of these spectrum disorders (particularly less severe sensory integration issues) are largely CAUSED by these sensory stimuli? What if we are talking about individuals whom, in a paleolithic upbringing, would not appear much different from anyone else in the group?

        I happen to fall into the camp of those who are at least open to the hypotheses that spectrum disorders are partially the result of a neolithic diet and possibly heavy metal exposure. But what if the less severe disorders are simply manifestations of reactions to a very unnatural enviornment? What if we have a name for a condition that is simply a result of a sensory enviornment that is alien to our cave-man brain?

        Incidentally, I happen to think autism/aspergers did exist in paleolithic times–those with these conditions would have likely been the Shamen and inventors of the group. Who knows; maybe the first human to harness fire had Aspergers

  6. I live in the middle of nowhere and I really like it. But, to find meaningful employment at market wages, I need to work an hour from home. In my case, the time lost to commuting is soul-sucking, even if I can relax to music or catch up on news. The commute time cuts into my workouts as well. It’s 10 or more wasted hours per week, more with bad weather in the winter (Vermont). And then, with gas prices where they are, it’s expensive too. So, for an experiment, I rented a room 7 miles from my office. I take a bus to my office on Monday morning. The rest of the workweek, I commute around town by bike, rain or shine. After work, I go straight to CrossFit, work out, bike to my room, cook dinner, read a bit and get to bed early. It’s allowed me a routine that lets me get enough work done at my job, get in my workouts, fall into simple daily eating habits that I need (gone from my gourmet kitchen at home), and pick up a bit of extra calorie-burning on the bike. The only downside is being gone from my family four nights per week, but when I am commuting and trying to work out, and taking care of things at work, it wasn’t much better. The nice thing is that when I get home from work on Friday night, I’ve trained hard all week, and I get by with a couple of short workouts over the weekend, and then have lots of quality time with my family.

  7. Keep in mind that the short-term effects of one-time exposure to a stimulus may be very different from the long-term effects of frequent exposure to that same stimulus.

    For example, suppose you have two groups of people with similar baseline fitness. Have one group do a leisurely half-mile jog. Have the other group do several sets of hill sprints. Ten minutes later, test them on a timed 400-meter run. Which do you think will perform better?

    Now take those same two groups of people, and have them do the same routines two times a week for ten weeks. After ten weeks, test them on a timed 400-meter run. Which do you think will perform better this time?

    1. What I was getting at, if it wasn’t clear, is that this sort of stimulus may be a sort of exercise for the mind. Yes, it will exhaust cognitive ability in the short term, but repeated exposure to complex stimuli over time may actually enhance cognitive ability.

      The short-term effects of a one-time exposure to a stimulus don’t really tell us much about the long-term effects of repeated exposure to that type of stimulus over time.

  8. I live in NYC and have already RSVP’d to the meetup!

    My brain does feel fried but I think that has to do more with my job than with where I live. I talked to 4 strangers in the past 2 days, and two of them gave me valuable information (and not just directions!)

    Not having a car is nice like shz said.

    Anyways, can’t wait for the meetup! I’m hoping for a photo opp with Mark if I can get one!

  9. I am a high-rockies dweller. I love having a forest around the corner, etc. However, I do love a good big-city adventure every once in a while. I love being able to utilize public transportation, walking walking walking, etc. I love “changing” into city survival mode. I love the challenge of trying to get my bearings & navigation in a new locale. and so much more…

  10. I live in a rural-ish community (meaning, its the largest I’ve ever lived in, but still considered small by most, and definately removed from any large cities) in Eastern Washington. I absolutely can’t imagine living in a big city. Even visiting one for a period of time leaves me overwhelmed, stressed out, tired, and overall icky feeling. However, I think any location can do that to you if a large enough amount of time has passed.
    My husband and I go to a family cabin (completely off the grid) in the mountains most weekends with his parents, and it completely re-engergizes both of us! No phones, no computers, no noise outside of the sounds of nature. We are so lucky, but I just can’t imagine life without those little “weekend get-aways”. It allows us time to hike, forage (mushrooms, huckleberries), hunt (yay for deer and elk!) and just relax.

    1. I’ll second that. I live in a rural community in Western Washington(on the wet side) and can’t stand going to places like Seattle. The constant noise is like fingernails on a blackboard and I feel like I’m in the middle of an anthill. I so live for our tent camping trips and getting away from civilization for awhile. Fishing trips are mini getaways for me. I need that time away to decompress and recharge my batteries. I do the foraging thing as well.

      1. Awesome! I bet your foraging opportunities over there are better/longer lasting (seasons) than mine. I grew up just barely on the east side (Leavenworth) and miss those hikes and berry picking, but the east side will do. 🙂

  11. I live in a medium sized city, Denver, which is pretty committed to offering a sense of nature – since we’re right on the foot of the rocky mountains.

    There are a lot of parks right here in my neighborhood and I live right off a 25 mile river trail! So I have a little slice of nature every time I go out for a bike ride or take my daughter to play in sand.

    Conversely, I can walk just 10 minutes right into the heart of downtown. It’s pretty cool, but I do hope to escape up to the mountains one of these days and truly live the quiet life.

    1. I’m also a Denver resident, and I have to second pretty much everything you said. I’m actually in the northern suburbs, which is nice because it keeps me that much closer to the foothills.

      These last few weeks aside (grumble) we usually get a lot of sunshine, so it’s pretty good for vit. D.

      Relatives and friends from other states are always shocked at the amount of bike trails in the area.


    2. Peggy, Im also from Denver (although I spent much of my childhood on a rural farm in Kansas) and love it. Like you, Im close to the downtown district, but go into the mountains for a climb or hike twice a week. And, now that the season is turning, the 14ers and other high peaks will be more attainable (although i do enjoy the snowy challenge of the winter/spring climbs). And, similar to you, my back yard is is an open space preserve with a large lake. Cant get any better than that.

    3. woo-hoo!
      Colo Primal Peggies 🙂
      I’m in Winter Park.

      You guys are welcome up here – if it ever stops snowing…

  12. Primal Peggy, Denver sounds terrific!

    Personally, the less I need to drive my car to do what I want to do, the more at peace I feel.

    I live in a small city (pop. ~100K). DH and I can walk/cycle to work. Within 15 minutes cycling from our front door, we also can be out in the country for some darn nice road rides. However, our neighborhood is kind of ‘burby and I wish more culture/restaurants/commerce were just a little closer to us than 1.5+ miles away. So, in future we might go even more urban than now.

    1. Yep it’s a great city – bookstores, cafes, restaurants, performing arts, trails, and those mountains are just behind me. I’d say it’s more stimulating than a brain drain!

      I don’t drive either. I ride my bike or walk everywhere (even to preschool with a trailer!). Thankfully this city is perfect for ditching the car. But still someday the beach or the mountains call…

        1. Depends what you mean by ‘freezing’. We usually get a couple stretches of real cold (below zero F) and we do get slammed by a couple snowstorms each winter. However, that’s offset by a lot of sunshine and long stretches of relatively mild temps (40s).

          So, compared to San Diego, yeah I guess it’s freezing. Compared to the Canadian winters I grew up with, it’s a cake walk.

  13. Anecdotal data: I was late learning to drive a car, and didn’t get my license until I was 22 or 23 (I think 23). Additionally, I have had really crappy luck with cars because while I’m aware they need maintenance, I’ve had trouble with having adequate income and resources to purchase a decent car, keep it fueled adequately, and do all the required maintenance over the years. So I’ve been without a car more than I have been the owner of one. Which means either I catch a ride with someone, take the bus, or walk.

    And I have found, because I am not acclimated to driving like most Americans are, that the awareness required for me to get from point A to point B is very, very different when I am driving than it is when I am walking or taking the bus. I find I am a lot calmer getting somewhere under my own power, or letting someone else drive, than I am when I have to drive and pay attention to so many things at once because I’m going at higher speeds in a conveyance that could actually kill me or another person.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it ever comes out that the mere fact of so many Americans being car owners and operators is also taxing our health–mental health, at the very least, but that tends to translate into physical health as well.

    FWIW, there’s also a difference between country or highway driving, especially outside the city, and driving on city streets. But I still find myself resenting the amount of attention required of me when I find myself having to drive; it feels completely unnatural.

    1. I completely agree Dana. I;m 28 and still haven’t gotten my license. I have my learners permit and I’ve done quite a lot of driving with my boyfriend in the car but I really do feel a lot more stress driving to work etc. rather than walking or riding my scooter. My Mom has been bugging me to get my license for years but I just don’t enjoy driving! I find it really draining.

    2. I’m pretty much opposite of that. I got my license as soon as I was old enough and I can’t imagine not having the freedom to get where I need to be on my own. I even had a car when I lived in Boston. I used public transit for getting to work but I had my car to escape from the city on the weekends. I used to do basic maintainance myself to mitigate the cost.

  14. This makes me feel that living East of downtown Grand Rapids is as goods as it gets for the Warm half of the year.

    I just realized this year that there are countless walking trails. Some are surrounded by trees and some are out by the roads. One of my favorites is within walking distance. I am able to take a nice hike around a small lake where its beautiful.

    EGR is small and quaint. Downtown Grand Rapids continues to improve and is nothing compared to a NY or Chicago.

    Thats the other thing… I live 3 hours from Chicago which is where my bro lives.

    I flirted with the idea of living there for 3 months but I don’t think I could do it with all the noise. A suburb of Chicago? I’d be all over that.

    I LOVE to visit Chicago but can’t see myself ever living in a city like this.

    Oh I forgot to mention… there is this lake called “Lake Michigan” about 40 minutes west of me.

    Oh, one more thing! Have any of you heard of Mackinaw Island? This island is in the UP and guess what? NO CARS ALLOWED!! You get around by horse, foot, bike, etc.

    On Lake Michigan I plan on spotting a nice spot for a home someday soon. This home will NOT be my home. It will, instead, be a Primal home for caveman visitors. I’ll be living in a small cabin close by. It’s gonna be quite exhilerating!

    Do ANY OF YOU LIVE IN MICHIGAN? If so, please leave a comment. I started the Grand Rapids Primal Tribe meetup group which is going to be the #1 meetup group in the world soon.

  15. I lived for many years in a small neighborhood in a small town and then on ten acres miles out of town with horses and fruit trees. The upside was the peace. The downside was I could rarely get away because land and animals need constant maintenance.

    For the past six years I have lived in a large city, Oakland and worked in San Francisco. I live in a high rise with zero maintenance. The difficulty is finding solace from the noise. The upside is now I have the ability to get away. I don’t own a car but ride a motorcycle which means there is where I find most of my solace. Flying down the highway, wind and peace.

    I do admit as much as I love city living and the freedom it brings, I have to get away to the hills on occasion. Fortunately, our beautiful area is filled with parks and it only takes 20-30 minutes to be literally in the middle of silent nowhere.

    Oh, and this is day #2 for me eating primal. I am loving it and feeling better already and excited to find this website and forum.

  16. Primal Toad, I live in Hell. I’m sure you know where it is; 9 hours south of Paradise. I, too, am near lakes but I have to admit I get myself calm and relaxed on a 2-track road near Lake Michigan Recreation Area (near Manistee) every summer at least 3 times; more if I can manage. It restores my soul and helps me create new dreams. Now that I’m primal, camping will be even easier. Lake Michigan, no matter where I see it, is a must every year.

  17. I live in the city, but really, Vancouver is only the 8th largest city in Canada, and much smaller than big US cities. I find that to be a pretty good compromise. Plus, Vancouver’s known for being very liveable – I’m surrounded by ocean, mountains, and parks. Still, it’s always nice to get out of urban surroundings and into nature.

    1. Hey there, fellow Vancouverite here. I agree Vancouver is a beautiful city and very liveable in terms of its natural surrounding.

      The only “downside” is that even though it’s Canada’s 8th largest city, it’s also one of the most expensive, if not most expensive to live in.

  18. This article reminded me of when I moved from a rural ND town to “the big city” of Fargo. I remember being amazed that there were sidewalks and stores you could walk to in under 30 minutes. It did seem pretty amazing. While Fargo is not by any means a huge city, sometimes I do miss the rural scene. It was nice kind of nice being on a first name bases with everyone within 20 miles.

  19. I live in Portland Oregon, which many consider the ‘small’ big city. However, growing up in the country it is plenty big enough for me. Finding creative outlets for my primal side has been challenging, but it is very doable. As you mentioned, I take lots of walks and bike rides in parks and I have a Garden I tend in the back yard of my house. Social outdoor hobbies such as climbing, tennis and basketball also help.

    1. Yea I’m in Medford. I could totally see living in Portland…or more likely Bend. Even in Oregon’s biggest cities, we have breathing room. Forests, coast and space. I grew up in the SF Bay Area. Nice place to visit… Spring can be a long time in coming in Oregon but I love it here. We settled near the Rogue River on five acres at first, but country living wasn’t what we thought–your neighbors could be conservative Christians or meth users, not much in between. It wasn’t all that peaceful. Our golf course home in suburban Medford is oh so quiet and near so much good recreation. Someday I want room for a bigger garden and chickens; sometimes I miss my 5 acres. But the thing about a newer house with a little yard is you don’t have to spend too much time maintaining it. And that means I am out in the forest riding singletrack and up at Smith Rock State Park climbing A LOT. With easy access to gyms and fresh food throughout the year. And I still have room for half a cord of seasoned madrone and a pit for cooking big hunks of meat, plus a small garden. It suits me.

      1. I resonate with you on the small yard, tending to it is nice, but not life consuming. I here chickens can actually do well with minimal space, so they may not be entirely out of the questions, nothing beats home grown eggs. Living in Portland, I’d definitely suggest Bend :P. It is more arid only because they get so much sun! Portland is nice, but the constant rainfall is a bit overbearing, I might have to jump ship when opportunity presents itself. Taking a walk with an umbrella isn’t quite as vitalizing as one under a blue sky.

        1. I may well do chickens in suburban Medford. Actually my biggest hangup is that I’d get attached and then how would I dispatch them when they no longer laid? I don’t think I could deal with that…even though I hunt game birds and have no issues there. I do like Bend but it’s regularly 10 degrees cooler than Medford, which is already coolish for me–having lived in Chico, CA for more than a decade. Also the trails are sorta crowded in Bend(Southern Oregon is a couch potato haven but that’s good in that they are only clogging up their own arteries, not my outdoor haunts). In summer, the tourists overrun Bend. That said, I’m packing to go up there for the 3rd weekend in a row right now. 🙂 Bend is sorta my 2nd home. What I love about Portland is the vibe. Powell’s Books. The rivers, the restaurants. It has such a great feel to it. I can’t really describe it. I think I will probably end up in Bend in 6 years after I retire at age 55, then when I am about 75 I will go be a little old lady in Portland, with all the public transpo. I am NEVER leaving Oregon, though. Well, Sedona might be nice. Or six months in Palm Springs each year.

  20. Oh, and golf! That rich and snobby hobby is actually a great primal activity (in a sense) as it combines hiking and play and there are usually plenty of courses around major cities.

  21. While there may be too much stimulus for a person to comprehend on a city street, in a way most people walk through their lives completely tuned out. There’s rarely a cause for concern (think Grok on the savanna walking with his buddies, looking for some food, and keeping an eye out for a predator out looking for food, too). In Exuberant Animal, Frank Forencich underlines this point a couple of times, going as far to put yourself into that frame of mind (think general wariness) on a daily or constant basis. It also reminds me of a WoW a couple weeks back where the goal was to stalk ‘prey’ through the park.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that it seems as though a certain level of attention is important, but that a city street might indeed overload that attention. It doesn’t mean that we all shouldn’t practice and hone the skill.

  22. A nice balance for me is the small, (pop. 2500) busy village I live in. Everything like the grocery store, hardware store, library, etc is within walking distance.

    Our “big” city, is a beautiful 20 minute drive away which I probably drive to once a month or so. There is easy access to all the cultural events anyone could want which I appreciate after living in the traffic nightmare of L.A. until age 30 or so. Trying to get to or from a cultural event in that city was nearly impossible and that was 40 years ago.

    I have also spent some time living in the country. The big downside living there was being tied to a car to get anywhere. I prefer walking.

    Hey Mark, let us know what shoes you decide to wear at the book fair this time. Remembering the pain your last choice brought you, I’m just curious.

  23. This post sure got me thinking. My home town is a fairly small and hidden in the mountains. Though I go to school in a larger town, it is far from being a city. Interestingly though this august I am going to Lyon France for a semester or two of studies. It may be a smaller city, but never the less, a city. I wonder how I’m going to react to such a radical environmental change, not just in regards to the city, but also being surrounded by a different type of people and language I hardly understand.

  24. Mark:

    I’m signed up for the meetup event and I look forward to seeing you.

    Having lived in NYC for about 25 years, I’ve found that those who live here happily are people who have found ways to adapt and direct their focus on what’s truly great. I think the best thing about living here is not having to drive everywhere – you either do the errands and things you have to do on foot or by bus or subway or cab. The day to day component of sitting in one’s car is something most of us here don’t have as part of our lives – which is awesome.

    Another thing that’s great about New York is that you can call and have a lot of things delivered (groceries, prescription medicine, dry cleaning), so it cuts down on errand time and frees up space in your life for things you enjoy. I’m thinking there’s nowhere else in the world where you have as many things delivered to you than here.

    As for exercising – it can be done in the worst of weather – my preference is my road bike, mounted a trainer, saving outdoor rides for when the weather’s good. I use fast interval work outs to take the place the sprinting you recommend (which I can’t do anyway due to an injured ankle). See what I mean by adapting? New Yorkers tend to be very good at getting things done less space than most people think is possible.

    On all the noise – you get used to it, and you find ways to avoid it. Often when people visit here, they do their touring around in the loudest, most congested parts of the city, so I’m not sure many of them ever get a feel for the much quieter, neighborhood settings where a lot of New Yorkers spend most of their time.

    There are lots more things I could write about why it’s great to live here – and isn’t as stressful as non-residents might think – but these things are probably the most interesting to the primal community for purposes of comparison.

    Thanks for a great post. See you in a week. Look forward.


  25. I’ve always been a Los Angeles city dweller but this past year I moved to the suburbs and changed jobs to have a 5 minute commute. Best thing I’ve ever done! I’m so much happier and healthier mentally/physically. (I’m actually very close to Mark hehe). The Santa Monica Mountain’s provide solitude during my hikes on the weekends and are a great way to get away without much effort.

  26. Clearly, city/suburban/rural living is a personal choice. One of the hardest transitions for me was moving from Australia to Hong Kong. Currently I live in suburbia with a heavy dose of rural (we have open space behind us and plenty of wildlife) and I avoid the city, especially driving in it, as much as possible. The city has way too much stimuli for me.

  27. The scientific researcher in me says its impossible to know what causes natural settings to promote healthier brain activity than artificial, urban settings. However, my feelings tell me that these studies are onto something.

    At least in my experience, doing my best to recreate a natural setting has always resulted in a heightened sense of wellbeing as well as cognitive stamina.

    As much as I love to visit the city, I don’t think I’d ever want to live there.

  28. I walk down to the river everyday & am surrounded by mountains. I could not live in a city. I would shrivel up & die. My good friend born & raised in NY feels just the opposite. Had to drive thru there once to pick up my daughter, never quite recovered, that was enough for me. 🙂 Just a day trip to D.C. can leave me off balance for days, so those are very rare. Way too much adrenaline for me.

  29. I live in a rural area of southeastern PA. Love it here and I love the access to pastured meats, chemical-free vegetables and fruits, raw milk, etc. However, I also have access to cities like D.C., Baltimore, Philly, and New York within a short drive or train ride if I need a bit more cosmopolitan excitement. One day is enough for me in any of those places and I am happy to get back to my little farm in the boonies.

    1. I live in West Chester, PA and so I’m curious as to where you get access to raw milk and pastured meats?

      1. The Lancaster, PA area has lots of suppliers of raw milk. You might check out There are many farms listed under PA that sell raw milk (you aren’t an FDA agent, are you?). I buy my pork and beef from a farmer friend of mine that I trust in Maryland, but there are many farms in PA on the eatwild site that also specialize in pastured meats. Expressly Local in Lancaster city is a small urban grocery that only sells local chemical free produce, meats, raw milk and cheeses, etc.

  30. I live in Portland, Oregon, a smallish city. I have no problem getting my nature fix in. We have the most incredible sky here, green hills to the west and a snow-capped volcano to the east (peacefully dormant). Right down the middle we have a flowing river with lots of green space around it. I walk in the city almost daily, and it is generally quite calm. Every week I paddle on the river, and that is very much like being in the middle of nowhere sometimes. There are also lots of parks and hiking trails here, and we have no neighbors behind our house, giving us a little extra green at home.

  31. Hey Mark,

    Yea life at here in the concrete jungle can be overwhelming. That’s why after dental school I’m going back to the garden state. In the mean time, I’ll be seeing you next week at the meet up! =)

  32. I live in the capitol city of Maine, We’re actually on the outskirts and Augusta isn’t that big of a city. We have a really good size back yard with room for my garden and all kinds of wildlife. I have lived in a couple of cities, Boston and Colorado Springs. At the time I loved it but I can’t see going back. I’ve gotten too used to the much slower pace

  33. Born and raised in DC, I had to admit that I am a city person. I now live in Seoul, which is compared often to Manhattan, near the Namsam Tower – a huge hill/mini-mountain that many Koreans walk daily. Koreans have a strong connection to nature that they show in how and what they eat and they’re interaction with their environment. I like it and told the wife (also from DC area – and mild germa/nature/anything that ain’t a beauty salon-a-phobe) that we need to get the fam out more.

    I appreciate the efforts city planners go through to put natural places (parks, botanicals, et al.) into cities. My FAVORITE place on the planet is Hanes Point in DC. I have spent many of lazy afternoon sitting down there watching the water and the squirrels play.

  34. I live in the suburbs of Houston (population 6,000,000+ metro). For those of you who have never been here it is huge and sprawling and everyone drives everywhere.

    I live in Katy (can you say “Generica”?) now and commute downtown which is an ordeal. Morning commute takes about an hour and the evening commute is about 85 minutes. Usually I take the Park and Ride downtown, but even getting to the P&R station takes about 20 minutes.

    I was born and raised here and love my hometown with a passion, but as I get older I fantasize about living in the Texas Hill Country, on at least 5 acres with some milk goats, and a few chickens. Plus I’d love to be able to take in all the stray cats and puppies that seem to find me and give them a nice place to live.

    Funny, I always thought I’d be a city girl, but the stress has finally caught up with me.

    1. Houston is a nightmare, imho. I live there part of the time too. My commute is ok, but the city is just so ugly that it depresses me immensely.

  35. I live in San Francisco, which in my opinion, feels more like a big neighborhood in most places. I have my local markets, I ride my bike everywhere, and there are plenty of green spaces.

    That being said, I still hear traffic quite often from my bedroom, and my body has just had to cope with that over time. I work downtown, which definitely has a lot of hazards to avoid, especially while biking – all “taxing” the brain. I think it’s important for us all to actively try to separate ourselves from the artificial surroundings sometimes, however brief the experience may be. Even when I’m on my bike, I feel closer to nature with wind in my face and scenery floating by.

  36. Hi I live in Miami Nice. There are lots of green, I live on the beach on the weekends. Very flat city, good for biking .I leisurely bike to work, 1/2 hour each way, which adds up to 5 hours a week of “move at a slow pace”. Air quality I think ranks at the top (or it feels like that to me). City water also very good. And the weather is nice, very nice. Very happy here
    PS: I don’t work for the Tourist Department 🙂

  37. Totally. When I lived in the Bay Area, people thought we were crazy to leave. They say, “What about the opera/museums/culture/restaurants?” To which I always replied, “When’s the last time you took advantage of all that?” Most people are either too poor or too busy, or both.

    I noticed that living in a city made me less social in general. I harbored more suspicions about those around me. There was always a fear that I would be involved in one of the dramatic car crashes I saw everyday on the freeway. I lived in one of the tonier suburbs, and even then, a 90-year-old woman was murdered around the corner from me. It was just too much.

    I know I’m an introvert, so city life isn’t for me. I do love to visit though. But thank goodness I live in my amazing small town now, and I think the only thing we’re missing is opera. 🙂

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

  39. 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!

  40. 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!

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

  43. 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).

  44. 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.

  45. 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.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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!

  49. 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.