“How the City Hurts Your Brain (and what you can do about it)”

Yoko Shimizo for The Boston Globe

An excellent article by Jonah Lehrer appeared earlier this month in The Boston Globe“How the City Hurts Your Brain…and what you can do about it.”

As I mentioned a few postings ago, designers – including the “father of landscape architecture,” Frederick Law Olmsted – have known for a long time that cities, though stimulating and full of opportunity, can also be rife with disease, pollution, and other health-defeating problems. Now scientists are examining the effects of the city on the brain, and they are finding what many people intuited all along: “Just being in an urban environment…impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold on to things like memory, and suffers from reduced self-control.” (I think the brain would suffer anywhere when left out on its own, but never mind).

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that even in an overstimulating urban environment, you can counteract the overwhelm that leads to cognitive disfunction by going to a park, or even by paying closer attention to the nature that is all around you (see my post on Urban Naturalism). Lehman discusses attention restoration theory, or ART, coined by University of Michigan professors Stephen and Rachel Kaplan more than twenty years ago. Nature elicits what the Kaplans call “soft fascination,” a type of attention that allows for reflection and that is actually mentally restorative rather than taxing. Even just viewing a nature scene – or a tree, or something other than concrete and brick and soot – from the window is beneficial. Now we know why CEO’s always get the corner office! 

To those of us in this field, not much of this is new information, but we’re always thrilled when people stand up and take notice. The Boston Globe! Usually we end up preaching to the converted in tomes like Environment and Behavior (great journal, but not so accessible to those who aren’t designer/environmental psychologist geeks). Lehrer’s article is a great primer on the restorative benefits of nature and bears close reading. For those who want to follow up with further research, Lehrer cites some key studies, and of course the Therapeutic Landscapes Database and Blog have lots more where that came from.

Oh, and here’s a link to one of the articles mentioned by Lehrer: 
The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature,” by Mark G. Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan in Psychological Science, Vol. 19, No. 12, pp. 1207-1212.