City living blunts brains

According to the United Nations for the first time in human history, of the planet’s 6.7 billion souls, more people live in cities than in rural towns. We live in unique and exciting times in so many ways. It is reputedly a Chinese curse to wish for someone to live in “interesting times” and a new study suggests that the move to the city may indeed be an accursed one; at least for your brain.

Researchers from Harvard Medical School have published a report suggesting that city life can hinder mental processes like memory and attention leaving you mentally exhausted.

Every day on a city street you are bombarded with information and some of that information is vital to staying alive so you must pay attention to all of it. You need to know for instance, if a car is coming around a corner and you can’t risk ignoring any signs and indications around you that may tell you if that car, or some other important event, is on its way.

The drain on your brain that results from attending continuously to those stimuli that surround you in a city is called “directed attention fatigue” (DAF). This DAF has been identified at the neurological level as the wearing away of your ability to voluntarily focus while ignoring distractions. The symptoms of DAF include heightened distraction, impatience, forgetfulness, poor judgement, and increased stress.

If you are a city dweller and are screaming at the screen, “Yes, that’s me! I suffer from DAF!”, first stop screaming, it’s such a city thing to do, and then calm down because you can treat your DAF quite easily.

Research has shown that just a few minutes walking in nature (or even looking at photographs of nature) can improve your directed-attention abilities. The theory behind this power of nature is called ART (attention restoration theory). ART says that nature presents you with stimuli that engage your senses from the “bottom-up”, which allows the “top-down” attention activities like watching for cars and competing for space to regenerate. Essentially the peace and security of a natural setting allow your top priority survival mechanisms to switch off and replenish.

The Harvard researchers also point to their research on meditation as a way to overcome DAF. Their studies have shown that meditators have a thicker prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula, the parts of the brain involved in attention and sensory processing. These brain regions tend to thin as you age and meditation obviously strengthens this attention-related part of the brain.

Lastly, the researchers point out that getting yourself into a quite space either meditatively or in nature reduces cortisol levels and that improves neuroplasticity.

The message is clear DAF sufferers; get yourself cross-legged in a park on a daily basis and watch the mental improvements flow.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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