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City Life Is Hard On The Brain

Scientists are beginning to discover that city life is hard on the brain, where the need continuously to process multitudes of fleeting but compelling stimuli can impair mental processes like memory and attention and leave us mentally exhausted.

Dr Sara Lazar, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Laboratory for Neuroscientific Investigation of Meditation in Boston, whose work is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says that "on a busy city street, it's probably more adaptive to have a shorter attention span".

Some people might say the stimuli that bombard us daily in city life are just a distraction, but Lazar said they could contain vital information, so we have to pay attention to them, even though they use up a lot of the brain's natural processing power.

"If you're too fixated on something, you might miss a car coming around the corner and fail to jump out of the way," said Lazar, in a recent statement from Harvard Medical School.

Lazar calls the drain on brain power from attending continuously to stimuli like those that surround city dwellers "directed attention fatigue", a neurological state that occurs when our voluntary attention, the part of the brain that we use to concentrate on particular stimuli while ignoring distractions, gets worn down.

The symptoms of directed attention fatigue include feelings of heightened distraction, impatience and forgetfulness. The more severe form can also lead to poor judgement and increased levels of stress.

But, there are ways to overcome this and refresh the brain, and it can be as simple as going for a walk in the park.

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor published a study in 2008 that compared the effect of interacting with nature versus interacting with urban environments.

Dr Marc Berman, a research fellow in cognitive neuroscience, and colleagues, found that even spending a few minutes on a busy city street can affect the brain's ability to focus and manage self-control, whereas walking in nature or just looking at photographs of nature can improve directed-attention abilities.

They invited one group of volunteers to stroll in a park and another to walk some busy city streets. The group that walked in the parked scored higher in psychological tests of attention and working memory than the group that walked the city streets.

They suggested this validated the idea that spending time in nature environments refreshes the city-dweller's brain. The theory behind it, called attention restoration theory (ART) is that nature presents us with "intriguing" stimuli that engage our senses in a "bottom-up" fashion, allowing the "top-down" directed attention required to look out for cars and other hazards a chance to rest and recuperate.

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