Outside New York, a high place where with one glance you take in the houses where eight million human beings live.
— Tomas Tranströmer, Schubertiana
According to a study done by psychologists at Exeter University, humans are hardwired for rural environments.
An MRI scanner revealed that human brains grow confused at the image of cities. Meanwhile, reviewing photos of the countryside calmed down the mind to a meditative state.
Reports researcher Dr. Ian Frampton:
“When looking at urban environments the brain is doing a lot of processing because it doesn’t know what this environment is. The brain doesn’t have an immediate natural response to it, so it has to get busy. Part of the brain that deals with visual complexity lights up: ‘What is this that I’m looking at?’ Even if you have lived in a city all your life, it seems your brain doesn’t quite know what to do with this information and has to do visual processing.”
We all know the city can make us feel like another rat in a cage. The zoo metaphor isn’t off. Said one Exeter professor: “If you don’t get the conditions right in zoos, the animals start behaving in a wacky way.” To quote novelist John Berger, “the zoo is the epitaph to a relationship.”
Urbanization is not natural, so the brain does its best to adapt to infrastructure and chaos. Catalan artist Arnau Alemany depicts the relationship between the metropolis and the fields. City parks provide an important outlet to human nature.
Despite the chaos, cities work. Like our crazy neurons, there seems to some order in the disorder. The brain is plastic, after all.
A recent study led by a University of Chicago professor of psychology demonstrates the positive impact of being surrounded by trees.
“Berman and his colleagues showed that an additional ten trees on a given block corresponded to a one-per-cent increase in how healthy nearby residents felt. “To get an equivalent increase with money, you would have to give each household in that neighborhood ten thousand dollars—or make people seven years younger.'”
The study did not stop there. It also turns out that the location of the trees also plays an important role. That is, the trees are more likely to calm you down if they are at the front of your home rather than the backyard where you are less likely to see them.
Professor Marc Berman also conducted a study 15 years prior that showed that walking through nature improves memory, attention, and mood more effectively than walking through the streets.
“Natural environments, on the other hand, provide what Berman calls “softly fascinating stimulation.” Your eye is captured by the shape of a branch, a ripple in the water; your mind follows.”
Want to feel richer and younger? Plant some more trees! Want to feel more relaxed and focused? Ignore the street heat and go for a walk in the woods.
In related news, listening to ‘pink noise’ while you sleep also increases memory.