12 January, 2009

Cities Make You Dumb?

According to a new psychology study:

Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes. After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control. While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting—that’s why Picasso left Paris—this new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so. “The mind is a limited machine,” says Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and lead author of a new study that measured the cognitive deficits caused by a short urban walk. “And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”
Here is the full article in the Globe; I found it very interesting.

Suppose it is the case that living in a city makes true reflective thinking more difficult. Yet cities have been the nexus of intellectualism and innovation since Socrates roamed the streets of Athens. Most elite universities are located in or near large cities as are other centers of thought, major media outlets, think tanks, political institutions, etc. It's the fact that so many thinkers are clustered together that make cities so effective at producing knowledge. The interactions are what's important, not the brainpower of any particular person.

I'd also connect this with Malcolm Gladwell's thesis in Outliers that cognitive brilliance isn't a necessary or sufficient condition for success. Rather, it's hard work and taking advantage of opportunities. Cities provide those opportunities plentifully. I think our culture has a lot of romantic notions about solitary geniuses who discover deep and mysterious truths, but these notions should be disabused. Most progress in knowledge comes from a lot of people working very hard together over a long period of time.

No comments: