I am disheartened to read "How the city hurts your brain" from the Boston Globe, January 2, 2009 (see it here). Many nature lovers both in and out of the city have of course long maintained that the city was injurious to mental health while nature was restorative. And city lovers have extolled the benefits of a stimulatory environment rich in culture and the deadening of suburban and rural life.
However, there are now scientific studies which demonstrate that just being in an urban environment impairs our mental functions. The Boston Globe article cites these studies including that of Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. "Just being in an urban environment, they have found, impairs our basic mental processes." "This new research suggests that cities actually dull our thinking, sometimes dramatically so." This is of increasing concern, since the number of people in cities now exceeds that in the country.
And, although stimulation can be a good thing, there can always be too much of a good thing and apparently New York City provides just that:
"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."
Perhaps this was the reason that a friend and regular reader of this blog (Mary P) chose to feast her newly functioning eye1 on this lone white birch tree2 last night at dinner. As she described her fascination with the gentle motions of the branches in the wind, my mind traveled. The window was not just a clichéd metaphor, but it provided a literal view of a tree which was for me, in turn, a vehicle to other times and places - my upbringing and frequent travel in New England and the birch forests there.
I reflected on my love of white birch trees, their distinctive bark and the wood, influenced no doubt by my father's occupation as a wood cutter in Maine with his love of fly fishing and birch bark canoes. We had discussed many times the beauty of the white bark. It's gracefulness with delicate branches and slender trunk were never spoken of, but I could see that now, contrasted with the concrete urbanity around it.
I pledge to get out of the city more often - the Boston Globe article jogged what my subconscious mind must already know and desire. But until then, I'm going to take a ride in a birch bark canoe :)
1) Mary P has has recently undergone laser eye surgery (one eye at a time) for her deteriorating eyesight. She is finding the new and vastly improved vision in one eye a new lease on life. Enjoy, Mary.
2) The white birch is relatively rare in New York City. The 10 most common trees are: 1. London plane tree (15.3%) 2. Norway maple (14.1%), 3. Callery pear (10.9%), 4. Honey locust (8.9%), 5. Pin oak (7.5%), 6. Little leaf linden (4.7%), 7. Green ash (3.5%), 8. Red maple (3.5%), 9. Silver maple (3.2%), 10. Ginkgo (2.8%)