19 July 2012 – From Atlantic Home: A couple weeks ago the folks at Cracked told readers that “living in a city makes you dumber.” There are a number of flaws here — beyond the obvious one of getting your science news from Cracked — but the research at the center of the claim has some relevance to cities worth considering nonetheless. What it tells us is not so much a story about the hazards of city living as it is about the benefits of city parks.

The original study at issue here, which I’m familiar with from earlier work, was published back in 2008 in Psychological Science [PDF]. A research team led by Marc Berman of the University of Michigan gave participants a standard memory and attention test then assigned some of them to walk through downtown Ann Arbor, and others to walk through the impressive campus arboretum. The participants were tested again upon their return, and beyond a doubt the group that took the nature walk scored significantly better.

Cue the cities-make-you-dumb assertions. But that’s not really what going on here. In fact, the people who took the city walk scored higher too — though not nearly as high as the nature group, and not convincingly higher than you’d expect someone to score upon taking the same test a second time.

Instead what’s going on is what Berman and colleagues call “attention restoration theory.” In simple terms, when we’re in a setting with a great deal of stimulation, like a city, we expend a great deal of direct attention on tasks like avoiding traffic and fellow pedestrians. When we’re interacting with nature, however, we use an indirect form of attention that essentially gives our brain a chance to refresh, much like sleep. Read the whole article