By Hwaa Irfan
It is generally considered that only 10% of the earth to be natural! Nature? Some city folk have no love of nature, but the reality is that we as humans are products of nature, not man, yet increasingly more and more of us are living in cities.
Europe as tried to remedy the situation by making nature an intrinsic part of city life, but unfortunately developing countries, and elsewhere consider nature to be an inconvenience, or an ornament. The dysfunctional aspects (including our mental health) seem to be irrelevant, and though recognized as a problem, no serious attempt is being made to adjust to the numerous studies which show city life to be unnatural to the general well being of man, this is because city life, and by this one means the “concrete jungle” in itself is considered as being normal. This was one of the benefits of traditional Islamic town planning, was that nature played an intrinsic part in the layout of the city from inception, unfortunately, in the drive towards being modern (meaning Western), many Middle Eastern countries have unwittingly opted for the chaos that goes in tandem with the unlearnt lessons of western city planning.
It is because we have made no direct correlation to our everyday lives, that we do not consider plausible ways in which we can increase natural living within our city lives. We are unaware how much this has impacted on our general well-being, and our mental health. The noise and the level of activity has become a way of hiding the silence that tells us what we do not wish to hear about our lives. We look to be “entertained” through cinema, the arts, and all the other attractions, and because of all this activity, we view the city as the hub of life, partly becuase many of us have never known anything else! After all, nobody wants to be wrong, but unfortunately… Only those who have never really comfortable living in the city, are ready to hear what they have always known, but have become frightened to say, because it is not socially acceptable – at least in the city! However, this ridiculously hot summer – the summer of 2010, might convince a few more that it does not have to be this way!
Despite what many of us would like to believe, more and more evidence proves the burden city life has on our well being. Our mind might say otherwise, but our brains actually function better in natural surroundings, whilst man-made environments disrupt the connectivity of the brain. Recent research at the University of Sheffield, U.K. used functional brain scanning to establish the evidence. Natural scenes stimulated connectivity in areas of the brain.
“People experience tranquility as a state of calmness and reflection, which is restorative compared with the stressful effects of sustained attention in day-to-day life. It is well known that natural environments induce feelings of tranquility whereas manmade, urban environments are experienced as non-tranquil. We wanted to understand how the brain works when it perceives natural environments, so we can measure its experience of tranquility,” said Dr. Michael Hunter, of the Sheffield Cognition and Neuroimaging Laboratory.
A perfectly healthy adolescent female, who spent her early years in one city, and her early adolescence in the countryside, returned to the city, to find it unbearable. Going out with friends on the hectic streets literally acts like a stun-gun on her brain. This may seem to be abnormal for city lovers, and one wonders how much those looking to have fun go into overdrive to get that high, but research from the University of Michigan demonstrated that what happened to this young girl, is not abnormal. Measuring the cognitive deficits after a short walk in the city, psychologist Marc Berman found the brain is less able to recall things from memory, and that there is reduced self-control. So parents, there is a reason why your adolescent child does not return the same manner in which they left the home with!
“The mind is a limited machine,” Berman told Boston Globe
“And we’re beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations.”
The city bombards the brain with stimuli, like walking into a megasuperstore – even an electric circuit overloads once the voltage goes beyond its capacity!
Receivers were attached to a group of undergraduates attending the University of Michigan. One group took a walk around the arboretum, while the other group walked down the busy streets. Those who went for a walk down the streets were in a bad mood, the consequence of which they scored lower in a test on attention and working memory.
Frances Kuo, director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois, after interviewing female residents of a massive housing project on the South Side of Chicago found that those residents that had a patch of nature to look upon from the windows of their home had more functionality within the home, than those who did not.
“I think cities reveal how fragile some of our ‘higher’ mental functions actually are,”
“We take these talents for granted, but they really need to be protected,” Kuo commented.
Kuo also found there was less domestic violence in the apartments which had some element of nature to view from their windows.
We truly underestimate what makes us perform well, and what makes us perform badly as human beings. Studies abound demonstrating how being in the midst of nature reduces one’s pulse rate, blood pressure, and the hyperactivity in the sympathetic nervous system. The immune system improves drastically, and children who have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder show little symptoms after being out in nature for a while. Referring to the research done by the University of Sheffield, Professor Peter Woodruff rightly added:
“This work may have implications for the design of more tranquil public spaces and buildings, including hospitals, because it provides a way of measuring the impact of environmental and architectural features on people´s psychological state…”
Hunter, M.D., Eickhoff, S.B, Pheasant, R.J., Douglas, M.J., Watts, G.R., Farrow, T.F.D., Hyland, D., Kang, J, Wilkinson, I.D., Horoshenkov, K.V., Woodruff, P.W.R, `The state of tranquility: Subjective perception is shaped by contextual modulation of auditory connectivity´, NeuroImage 2010; 53: 611-618, doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.06.053
Lehrer, J. “How the City Hurts Your Brain.” http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/01/04/how_the_city_hurts_your_brain/?page=full