The Metropolis and Mental Life

by Kieran Healy on January 11, 2009

News from the leading edge of cognitive psychology:

… scientists have begun to examine how the city affects the brain, and the results are chastening. 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.” … This research arrives just as humans cross an important milestone: For the first time in history, the majority of people reside in cities. For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah, such a migration marks a dramatic shift. … This research is also leading some scientists to dabble in urban design, as they look for ways to make the metropolis less damaging to the brain. … The reason such seemingly trivial mental tasks leave us depleted is that they exploit one of the crucial weak spots of the brain. A city is so overstuffed with stimuli that we need to constantly redirect our attention so that we aren’t distracted by irrelevant things, like a flashing neon sign or the cellphone conversation of a nearby passenger on the bus. This sort of controlled perception—we are telling the mind what to pay attention to—takes energy and effort. …

Or, to put it another way, take Georg Simmel writing in 1903, in “The Metropolis and Mental Life”:

The same factors which have thus coalesced into the exactness and minute precision of the form of life have coalesced into a structure of the highest impersonality; on the other hand, they have promoted a highly personal subjectivity. There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which has been so unconditionally reserved to the metropolis as has the blasé attitude. The blasé attitude results first from the rapidly changing and closely compressed contrasting stimulations of the nerves. From this, the enhancement of metropolitan intellectuality, also, seems originally to stem. Therefore, stupid people who are not intellectually alive in the first place usually are not exactly blasé. A life in boundless pursuit of pleasure makes one blasé because it agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all. In the same way, through the rapidity and contradictoriness of their changes, more harmless impressions force such violent responses, tearing the nerves so brutally hither and thither that their last reserves of strength are spent; and if one remains in the same milieu they have no time to gather new strength. An incapacity thus emerges to react to new sensations with the appropriate energy. This constitutes that blasé attitude which, in fact, every metropolitan child shows when compared with children of quieter and less changeable milieus. … In the blasé attitude the concentration of men and things stimulate the nervous system of the individual to its highest achievement so that it attains its peak. Through the mere quantitative intensification of the same conditioning factors this achievement is transformed into its opposite and appears in the peculiar adjustment of the blasé attitude. In this phenomenon the nerves find in the refusal to react to their stimulation the last possibility of accommodating to the contents and forms of metropolitan life. The self-preservation of certain personalities is brought at the price of devaluating the whole objective world, a devaluation which in the end unavoidably drags one’s own personality down into a feeling of the same worthlessness.

{ 51 comments }

1

DRR 01.11.09 at 4:15 am

Well at least the food is better ;-)

Seriously though, I wonder if there are also some cognitive benefits to Urban living as well. I don’t know if I believe in the “idiocy of rural life” but this comfortable suburbanite always come away from his interactions with city folk thinking they’re a little sharper, quicker etc.

2

Randolph 01.11.09 at 4:26 am

Well, suburban life isn’t particularly like ape tribal life, either. I think there’s a dulling through limitation of stimulus there. There’s an in-between range that is probably healthiest. I suspect it is more-closely achieved in some moderate-density urban neighborhoods than in any of extremely dense central cities, extremely controlled suburbs, or isolated farmsteads.

3

Justin 01.11.09 at 4:29 am

I think this may be the study about taking a walk that was mentioned. It does seem as if this particular study primarily claims that natural environments restore attention rather than that urban environments reduce it.

4

Kieran Healy 01.11.09 at 5:33 am

I wonder if there are also some cognitive benefits to Urban living as well.

Simmel certainly thought so. That’s one of the great things about that essay.

5

weserei 01.11.09 at 7:14 am

Are the two passages really talking about the same thing? The first seems to be discussing a form of cognitive impairment–an intellectual deficit measurable in tightly controlled tasks. The second is more about an attitude that, while the writer doesn’t seem to like, he isn’t exactly framing as a cognitive problem or deficit.

@2, I basically agree with you about suburbia; I lived there for the first 18 years of my life, and I do feel like it’s an environment that encourages a certain amount of learned helplessness in boredom and loneliness, decreases one’s exposure to social differences, etc. But those are long-term effects. Berman et al. are studying effects on short-term and especially working memory–i.e. what five minutes of walking down a crowded street from the office to the parking lot will do to your driving skills for the duration of the drive home. To synthesize your point with the study’s findings, one might say that growing up in an enriched urban environment and then doing your actual work in a pretty rural setting with trees and so forth would be the best of both worlds. My college seems to operate on this logic.

6

virgil xenophon 01.11.09 at 7:48 am

My experience in the Armed Services and a reading of the historical record suggests the most thoughtful and innovative ideas about warfare often come from Navy personnel serving in isolated duty posts with few distractions and lots of time alone to think–like standing the grave-yard watch. The innovative plan to bomb Tokyo from aircraft carriers using Army AF B-25 bombers (a concept that had never even been tested) immediately after Pearl Harbor, for example, was devised not by Navy or Army AF pilots–or carrier Captains and Admirals, but by a Navy Submarine Commander who more or less wafted the idea in uninvited over the transom, so to speak.

7

Chris Bertram 01.11.09 at 10:57 am

Karl Marx, of course:

“The bourgeoisie has subjected the country to the rule of the towns. It has created enormous cities, has greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural, and has thus rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life.”

8

Slocum 01.11.09 at 12:22 pm

The study is being misinterpreted, I think, in a couple of ways. First of all, the claim is not that ‘living in the city makes you stupid’ or even ‘living in the city makes you blasé’, but rather ‘living in the city may make you chronically mentally fatigued’. And second, that is conditional on particular conditions in the city–there are clearly urban environments that are not noisy, chaotic, and distracting and others that are quiet, coherent and containing enough of the natural features that seem to allow fatigued brains to recover. This particular study compared participants who talk walks either in an ‘urban setting’ or a ‘natural setting’ — but keep in mind that both walks actually took place within a city (one route along a busy street, the other through a large park).

I wonder if there are also some cognitive benefits to Urban living as well.

Sure — and I don’t think this study really casts any doubt on that.

9

Hidari 01.11.09 at 12:33 pm

Well I know a bit about cognitive psychology and I can tell you now that Marc Berman is full of shit.It’s just old fashioned cognitivism with a patina of Darwinism thrown over it, packaged to suit the prejudices of journalists at the Bostson Globe. To begin with:

‘The mind is a limited machine’.

Actually the ‘mind’ (i presume Berman means the brain) is not a machine, unless one is using a definition of the word ‘machine’ which is contrary to the dictionary definition, and it is not ‘limited’ (at least in the sense that Berman is implying)

‘One of the main forces at work is a stark lack of nature, which is surprisingly beneficial for the brain. Studies have demonstrated, for instance, that hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows.’

Well I live in the heart of the city, and I have just opened my window,and…gosh! What have I just seen! Trees. And yet Bedouin tribes in the Sahara live in a ‘natural’ environment and yet they cannot see trees! How awful for them. Perhaps we should arrange flights to ‘nature’ (Central Park, perhaps?), so they could get over this appalling deficit in their social lives.

Incidentally,’we’ do not know that human attention is a ‘scarce resource’ (like uranium perhaps?) although idiot journalists for the Boston Globe apparently are. Indeed, all the evidence leads ‘us’ (I use this in the journalistic sense meaning ‘me’) that ‘human attention’ is a skill and ability which we learn, which can improve with age (and usually does: children,notoriously, have the attention span of gnats, teenagers are a bit better, middle aged people have ‘trained’ their attention skills such that they can concentrate on relatively complex tasks for relatively long periods of time).

The ‘experiments’ which demonstrated that attention channels are ‘limited’ are over fifty years old now and were quickly qualified or rebutted (details on request).

‘For a species that evolved to live in small, primate tribes on the African savannah,’

BOLLOCKS! ‘We’ did not evolve ‘to’ live in the African Savannah. We evolved to survive,and reproduce. We did this in a number of places including in the jungle, in the desert, and,for that matter, under the ocean. In other words, ‘we’ evolved to survive in a wide variety of environments. Which is why we can live under the oceans albeit with with mechanical help,but fish cannot live on dry land. Fish really did evolve ‘to’ live in a specific environment. (To argue that ‘we’ evolved to live in the African Savannah implies that natural selection is no longer working on the human race. There is no evidence for this bizarre idea, although Steve Jones amongsts others appears to believe it).

Finally like all the old fashioned proponents of a now intellectually bankrupt cognitivism, these people cannot explain that the key experience of ‘modern man’ is not cognitive overload but cognitive UNDERLOAD ; ie boredom. ‘We’ (and, again, by ‘we’ I mean ‘me’) are not ‘confused’or ‘overloaded’ walking down a highstreet or at work.We are instead bored senseless with the flashing crap we are exposed to:likewise tedious jobs, mindless computer games,idiotic TV programmes, stupid Hollywood movies etc. Modern life is one big yawn.

I’m joking,but not really. Cognitivists simply have no model to explain boredom (why should cognitive underload be a problemm?) and so they simply ignore it, despite the fact that on a minute by minute basis it is far more important, phenomenologically, than cognitive overload.

All the rest of the stuff about nature is probably true enough, but has been known for over thirty years incidentally: google Environmental Psyschology.

10

Hidari 01.11.09 at 12:37 pm

Having calmed down, I should add that in my experience journalists usually fabricate some or all of their ‘stories’ and so it is deeply unfair to blame Marc Berman for the vapid article quoted. What was implied or stated probably bears little or no relation to what Berman actually said.

11

Slocum 01.11.09 at 2:02 pm

Incidentally,’we’ do not know that human attention is a ‘scarce resource’ (like uranium perhaps?)

No, not like uranium. Limited more in the sense that human muscle power is also limited (renewable, but limited). Can you perform task demanding intense concentration for a hour? Can you perform it eight hours straight with no loss of effectiveness? Can you do so for 30 straight 8-hour days? If you have no scarce mental resources, why on earth not? Any computational task a computer can perform for an hour, it can generally perform indefinitely with no loss of efficiency–why can’t a human brain?

Now imagine you’ve spent a solid work week on a cognitively demanding task. Do you agree you might be a bit more likely to, for example:

– Get in a minor traffic accident
– Blurt out something you’ll regret later
– Yield to temptation and eat a lot of junk food
– Become easily frustrated
– Go off on an a rant

If so, why would that be?

The limited resource needed to concentrate, to resist distractions and temptations, to self-monitor, to inhibit anti-social behaviors, etc is referred to by a variety of names: ‘directed attention’, ‘executive function’, ‘will power’. Roy Baumeister refers to deficits in this resource as ‘ego depletion’:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_depletion

Yes, it would be helpful if everybody working on this kind of thing used the same terminology, but the fact that there are variety of terms doesn’t make the underlying phenomenon any less real.

12

Marcus Pivato 01.11.09 at 2:14 pm

As Hidari points out, we are getting Berman’s research filtered through `science journalists’ (who often badly distort the science they report, either through honest stupidity or because of their own biases). However, the core of Berman’s argument seems to be:

1. Urban environments are cognitively taxing (e.g. to attention mechanisms).
2. Therefore, prolonged exposure leads to cognitive fatigue (which shows up as impaired cognitive performance).

From this, someone (either Berman or the journalist) concludes: `Urban environments make you stupid’.

Let’s replace `urban’ with `exercise’ and `cognitive’ with `physical’, and try the syllogism again.

1. Physical exercise is physically taxing (e.g. to muscles, cardiovascular systems, etc.)
2. Therefore, prolonged exposure leads to physically fatigue (which shows up as impaired physical performance).

Conclusion: Exercise makes you weak and unhealthy.

Obviously this is idiotic. Exercise leads to fatigue in the short-term, but actually increased physical strength and fitness in the long term as your body adapts to the load. In the same way, urban overstimulus may generate cognitive fatigue in the short term, but it is quite conceivable to me that it actually boosts cognitive ability in the long-term, by acting as a form of `cognitive exercise’. (However, to capitalize on this improved ability, presumably one must escape from the overstimulus, e.g. by retreating to a peaceful setting).

This study also fails to mention one of the major cognitive benefits of living in cities: the opportunity to interact with many other intelligent, educated people. It is generally recognized that creative professionals (e.g. academics) tend to be more productive when they are surrounded by many other people working in the same profession, with whom they can interact, share ideas, collaborate, etc. Economists call this the `economies of agglomeration’. For example, this is why there are so many IT firms in Silicon Valley: because IT researchers find it beneficial to operate near other IT professionals.

Ceteris paribus, urban environments offer greater economies of agglomeration than rural or small-town environments. There are many more people, so there are likely to be many more people researching or developing whatever you are researching or developing. This is why the better universities tend to be located in or near major population centres.

There is one truth to this article: overstimulus makes you (temporarily) stupid, e.g. by exhausting your attention mechanisms. However, the major culprit is not urban life itself. I would say television, video games and/or loud music are much more salient sources of overstimulation for most people (rural or urban).

13

Hidari 01.11.09 at 2:17 pm

‘Any computational task a computer can perform for an hour, it can generally perform indefinitely with no loss of efficiency—why can’t a human brain?’

Precisely. But cognitivists believe that the human brain is a digital computer. So the analogy doesn’t hold.

Incidentally I don’t agree with the second part of your argument either.

‘Yield to temptation and eat a lot of junk food’.

Actually generally speaking, people tend to eat junk food because they are cognitively understimulated and need salt, fat and glucose which give us a ‘high’. Some people eat when they are ‘stressed’ it’s true, but that can actually lower appetite as well. But if you have absoulutely nothing else to do and there is a cupcake sitting on your table I guarantee you will eat it: given enough time. Same goes for the rest. I want to spend my week doing cognitively demanding tasks. The fact that I don’t get to do so (my job is very boring) makes me frustrated and ‘stressed’. Cognitively demanding tasks would make me less likely to ‘lose it’.

‘Can you perform task demanding intense concentration for a hour? Can you perform it eight hours straight with no loss of effectiveness? ‘

Actually the question is: can you do absolutely and literally nothing for eight hours? The answer is ‘no’. And if you were denied any informational input (or physical activity) for 48 hours you would start to go mad. (There is abundant experimental evidence that this is the case). Muscle power is not a ‘resource’ like coal or uranium, it is a skill or process and here the rule is ‘use it or lose it’. If you exercise a lot your muscle power will increase, if you don’t it will decrease, and there is no doubt that the latter is worse for you.

14

belle le triste 01.11.09 at 2:29 pm

if you have absoulutely nothing else to do and there is a cupcake sitting on your table I guarantee you will eat it: given enough time

suddenly i felt the totality of my life’s achievement flash before in a single glum image

15

Paul Maurice Martin 01.11.09 at 3:15 pm

I’d run across that same statistic about the increasing number of city dwellers and found it disturbing from another angle when considered in conjunction with the overall picture today of increasingly severe and widespread environmental degradation.

It seems to me that driving out almost all contact with the natural world in our day to day lives is unfortunate. Experience of the natural world tends to induce states of mind that are peaceful and calm. So when you combine deprivation in this area with the overstimulation of urban settings, it seems to present us with an overall environment that will increasingly challenge the overall mental health of populations.

16

Hidari 01.11.09 at 3:38 pm

‘Exercise leads to fatigue in the short-term, but actually increased physical strength and fitness in the long term as your body adapts to the load. In the same way, urban overstimulus may generate cognitive fatigue in the short term, but it is quite conceivable to me that it actually boosts cognitive ability in the long-term, by acting as a form of `cognitive exercise’. (However, to capitalize on this improved ability, presumably one must escape from the overstimulus, e.g. by retreating to a peaceful setting).’

Yes this is absolutely my point. I suppose I should have pointed out the obvious: that in the short term if you exercise you get tired, but in the long term it gives you more energy (and muscular capacity). I suspect the same is true for the brain. Certainly there is a lot of evidence from developmental psychology that a certain ‘threshold’ amount of stimulus is absolutely necessary for cognitive development, and that (generally speaking) it’s a good thing. Certainly over-stimulation can be a bad thing, but, generally speaking, there are confounds of ‘affect’ here as well. Certainly babies in Gaza at the moment are getting plenty of stimulus, but I doubt it’s doing them much good because the emotional context is negative (fear, insecurity, frustration, anger).

17

weisseharre 01.11.09 at 4:03 pm

hmm… ‘unatural’ trytophan hydroxylase level(s) serotonin-system dysfunction(s) arf,arf

18

Adam Kotsko 01.11.09 at 4:10 pm

If only there were some way for these mentally fatigued urban people to go into a kind of sensory deprivation state for eight hours or so a day, perhaps during the evening hours….

19

Steve LaBonne 01.11.09 at 4:16 pm

There is one metropolis that demonstrably does make people stupid- Washington, DC. [bada-bing] Thanks, I’ll be here all week.

20

MarkUp 01.11.09 at 5:52 pm

”Thanks, I’ll be here all week.”

Where, Washington? {does that deserve a bad-a boomba?}

What would Pavlov’s dog do on a long walk sans iPhone? This affect may well answer why no bad guys ever made it back to Raleigh from Mayberry and why one could claim that neither was it their fault for doing what they did or for getting caught.

21

Slocum 01.11.09 at 6:37 pm

Hidari: Actually generally speaking, people tend to eat junk food because they are cognitively understimulated and need salt, fat and glucose which give us a ‘high’.

There is research that shows both:

a) That a cognitively demanding task will make participants more likely to eat a tasty treat offered at the end of the experiment, and

b) That participants who have to resist tasty treats (e.g. not take anything from a pile of freshly baked cookies nearby) perform more poorly on attentionally demanding tasks.

I don’t have citations at hand, but I can find them. Perhaps people also eat when they’re bored — so what?

Actually the question is: can you do absolutely and literally nothing for eight hours?

That is not the question — it’s just a question. A completely different one at that. It’s a non-sequitur to object to the concept of mental fatigue by exclaiming, “No! Boredom is the true enemy!” There is no reason whatsoever that mental fatigue and boredom can’t be both be problems (for different people — or the same people at different times).

Marcus Pivato: Obviously this is idiotic. Exercise leads to fatigue in the short-term, but actually increased physical strength and fitness in the long term as your body adapts to the load.

But there are limits (which vary widely between individuals) to the extent any body can adapt by getting stronger, and if you push beyond those limits, the body will not be able to recover and will start to break down. And in any case, neural tissue is not muscle — it’s a metaphor (but we have a good reason to expect it’s a lot more like muscle than uranium). It’s unclear whether or to what extent it’s possible to strengthen the portions of the brain responsible for self-control. But here’s the deal — you can be in the experimental group, and I’ll be in the control group. You do your work or studying in a chaotic environment with random street noises piped in, simulated neighbors arguing below, a simulated loud TV above, and the phone ringing every 10 minutes (you know — as a workout regimen for your brain), and I’ll do my work in a quiet office–after a few months we’ll check back to some Stroop and digit span backwards testing ;)

22

Matthew Kuzma 01.11.09 at 7:17 pm

I think the author of this article makes some valid points but unfairly equates “taxing” with “damaging”. Crossword puzzles are mentally taxing, and have been associated with a decreased likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s and more generally with prolonged mental acuity in old age. City life may be draining on certain aspects of our minds, but traditionally what happens to people when they are exposed to prolonged stress of any kind is that they develop a great strength to resist and cope with that stress. And the absence of challenges tends to lead to atrophy. I’d be interested to see some studies of city-dwellers versus people from rural areas in these same measures of psychological and mental performance.

23

Slocum 01.11.09 at 7:52 pm

City life may be draining on certain aspects of our minds, but traditionally what happens to people when they are exposed to prolonged stress of any kind is that they develop a great strength to resist and cope with that stress.

There is some evidence that suggests that is not the case with respect to mental fatigue and noxious urban environments:

http://eab.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/33/4/543
http://eab.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/33/3/343

Would anybody really find it surprising that living in an urban area like this:

http://www.observer.com/files/imagecache/article/files/parkslope_2.jpg

might support better mental functioning and more pro-social behaviors than one like this:

http://www.transistor.org/personal/train/roberttaylorhome.jpg

24

roger 01.11.09 at 8:12 pm

I thought the latest thing from the leading edge of cognitive psychology is Vul et al.s excellent demolition of the correlations being made by cognitive psychology. There was a story about it in Newsweek, even – I hate to see CT lag newsweek!

25

Nick Valvo 01.11.09 at 8:51 pm

Just on a personal note, this is an interesting thing to stumble across now, when I am again looking for apartments in San Francisco after eight months spent living alone in the woods in Napa County.

My personal experience moving from city to country while working on a dissertation prospectus was that the solitude exacerbated some of my bad habits: restlessness and twitchiness and low attention span. I think I’m well-adapted to work in environments like cafes, probably through long training. Maybe it’s the switch itself that causes difficulty? Nice views out here, though, even if the occasional wild turkey knocking on the glass doors can be distracting.

Commuting by car rather than by public transit probably had the strongest effect; that’s really quite physiologically different. It takes less of my time, but after a lot of driving I feel depleted. Riding the bus or trains, on the other hand, feels much different.

Maybe we should go back to Practice of Everyday Life on this question. Maybe urban and rural life are different kinds of activities, and don’t necessarily belong on the same scale.

26

joseph duemer 01.11.09 at 10:08 pm

My old teacher, the poet David Wagoner, used to write poems while sitting in a booth at the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle. When asked how he could concentrate in so much noise, he said, “It was so noisy it might as well have been quiet.”

Speaking of poets, Wm. Wordsworth noted the (supposedly) baleful effects of the city on intellectual and spiritual life, but then he had a professional interest in the delights of rural life. In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote:

For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.”

27

chrismealy 01.11.09 at 10:10 pm

How much of this is just simple environment factors: noise and heat? Pretty tree-lined narrow streets are also quiet and cool streets. Wide treeless streets are loud and hot.

28

virgil xenophon 01.12.09 at 2:18 am

joseph duemer/

IIRC there was a study done a couple of decades ago that claimed that test results showed that for a significant sub-set of the population the constant decibel level of the background road noise/hum as measured inside an 18-wheeler on the hwy at full speed was the optimum level for concentration. (don’t ask me the methodology) I know that my Father used to tell me that when in college (30s) he used to study in a chair propped up against the wall next to the juke box at a local off-campus hang-out ala your example of David Wagoner and for the same reason.

29

djw 01.12.09 at 4:50 am

Excellent. More Simmel blogging please. Next should be either “The Poor” or the Stranger, I think, but there are plenty of other options.

30

lisa 01.12.09 at 7:02 am

If only there were some way for these mentally fatigued urban people to go into a kind of sensory deprivation state for eight hours or so a day, perhaps during the evening hours….

Yes, clearly that’s a tragically unmet need. Perhaps we could encourage our fellow urbanites to quietly meditate each evening.

31

Mikhail 01.12.09 at 8:30 am

Hidari:

“The ‘experiments’ which demonstrated that attention channels are ‘limited’ are over fifty years old now and were quickly qualified or rebutted (details on request).”

Yes, please. I also know a thing or two about cognitive psychology and am not aware of anything that says attention is not top-limited or that brain can operate for long in a highly distracting environment! References!

This article though is obviously a product of a “journalistic genius” :) and has little resemblance of the underlying issue. The point of the research was to prove what I said before – when there are many distractions, you can’t keep track of them all and you get tired trying… ;-) I know, this hardly needs proof, but that’s academic research for you…

32

Hidari 01.12.09 at 10:11 am

Hey guys: chill. Also: straw man alert!

‘That is not the question—it’s just a question. A completely different one at that. It’s a non-sequitur to object to the concept of mental fatigue by exclaiming, “No! Boredom is the true enemy!” There is no reason whatsoever that mental fatigue and boredom can’t be both be problems (for different people—or the same people at different times).’

No: I’m not saying that ‘boredom is the true enemy’. What I’m getting at (this should have been obvious but perhaps I should have spelt it out) is that whereas issues relating to information overload fit quite well with the cognitivist orthodoxy (because digital computers have absolute limits to the amount of data they can store and process) information underload does not: therefore (goes my argument) the ‘problem’ of boredom has been comparatively sidelined compared to the ‘problem’ of stress, anxiety, the ‘problem’ of big cities and so forth. Now this might be true or it might not be true but that’s what I’m arguing. For my argument to work you also have to make a very strict distinction between short term deficits and long term effects. It’s not exactly the most profound insight in the world to note that people get tired after they have been exercising, or that they get tired after concentrating hard on (say) a complex mathematics textbook and that, in the same way as we might have a coffee after a hard session in the gym, we might go and watch an episode of Frasier after reading the Principia Mathematica. My point is about absolute limits. Digital computers have absolute limits in terms of ROM and RAM, processing speeds and so forth.Unless you upgrade or buy some more, what you get when you open the box is what you have when you throw it away (actually there’s probably degradation over time).

The human body and (i’m arguing) the human brain don’t work like that. Neuroplasticity and neurogenesis are still controversial but they seem to indicate that, again, with the brain as with muscles ‘use it or lose it’. And to repeat, the importance of stimulus in developmental psychology has long been understood.

‘and am not aware of anything that says attention is not top-limited or that brain can operate for long in a highly distracting environment! References!’

Again, I’m not claiming that attention isn’t top-limited in the short term. It clearly is. My argument (to repeat) is that there may be no absolute limits and probably aren’t.

I’m not so sure about your second point. It depends what you mean by the word ‘operate’ doesn’t it? After all,’objectively’, the driving environment is pretty distracting, especially at rush hour in the run up to Christmas, and I’m claiming that I particuarly enjoyed driving in those circumstances, but that’s a bit different from saying that my brain actually couldn’t operate in those circumstances.

References: to the idea that the brain uses information limited ‘channels’ : Broadbent 1958.To the idea that this is an overstatement: Treisman 1964. To the idea that in an absolute sense there may be no ‘absolute’ limit to one’s attention capacity: Hirst et al 1980. See also Neisser 1976.

33

Hidari 01.12.09 at 11:01 am

Oh and Spelke et al 1976.

34

Mikhail 01.12.09 at 11:25 am

Hidari:

I looked up the references you mentioned. I have several issues with them. Not to create a scientific debate here, I’ll keep it short. First of all, just as the early Broadbent’s theories were then qualified, so were these results not nullified, but numerous issues have been identified with the them to the point of saying “we don’t really know what’s going on there”. Also, obviously, there is a huge literature on dual-task performance, in particular by Pashler, most of which deals with task switching, not attentional resources. The references you provide do not in any way identify that it is attention they deal with. Most scientists would say that it’s the executive control aka switching mechanism that’s at work here, not attention per se. So, to say that attention in possibly not limited “in absolute” is a huge stretch and also not quite clear what that means. Attention also does not have a short- or long-term conceptualisation!

In your Christmas driving example – can you drive in heavy traffic, under snowing conditions for hours without it becoming dangerous for you and others – without getting tired? I don’t think so. That’s the point – heavy use of attentional resources is taxing (quite possibly not the attention itself is taxing, but the constant use of it – switching).

And finally, nobody would actually be able to define what exactly attention is… :-) Apart from “it’s a cognitive process” or “ability to focus on some out of many”. We don’t know what lies under those definitions, what the mechanism of it is. Not even to the level of the strength of neural connections. So, speaking of absolute limits on something we don’t even know what it is, is a stretch…

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Slocum 01.12.09 at 12:41 pm

What I’m getting at (this should have been obvious but perhaps I should have spelt it out) is that whereas issues relating to information overload fit quite well with the cognitivist orthodoxy (because digital computers have absolute limits to the amount of data they can store and process) information underload does not: therefore (goes my argument) the ‘problem’ of boredom has been comparatively sidelined compared to the ‘problem’ of stress, anxiety, the ‘problem’ of big cities and so forth.

Fair enough, but I don’t believe that this research is about ‘information overload’ — it’s really about the attentional mechanisms required for cognitive and behavioral self-control. That includes focusing attention on demanding tasks, fighting off distraction, resisting temptation, self-monitoring, inhibiting inappropriate behaviors, etc. And it seems likely that boring situations place demands this resource as well. Imagine sitting in a long, boring meeting lead by your boss. You can’t get up and leave, you can’t let your boredom show on your face, you can’t zone out and stop paying attention. This form of ‘doing nothing’ can seem like hard, unpleasant work. You may well feel more spent after a couple hours of that than a couple of hours a cognitively demanding but engaging task (and I’d expect attentional tests to show deficits to confirm that “sitting there and attentive despite internally screaming with boredom” was, indeed, a demanding task ).

And finally, nobody would actually be able to define what exactly attention is… :-) Apart from “it’s a cognitive process” or “ability to focus on some out of many”. We don’t know what lies under those definitions, what the mechanism of it is. Not even to the level of the strength of neural connections.

“Not even” to the level of strength of neural connections? We know about virtually nothing in Psych to the level of the strength of particular neural connections, but that does not mean we don’t know anything. In this case, though, it is pretty clear that prefrontal cortex is heavily implicated:

http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2008/10/selfcontrol_and_the_prefrontal.php

That link, BTW, has reference to one of the experiments involving cognitively demanding tasks and tasty treats that I alluded to earlier:


Consider this clever experiment, led by Stanford professor Baba Shiv. (I’ve blogged about this experiment before.) Shiv was curious whether “cognitive load” could influence self-control, so he gave half of the subjects a two-digit number to memorize (low load), while the other half were given a seven-digit number (high load). Subjects were then instructed to walk to another room in the building. On the way they passed by a table at which they were presented with a choice between a caloric slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. Fifty-nine percent of the people trying to remember seven digits (high load) chose the cake, while sixty-three percent of the two-digit subjects (low load) chose the fruit salad. In other words, having people memorize an extra five digits made them exhibit significantly less self-control.

Pretty interesting you can get such a clear effect with such a minimal, short-term manipulation, no?

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Mikhail 01.12.09 at 12:59 pm

:) What exactly is the self-control exercised here? Who said that cake is more “control” than salad and why is there even an assumption that any form of control is exercised. I’m sorry, but this is just bogus research. Not to mention that there are many strategies that make remembering a 7 digit number just as easy as a 2 digit number (e.g. two dates/years rather than 7 digits!) which were in no way controlled for!

Also, how does the fact that prefrontal cortex is involved in something help us to understand cognitive mechanisms? It tells us which part of the brain does it, but in no way how it does it…

When I referred to the “level of strength of neural connections” I meant memory issues as opposed to attention – a good argument can be made that long term memory is essentially strength of neural patterns. Attention itself is THE central cognitive ability we have, but very poorly understood in terms of what it is. We know a lot of how attention behaves, but not where it comes from.

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Hidari 01.12.09 at 2:00 pm

‘In your Christmas driving example – can you drive in heavy traffic, under snowing conditions for hours without it becoming dangerous for you and others – without getting tired? I don’t think so. That’s the point – heavy use of attentional resources is taxing (quite possibly not the attention itself is taxing, but the constant use of it – switching).’

Again, straw man alert. I am not denying:

a: People get tired.

b: Some tasks are harder than others.

c: After a hard task (cognitively speaking or, for that matter, non-cognitively speaking) you need a break.

As far as the discussion of the Spelke results goes: it’s true that writers in the cognitivist tradition have spent a huge amount of time denying that those experimental results really mean what they apparently do mean, or that they have any implications, or that the conclusions drawn are valid or blah blah blah. To be honest this has more to do with the sociology of science than anything else. It was vital for the ‘brain is a digital computer’ variety of cognitivism to deny that attention is essentially a skill which we learn as opposed to a resource which we use. Therefore, to repeat, a lot of ink was spilt denying the implications of these experiments: they were, to use Kuhn’s language, ‘paradigm shifting’ and at that time the paradigm was not for shifting.

CF: ‘Most scientists would say that it’s the executive control aka switching mechanism that’s at work here, not attention per se.’ MOST scientists? Really? Who? Scientists in the ecological psychological tradition? Behaviourists? Discursive psychologists? Psychologists in the post-cognitivist tradition (e.g. Brooks, Wheeler, van Gelder,Clancey)? I don’t think so.

Indeed I don’t even accept the rhetoric used here. What do the words ‘executive’ ‘control’ and ‘mechanism’ bring to the discussion other than creating the illusion that someone has ‘proved’ that the brain is a digital computer or even that this is a useful metaphor without arguing for it? The Spelke results are only ‘mysterious’ from a cognitivist perspective. Abandoning that, we conclude that the brain is a biological organ, that it needs fats, water and glucose (amongst other things) to function: if it runs low on these things, then performance suffers. Likewise, we cannot ‘concentrate’ for hours on end for the same reason that a normal person can’t just get up off their sofa and run a marathon. However with training, almost anyone could get up and run a marathon. That’s what people do: they learn. The more you do something the better you get at it (ceteris paribus). And that’s all there is to it. Dual task performance is only a mystery if you start off with the idea that thinking ‘is’ information processing, that information ‘passes into’ the brain via (limited) information channels, that there is an ‘executive control mechanism’ that ‘switches’ between tasks etc. But if you ditch all these ideas, the ‘mystery’ dissolves.

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Mikhail 01.12.09 at 2:43 pm

“Dual task performance is only a mystery if you start off with the idea that thinking ‘is’ information processing, that information ‘passes into’ the brain via (limited) information channels, that there is an ‘executive control mechanism’ that ‘switches’ between tasks etc. But if you ditch all these ideas, the ‘mystery’ dissolves.”

Indeed… :)
So, thinking is NOT information processing, information apparently just “appears” in the brain without going through our senses (which are all limited), etc. Interesting. Sounds almost like a philosopher without a clue of the biological underpinnings of a human body. By the way, I never said dual task performance is a mystery. Just that it works differently to how you present it. :)

As for the paradigm shift, I agree that there are good reasons to ditch the brain as a computer model, but there must be evidence, not some abstract desire and theories. There are good, well controlled experiments where you cannot come up with alternative explanations for the results, and there are bad ones (over 90%). Currently, there are no good solid results that would support such a shift. I’m sure when/if that finally happens, many people would be saying “I said it all along, but nobody listened”. Nobody listens because there are no factual grounds for those ideas at this point in time. And every time someone blames sociology of science for the difference of opinion, it’s very annoying – do a good, solid experiment to prove your ideas. If you can’t, don’t engage in empty rhetoric about the implications of results that are not there to begin with.

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loren 01.12.09 at 3:08 pm

If this post is at least in part about how older ideas and conjectures get rediscovered and reexamined, there’s also this from the same Boston Globe piece …

“Recent research by scientists at the Santa Fe Institute used a set of complex mathematical algorithms to demonstrate that the very same urban features that trigger lapses in attention and memory — the crowded streets, the crushing density of people — also correlate with measures of innovation, as strangers interact with one another in unpredictable ways. It is the “concentration of social interactions” that is largely responsible for urban creativity, according to the scientists.”

… where Scott Page and the SFI gang do their thing against the backdrop of a bunch of interesting empirical work (Vernon Henderson, Edward Glaeser) testing Jane Jacobs’ entirely non-mathematical ruminations on diversity and innovation in and around cities.

I don’t mean this as a swipe on Page and SFI: it’s very cool work they’ve done, and Page certainly knows the richer history behind his urban stuff, and his diversity book. Berman’s experiment reported by Lehrer is clever too (although when I FB-linked this BG article, a friend quite reasonably pointed out that the phrase “the busy streets of downtown Ann Arbor” rings a bit comical to anyone who has moved from Ann Arbor to, oh, an actual city). Lehrer’s piece is what it is (a short report), but if he’d had the time and space this could have been spun out into a great longer essay on the contradictions of city life, where some of the richer historical and social-scientific backgrounds to these recent findings could be laid out.

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Cian 01.12.09 at 3:13 pm

As for the paradigm shift, I agree that there are good reasons to ditch the brain as a computer model, but there must be evidence, not some abstract desire and theories. “

There are good scientific reasons to keep the brain as computer model? Who knew…
I think you can make a strong case for the computer model having been a very productive one for advances in psychology, but the evidence for the brain actually having a strong computational model has always been pretty weak. Whether the evidence for other models is any stronger is of course up for debate…

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Western Dave 01.12.09 at 9:08 pm

A walk in the woods is only a stress-reducer if you don’t know very much about woods. If you are paying attention to all the vegetation in detail because that’s what you care about, it’s just as exhausting. (oh look, the deer are eating plants x and y they must be really hungry to eat those, look a lot of coyote droppings, why are their so many of species x? what the hell is this invasive species doing here? what’s that smell, that’s not the right smell? the wind is shifting, better put on my parka before I get cold etc. etc.). The experiment only works the way it does because the students don’t depend on nature for their livelihood directly and therefore can’t recognize the tons of input they are getting.

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csf 01.12.09 at 10:21 pm

This topic — the psychological consequences of urban living — gets reinvented every decade or two (perhaps by people who haven’t bothered to read the earlier body of work). For example, Milgram spurred a lot of writing about it around 1970. And a lot of anecdotal material is thrown in each time (going back to the City Mouse / Country Mouse fable). More recently, a lot of simplistic, reductionist psychology emerged that equates a walk on a busy street with a life in the city. The body of research from about the 1940s through 1980s that systematically compared the psychologies of residents of larger and smaller places — and there is a lot of it — basically discovered only minor differences, if any, that could be attributed to place once selection effects are taken into account. (E.g., city people score higher on intelligence tests, but once you control for background and selective migration, that pretty much goes away.) What ever happened to cumulative knowledge?

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Jon H 01.14.09 at 2:11 am

Marcus Pivato wrote: “1. Urban environments are cognitively taxing (e.g. to attention mechanisms).
2. Therefore, prolonged exposure leads to cognitive fatigue (which shows up as impaired cognitive performance).”

On the other hand, a way to avoid cognitive fatigue is to use the brain for different things. A lunchtime walk around Times Square is very different than a morning of coding. And it’s not like walking around a city really demands 100% of your mental function.

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Jon H 01.14.09 at 2:18 am

“If only there were some way for these mentally fatigued urban people to go into a kind of sensory deprivation state for eight hours or so a day, perhaps during the evening hours….”

Or even from, say, 9 to 6 in the day. They might have a place called a ‘cubicle’.

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Jon H 01.14.09 at 2:33 am

From the first article: “While it’s long been recognized that city life is exhausting — that’s why Picasso left Paris”

I doubt that he left Paris because of Paris. I suspect he left because of the demands of his *social life* in Paris. Which is a very different thing that navigating a city of strangers to walk to Borders to buy a novel. Picasso’s problem was more like the stress of a person at a company holiday party, where appearances must be maintained, asses must be kissed, etc.

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Jon H 01.14.09 at 2:43 am

“First of all, the claim is not that ‘living in the city makes you stupid’ or even ‘living in the city makes you blasé’, but rather ‘living in the city may make you chronically mentally fatigued’. “

I’d put it as “Spending too much time *on the street* may make you chronically mentally fatigued.”

There’s probably a paper to be written testing the cognitive abilities of big-city bike messengers, who spend lots of time in high-risk situations on the street that must be quite cognitively demanding.

To the extent Bernie Madoff is cognitively fatigued right now, it’s probably not because he lives on the Upper East Side, but because he’s in trouble with the law.

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JRoth 01.14.09 at 5:24 am

After all,’objectively’, the driving environment is pretty distracting, especially at rush hour in the run up to Christmas, and I’m claiming that I particuarly enjoyed driving in those circumstances, but that’s a bit different from saying that my brain actually couldn’t operate in those circumstances.

In the early 20thC, it was widely believed that busy electric signs were dangerous distractions to drivers; then research showed that, in fact, they helped to keep drivers alert and aware – of things on the road, not just the signage. There’s a long tradition of underestimating human cognitive capacity (particularly filtering capacity).

Furthermore, early childhood development research shows that kids raised in urban environments are, ceteris paribus, better at a number of cognitive tasks (especially wayfinding, but also spatial comprehension) than their suburban peers. Which shouldn’t be surprising, but apparently runs counter to this journalist’s preconceptions.

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JRoth 01.14.09 at 5:30 am

Oh, best relevant line, from Andy Warhol (can’t find an exact quote):

They have parks in cities so that people can have a little bit of the country there; I’ve always thought that they should have little bits of the city out in the country.

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garymar 01.15.09 at 2:04 am

<blockquote cite=”More recently, a lot of simplistic, reductionist psychology emerged that equates a walk on a busy street with a life in the city.”

This is the bingo quote for me. And that research that showed 59% of one group taking cake, 63% of the other group taking an apple — is that 4% difference even statistically significant?

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garymar 01.15.09 at 2:05 am

No, here is the bingo quote (screwed up the HTML):

More recently, a lot of simplistic, reductionist psychology emerged that equates a walk on a busy street with a life in the city.

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contextfree 01.16.09 at 10:49 pm

“‘Any computational task a computer can perform for an hour, it can generally perform indefinitely with no loss of efficiency—”

Can it? In reality software leaks memory, periodic maintenance tasks like reindexing and defragmentation are necessary to maintain performance, etc.

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