As necessary as the metropolis

As necessary as the metropolis

Jonah Lehrer reports there’s a dangerous activity that’s bad for one’s brain:

[T]he activity I’m referring to is walking down a city street. When people walk down the street, they are forced to exert cognitive control and top-down attention, and all that mental effort takes a temporary toll on their brain. Just consider everything your brain has to keep track of as you walk down a busy thoroughfare. There are the crowded sidewalks full of distracted pedestrians who have to be avoided; the hazardous crosswalks that require the brain to monitor the flow of traffic. (The brain is a wary machine, always looking out for potential threats.) There’s the confusing urban grid, which forces people to think continually about where they’re going and how to get there.

Controlled perception, though, takes energy. In fact:

Based on this data, it would be easy to conclude that we should avoid the metropolis, that the city street is a hazardous place. (In fact, I could even make the case that it’s better for the brain to stay home and surf the web than go for a stroll in the city.) But I think that would be a shortsighted argument, based on a limited reading of a limited data set. And that’s because we also know that cities are enormously valuable. All that human friction leads to an extremely valuable kind of exchange. (Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that every healthy city was defined by its ability to concentrate and facilitate social interaction. She saw the busy sidewalk as an improvisational “ballet,” in which information freely flowed between city dwellers.) In other words, we’re learning from each other and sharing ideas. This helps explain why, as recently noted by Edward Glaeser, “per capita productivity increases by 4 percent as population density rises by 50 percent.”


My hunch is that the online world will, before long, come to seem as inevitable and necessary as the metropolis.

So long for now. I’m off to read a novel (offline) in the center of our own metropolis (Central Park).