Urbanization is an unstoppable process. Not even the pandemic, which apparently should have favored the flow of the population to rural areas, has managed to put a stop to it. The truth is that it has been around for a long time: the world population living in urban areas practically doubled between 1950 and 2020 , going from 29.6% to 56.2%3. Moreover, in the case of Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, eight out of ten inhabitants in 2020 resided in cities.
Faced with such overwhelming figures, a natural question that arises is whether our body suffers depending on whether we live in the countryside (a minority) or in the city (the majority) . Thus, quickly, it is easy to conclude that the only thing that changes is that outside the big cities we breathe much purer air. However, the thing goes much further: where we live determines both the structure and the functioning of our thinking organ.
One of the researchers who has put the most effort into demonstrating this has been Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, from the German University of Heidelberg. A few years ago, Meyer and his team dedicated themselves to scanning the brains of dozens of volunteers from rural and urban environments in stressful situations . In their experiment, they sat them down to solve complex arithmetic problems while either failing them for poor performance, making them see that their results were below average, or grumbling urging them to hurry up. Well, working under so much pressure, urbanites were clearly more stressed.
Why? Doubts were cleared by the scanner. Analyzing the images obtained with magnetic resonance imaging, the researchers discovered that the amygdala, a key area in the processing of emotions in general, and fear in particular, came into action exclusively in those who had grown up in cities. “The danger sensor is hyperactivated in the urban environment,” concluded Meyer with the results in hand.
The bustle of the city is expensive
So much so that it is not necessary to regularly reside in a big city for the brain to suffer. A study from the University of Michigan (United States) from a decade ago concluded that it is enough to spend a few minutes on a busy street in a big city – with intense traffic, neon lights, sirens and sidewalks crowded with pedestrians – for our brain to lose self-control and attention . The good news is that it is the same with nature: a short walk in nature is enough to ward off psychiatric disorders.
Of course there are cities and cities. A recent study with nearly 400,000 people from 38 countries around the world showed that those who grow up in cities with a rectilinear layout like Chicago are much worse oriented than those who spent their childhood in cities with more convoluted streets like Madrid or Prague . Although, by far, those who can boast of having the best mental ‘GPS’ are those who spent their childhood in a town, far from urban planning and exposed to irregularities and ‘chaos’ in terms of street distribution. .
Of course, whether you are rural or urban, if you want your orientation and navigation skills not to disappear, it is better to leave the car’s GPS off . According to a neuroscientific study led by Mar González Franco, people who abuse GPS lose the ability to create mental maps and see their memory and mental health diminished. And all because passively following audio-visual instructions from a GPS doesn’t require drivers to continuously encode, transform, and monitor their position in space.
If you have no choice but to live in the city, you should at least have the option to choose the neighborhood in which you settle . Because, eye, not all are the same for our neurons. American neurologists showed last year that middle-aged or older people who live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods, with high levels of poverty or few educational and employment opportunities, have smaller brains and more evident cognitive decline.
Neurons carry pollution poorly
In general, the data indicates that living in cities triggers mental health problems, especially suffering from schizophrenia. In part, scientists have found, because our brains are sensitive to high levels of air pollution and noise pollution.
Along these lines, a study by Lancaster University (United Kingdom) showed that inhaling the polluted air of large cities causes magnetite particles to accumulate in the brain . This highly toxic metal prevents the normal function of neurons and could contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
Does the countryside or the city depress us more?
Regarding the incidence of depression in the rural world , there is some controversy. A well-known study published two decades ago in ‘The British Journal of Psychiatry’ pointed out that the inhabitants of the most densely populated areas “had a risk between 68% and 77% greater of developing psychosis, and between 12% and 20 higher % of developing depression.
In contrast, another more recent investigation led by the University of Chicago (USA) in 2021 concluded that living in large cities makes us less prone to depression . The authors attribute this to the fact that those fleeting connections that the daily exchange of smiles with the baker or the exchange of glances on the subway imply cushion the tension of mental health and favor social interaction. On the contrary, in rural and sparsely inhabited environments it is easier for the circumstances to ‘feel alone’ to arise.