Over half of the world’s population is now living in urban areas (UN News Centre, 2014). One result of increased urbanization is that people are spending less time in nature. Furthermore, technology and the ease of access to information may be decreasing our time for contemplative and creative thinking. Research suggests that these implications may have detrimental effects on our health and wellbeing.
On the surface, some factors that may contribute to the negative health effects of living in a city could be the air pollution, crime rate, and the frenzied way of life that seems to embody living in cities. Lambert et al. (2015) proposed that urban environments are very different from the natural environments humans have been adapting to for thousands of years, and that the neurobiological impact of humans in unnatural environments – such as cities – should be studied. Several studies have demonstrated some interesting effects in animals. Charles Darwin’s research suggested that the brains of domestic rabbits are smaller than the brains of wild rabbits (Darwin, 1868). Psychologist Donald Hebb’s research suggested that wild rats are better at problem solving than caged rats (Hebb, 1949). And researchers at the University of California, Berkeley suggested that mice in natural environments (vs. mice in manufactured environments) developed heavier cortexes and increased levels of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, a chemical that is positively correlated with learning ability (Lambert et al., 2015). While some compelling evidence of manufactured environments’ effect on small animal brains has been found, interesting evidence has also been found in human studies.
Lambert et al. (2015) suggested that people living in urban environments have higher rates of psychological disorders, especially mood disorders. The reason for this could be because humans living in urban environments aren’t following their innate drive to be in nature. Our drive to be in nature may be innate – hereditary –because for the most part human evolution was driven by our natural environment and we still operate on many of those same genes. We are products of our environment. The implications of departing from a natural environment that we so closely adapted to, via urbanization, are only beginning to be understood. Edward Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis suggested that we have an innate affinity to our natural world and therefore our interactions, and lack thereof, with the natural world contribute to our wellbeing. Wilson even goes on to suggest that there may be a genetic component involved. For example, many humans have a seemingly innate fear of even a picture of snakes and spiders, despite their relatively few and harmless interactions with them. Yet a picture of guns and knives – more modern terrors and responsible for more deaths annually – often fail to elicit such a fear (Wilson, 1986).
Clements (2004) suggested that children today are spending less time outdoors than ever before. A benefit of spending time in nature is that it allows time for contemplation and it promotes deep thinking. In today’s information-rich world, we hardly have time to process and think deeply. Levy (2007) argued that we are living an accelerated way of life, where a more-faster-better mindset dominates.
Levy (2007) analyzed two influential writers of the mid-20th-century. Philosopher Joseph Pieper, who believed that society benefits from reflection and contemplation, and technocrat Vannevar Bush, who hypothesized that when there is too much information and time is wasted on rational thinking and sifting through the information, there is less time to think creatively and come up with novel ideas. Therefore, speeding up the access to information (e.g., search engines) would save us time from rational thinking and give us more time for creative thinking.
The missing link Bush failed to recognize was that, as Levy (2007) argued, humans have nearly insatiable wants (e.g., food, clothing, shelter) and that one want satisfied makes way for another. We are rarely complacent and almost always want more-faster-better. Furthermore, according to the theory of hedonic adaptation, coined by Brickman and Campbell in 1971, humans have a tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life events. As a person obtains more – money, success, happiness, clothing, house square footage – their expectations and desires rise as well, which results in no permanent gain in happiness (Brickman & Campbell, 1971). Levy (2007) suggested that our tendency for more-faster-better applies to the consumption of information via digital technology. Freeing up more time by making searching for information easier, only serves to free up more time to search for more information. Once we consume that information, we want more-faster-better information, without processing and reflecting on what we’ve just digested. As Levy (2007) argued, reading and finding information is easy but contemplative thinking is not and humans tend to take the easier route in that regard.
In the world of education and beyond, the implications of urbanization and the decreased time for contemplation and creative thinking are wide-ranging. People are spending more time than ever in cities, consuming information without digesting it, and out of nature. Research from animal studies suggest that spending time in natural environments could increase problem-solving abilities. Yet ironically our schools, for example, are largely manufactured and unnatural and recess time is decreasing. Schools should be focusing more on getting students outside and exposed to nature. Even having plants in hallways and classrooms would be beneficial. Schools could also teach more contemplative and critical thinking skills, so that students may learn to digest information more effectively. This combined with getting students and the general population outside more could help to curb shallow, non-creative thinking. That would be a start.
Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation level theory: A symposium (pp. 287–302). New York: Academic Press.
Clements, R. (2004). An investigation of the status of outdoor play. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 5(1), 68–80. https://doi.org/10.2304/ciec.2004.5.1.10
Darwin, C., (1868). The variation of plants and animals under domestication. London: John Murray.
Hebb, D.O., (1949). The organization of behavior: A neuropsychology theory. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Lambert, K. G., Nelson, R. J., Jovanovic, T., & Cerdá, M. (2015). Brains in the city: Neurobiological effects of urbanization. Neuroscience and biobehavioral reviews, 58, 107-22.
Levy, D.M. (2007). No time to think: Reflections on information technology and contemplative scholarship. Ethics and Information Technology, 9, 237-249.
United Nations. (2014, July 10). More than half of world’s population now living in urban areas, UN survey finds. UN News. Retrieved from https://news.un.org/en/story/2014/07/472752-more-half-worlds-population-now-living-urban-areas-un-survey-finds
Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.