You’d never know it from my recent article on the urban brain (and the cognitive benefits of nature) but I love walking in cities. In fact, a leisurely stroll in a metropolis is one of my favorite things to do. Sure, it might tire my prefrontal cortex a bit – there’s just so much to see – but it’s the pleasurable sort of tired, like the feeling you get after an hour in an art museum.
That said, I despise driving in cities. Whenever I’m forced to navigate rush hour traffic, I always return home in a dour mood. I feel stressed and vaguely tense, as if I’ve just survived some harrowing encounter that I have no memory of. I couldn’t manage to squeeze any research on driving into my article, but I totally related to a Danish study done in the 1980’s that found that it took drivers significantly longer to solve a simple arithmetic problem when driving in the city than when driving on a suburban highway. The researchers argue that this difference is explained by the increased “cognitive load” required by urban driving.
Why is driving in a city so much more taxing, at least from the perspective of the brain? Because there’s so much to look at. There are pedestrians, stores, billboards, taxis, street lights, stop and go traffic, sirens, etc. In order to not get into an accident, we have to exercise self-control, and ignore everything but the street signs and the brake lights in front of us. Such acts of directed attention take up brainpower, which is why it takes so much longer to perform those arithmetic calculations. (In this sense, the mind is like a computer that’s slowed down because it’s trying to run too many software programs at the same time.) Because we’re forced to think about the city traffic, we’re less able to think about everything else.