The Frontal Cortex

Tradeoffs

I’d like to tell you a story about a routine of modern life that is really bad for your brain. Everybody performs this activity – sometimes multiple times a day! – and yet we rarely realize the consequences. In 2008, scientists at the University of Michigan did a very clever study illuminating how this activity led to dramatic decreases in working memory, self-control, visual attention and positive affect. Other studies have demonstrated that people who are less exposed to this activity show enhanced brain function. They are better able to focus and even recover more quickly in hospitals.

What is this dangerous activity? It isn’t the internet. In fact, the cognitive decreases caused by this activity are much more dramatic than anything that’s been linked to the web or computers. (As I recently noted, many studies that look at the effect of various computer activities on the brain have found cognitive enhancements.) Instead, the 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.

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. The mind is like a powerful supercomputer, but the act of paying attention consumes much of its processing power.

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.”

The lesson, I think, is that everything is a cognitive tradeoff. The city street forces us to exert top-down attention, and that leads to measurable decreases in mental function. On the other hand, the internet, it is argued, encourages a constant state of multitasking and distraction, and that leads to an intellectual shallowness, as we lose the ability to focus for extended tracts of time. My hunch is that the online world will, before long, come to seem as inevitable and necessary as the metropolis. Why? Because the value it provides far outweighs the cognitive costs (which may or may not exist.) And this is why I’m wary when the brain/mind becomes the main criterion for discussing the value of the internet. Such an approach is roughly equivalent to thinking about cities solely in the narrow terms of a few attentional lab tests.

PS. This doesn’t mean you can’t ameliorate a few of these negative tradeoffs. That’s why New York City has Central Park – your prefrontal cortex needs a break – and why it’s still important to read novels in the age of Google.

Comments

  1. #1 Filip
    June 10, 2010

    Reminds me of the Nietzsche/Flaubert argument: Flaubert says somewhere that thinking and writing have to be done while sitting. Nietzsche vehemently contradicts him, saying that only ideas reached by walking have any value.

  2. #2 Micah Allen
    June 10, 2010

    Great post. I also recently discussed the issue of cognitive trade-offs. It’s really not an either/or picture- with a new tech like the internet, it’s hard to define whether it’s specifically an attention vs thought, creativity vs productivity thing. It’s likely that surfing the net elicits one or more distributed brain networks and that individual usage patterns are going to be the real predictor of any brain effects. The whole argument is like saying, if I move to the city and fail to find a job, fail to integrate, and move into a basement somewhere, well it’s the city that did it. No, it’s the complex interaction of my behavior, my brain, the city, and lots of other things.

  3. #3 Orual
    June 10, 2010

    No wonder I always feel completely knackered after a day in NYC. My country mouse brain just can’t handle it!

  4. #4 Erik Rasmussen
    June 10, 2010

    What about driving down a city street? That seems a lot more mentally taxing to me.

  5. #5 Tap Estes
    June 10, 2010

    Could you post a citation for the Michigan study?

  6. #6 OftenWrongTed
    June 10, 2010

    Your posting reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s short story “Street Haunting, A London Adventure,” where Woolf extolls the virtues and pleasures of walking about London. It’s worth a read in concert with this post.

  7. #7 Gina Pera
    June 10, 2010

    An interesting point, Jonah, well told.

    These growing demands on our attention, from increasingly busy streets to copiously exploding information sources, also mean that some of us can keep up better than others.

    Why is it so hard then for much of the American public — even educated people who aren’t science-phobic — to understand that Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder can be a real handicap in modern life?

    Gina Pera, author
    Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

  8. #8 Russell W
    June 10, 2010

    I think you can surf the city and cull the net as well. It’s the specific task at hand, not the environment that’s creating the cognitive load. We don’t yet travel on or about the Internet in the same way that we do real spaces but I don’t think that should stop us from imagining, né hoping for, the potential for the Interwebs (or whatever comes next) as a kind of ideal metropolis.

    The attentional (or cognitive) deficit you talk about a city block causing partly occurs because much of the “information” isn’t information but noise and that’s in large part because you are going somewhere as opposed to just being a looky-loo–which is a very fun and relaxing thing to do in NYC. In fact, it’s not a bad cognitive model to think of reality itself as noise and the brain as a machine to find the likeliest (and most useful) statistical patterns in the noise. The more you try to seek out some particular stochastic pattern (i.e. information) the harder that is going to be on your brain. Which is easier, finding a specific piece of information by paging through a 28 volume encyclopedia or by searching a database? But in which case are you more likely to find the pleasure of serendipity?

  9. #9 Scott Rogers
    June 10, 2010

    As the neuroscience data pours in, provocative findings like this one will surface again and again. What I find most interesting is your comment that the toll taken on cognitive resources is due to “paying attention.” I agree that there is a toll, but wonder whether that toll isn’t mediated by the quality of our attention, as we’re paying attention. Mindfulness practices are, at heart, exercises in paying attention. And research suggests that mindfulness meditations (or, more generally, mindful awareness) enhances concentration and focus and offers a host of physical and emotional benefits.

    Is it that paying attention — whether to a bus passing or to one’s breath — all deplete our cognitive reservoir? Is it akin to working out in the gym where the exertion requires time to recover but that in the end you emerge stronger.

    Or, perhaps, is it that how we pay attention in the moment makes all the difference? Mindfulness practices allow us to experience our “external” world by embracing what arises. Might the neural activity associated with a mindful embrace not only be different than that associated with the more habitual ways of reacting to our external environment, but also lead to a greener net effect on our brain’s limited resources.

  10. #10 Navaneethan
    June 10, 2010

    Fantastic post. I have a question though – shouldn’t walking on a city street train your attention to be more focussed?

  11. #11 Mark
    June 10, 2010

    The challenge with urbanism is that there is a spatial and kinetic influence as well – you must interact with the physical environment, share your space. Such items are decidedly lacking online – alone in your room, unmoving in your chair, you type away to receive a little self-indulgent bit of self-reward. The dopamine fires and it works, but probably in a profoundly different way from grabbing the best seat on the bus.

    For your next vacation, would you choose to surf ‘exciting, new and never-before-seen’ sights on the Internet or go somewhere?

    It seems like the online activities don’t turn into actions (and ultimately, character) so readily; of particular interest is the decidedly lack of net-fueled memories. In New York, I once saw a woman in a rainstorm in a clear, polka-dotted raincoat with only her underwear on beneath – now that’s a memory! I could probably dredge up a similar photo right now off Google but it would hold no relevance – the medium thwarts any impact.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love Keyboard Cat as much as the next guy. But it’s probably because I have cats – I cohabitate, in real life, with cats. These online memes are correlated with real experiences, not the other way around.

  12. #12 JJJohanson
    June 10, 2010

    I’ve just heard a talk on the radio with Nicholas Carr (Is Google Making Us Stupid?) and this topic is always interesting to me because “multitasking and distracted” is kind of how my mind has always been, and I was about 25 when Google came along. My parents encouraged me to read and to value learning of all kinds, and exposed me to a wide range of topics. Such that by the time I was in High School, I had a much broader base of “knowledge” and a much wider range of interests than just about any of my friends.

    In fact, so broad was my range of interests that I’ve always found it hard to focus in on just one. Even focusing on reading can be a challenge: my mind will constantly jump around–hyperlink, if you will–whenever something in the text reminds me of something else…and because of my range of interests, most things make me think of something else.

    As it turns out, I was a good student in High School, but did poorly in University when they suddenly dumped hundreds of pages of reading on me, per week. This at the time of your life when you’re most adventurous, intellectually. I found it hard to focus on the material, and didn’t come close to finishing my reading. Come exam time I all too often seemed to have a “shallow” grasp of the material.

    And yet, if you ask anyone who knows me, they’ll say that while I may be easily distracted, I’m anything but “shallow”. Here’s the thing: when you’re mind is jumping around from one thing to a different, related thing, midway through a sentence, several times a paragraph, what you’re actually doing is reading MORE DEEPLY than someone who runs through the text quickly and efficiently. I see “hyperlinking”, whether it’s done with Google or with your own mind, as showing more engagement with an issue, not less. You’re playing with the ideas, thinking them through in different ways.

    Problem is, all this comes a major cost in time and mental-organizational effort. In university I would often find myself, well into the next semester, still working through a topic from a class I’d taken and done poorly in during the previous semester…long after my better-performing classmates had forgotten all about it.

    In other words, my personal learning curve is not as steep, but tends to peak later, and higher, than those of many other people. This is something I’ve now witnessed dozens of times in my life, in different situations. Indeed, isn’t it a cliche that it’s the *deeper* thinkers who seem always distracted and disorganized? Some great artists sound like they’re barely literate. My friends follow the same pattern: the deeper the thinker, the less organized the thoughts. In fact my two friends I would rate the smartest both had difficulties in University and got a rough start in life, like me. But once they found the right environment–usually a flexible one–they both thrived.

    I don’t know what methods they use to detect “shallowness”, but isn’t it possible that they’re just catching deep thinkers at a point where they haven’t had time to organize their thoughts?

  13. #13 Frank
    June 11, 2010

    “Based on this data…”?

    I like the idea, but I’m not clear on what this data is. I’d like to read a longer preface explaining that how those clever scientists showed that city streets are bad for the brain. Also, in what sense is it bad; are these long-term effects? And how do these results differ from those that exist for Internet use (if they exist)?

    That might distract from your main idea, but it might also be more enlightening to your readers.

  14. #14 Debrah
    June 11, 2010

    I must concur with the aforementioned comment that driving down a busy street would seem to be far more taxing than just walking. Or at least potentially so.

    As with all human experience, subjectivity would, necessarily, come into play.

    This is a fascinating topic and one which has received considerable coverage in various forms recently.

    I much prefer the focus of this particular post.

  15. #15 Jonah
    June 11, 2010

    Here is a reference for the city/nature study:
    http://pss.sagepub.com/content/19/12/1207.abstract

  16. #16 Karen
    June 11, 2010

    There’s the confusing urban grid

    Wait–what, now? What on earth is confusing about the urban grid? What is confusing about a grid at all?

    How are clearly marked streets, laid out in a grid pattern, more confusing to navigate than poorly marked rural lanes which stretch on forever without a single visual cue to guide you?

    This whole premise sounds incredibly faulty to me.

  17. #17 Todd I. Stark
    June 11, 2010

    Wonderful post, I agree completely and this does help put the fuss over Interenet tradeoffs into perspective. As others noted, city driving can be even worse, and some of us spend hours on the road under constant stimulus-driven distraction. When I lapse into a reverie to escape it, I quickly find myself jolted back to immediacy by the needs of driving. This was a brilliant way to raise the issue of tradeoffs in a less provocative way.

  18. #18 Dave
    June 11, 2010

    I do plenty of my mental processing subconsciously. Sit down quietly and think for a while, then go out walking and let it all compost down specifically while the conscious mind’s distracted by the traffic and the people.

  19. #19 Steven Aldrich
    June 11, 2010

    The context of what you are trying to accomplish is critical in deciding if technology is helping or hindering the task at hand. Technology use in a car can be helpful to the task at-hand – its useful to use the GPS to find the fastest route avoiding the traffic jam. That does take a load off the brain in a good way, allowing you to spend that energy on another task (hopefully driving). On the other hand, taking a cell-phone call in the car takes the brain’s attention away from the road and significantly increases your risk of causing an accident. Context is critical.

    My team studies ways to harness neuroplasticity for good, as I am the CEO of Posit Science. We build computer-based brain training products proven to help you think faster, focus better and remember more. Among other benefits, we can reduce car crash rates by helping the brain handle the vast stream of information coming at us while we drive. A good summary of the brain’s role in driving and what you can do about it can be found on the National Institute of Aging’s website at http://www.nia.nih.gov/NewsAndEvents/SOAR/2010Spring/Discovery/drivers.htm

  20. #20 Benjamin Ellis
    June 12, 2010

    I’d be careful of over generalising. Our perceptual processing is fairly unique in the way that it works, since it includes both top down and bottom up elements, keying into various memory stores.

    What is a generally take away is that being over stimulated is bad for our cognitive functions (as it being understimulated!). Not everything is a cognitive trade off – think about the research on peak performance/flow state. We can find ourselves in highly efficient functioning states at are not trade offs.

    One thing is for sure though. That place isn’t a busy town city street. To comment #4’s point – actually driving down it takes less effort, because we are taking in less (and having to filter out less). The massive amount of information that needs processing when travelling through an urban space “full of threats” is massive.

  21. #21 Stanley
    June 12, 2010

    On the other hand the NY Times (and other sites) just referred to a released study on how walking in nature (hiking or a city park) helps to develop the brain and keep it healthy long term. This was shown to be effective far beyond the usual staples such as doing crossword puzzles.

  22. #22 Bob
    June 12, 2010

    I would argue that, like the Internet, watching television in lieu of “getting out there” also leads to intellectual shallowness. Part of this is because television reporters tend to “gang up” on a news event like paparazzi. As a result, the same event or issue gets reprocessed to ad nauseum.

    I can conclude this by referring to the BP oil spill. I swear that for a time, I kept seeing the same three pelicans from six different angles when I switched channels.

    I conclude that reality is elusive when watching television.

  23. #23 Natalie Ford
    June 13, 2010

    Walking down a city street every day or even more than once a day? Not so much. Two main reasons.
    a) I am disabled with multiple sclerosis and therefore cannot walk much.
    b) I do not live in a city. This is where I live.

  24. #24 Richard Whitney
    June 16, 2010

    For more light (approx)on this topic: have you ever read the great University of Pennsylvania professor, Erving Goffman? Check out “Relations in Public”.

  25. #25 Passerby
    June 20, 2010

    Would have been helpful to measure cortisol levels as a function to stimuli exposure duration and load, in those U of M street experiments.

    City streets: loud and noisy (noise pollution), traffic congested canyons (polluted air with limited turnover), dangerous (human and machine threats). High rate of decision making but also tension producing activity as well, because you are often forced into the ‘comfort zones’ of others – in passing, while waiting in crowded intersections. You have vehicular, pedestrian and wheeled moving objects to negotiate, as well as street obstacles – signs, pavement irregularities, manholes/drains, steps and curbs. You also have visual distractions and cues – signs, flashing lights, reflections and shadows to filter out.

    But beyond all else, we have an additional input that we are forced to contend with: reading facial and body expression of rapidly moving co- and counter-current humans.

    Sensory overload with cue-processing, cognition and executive decision systems firing away. Stressful.

    What do we do under stressful situations? We hold our breath. With the pollution and poor air quality of city streets, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that te combination of stress-induced, mild hypoxia – with brain, lungs and heart all competing for fuel and oxygen during elevated activity periods. Wit a heavy dose of street-level urban pollutant paticulates and free-radicals thrown in the soup, it’s a recipe for cellular ROS-hell.

  26. great post – it explains to me – finally – why i come home exhausted after walking through the city – even when im just shopping or doing something supposedly relaxing.

    thanks
    x
    jo

  27. #27 travesti
    July 24, 2010

    Technology use in a car can be helpful to the task at-hand – its useful to use the GPS to find the fastest route avoiding the traffic jam. That does take a load off the brain in a good way, allowing you to spend that energy on another task (hopefully driving).

  28. #28 erotic shop
    December 30, 2010

    Wonderful post, I agree completely and this does help put the fuss over Interenet tradeoffs into perspective. As others noted, city driving can be even worse, and some of us spend hours on the road under constant stimulus-driven distraction. When I lapse into a reverie to escape it, I quickly find myself jolted back to immediacy by the needs of driving. This was a brilliant way to raise the issue of tradeoffs in a less provocative way.

  29. #29 erotic shop
    December 30, 2010

    Wonderful post, I agree completely and this does help put the fuss over Interenet tradeoffs into perspective. As others noted, city driving can be even worse, and some of us spend hours on the road under constant stimulus-driven distraction. When I lapse into a reverie to escape it, I quickly find myself jolted back to immediacy by the needs of driving. This was a brilliant way to raise the issue of tradeoffs in a less provocative way.

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  31. #31 tdp lamp
    February 10, 2011

    it’s not a bad cognitive model to think of reality itself as noise and the brain as a machine to find the likeliest (and most useful) statistical patterns in the noise. The more you try to seek out some particular stochastic pattern (i.e. information) the harder that is going to be on your brain. Which is easier, finding a specific piece of information by paging through a 28 volume encyclopedia or by searching a database?

  32. #32 chemotherapy
    February 12, 2011

    We’ve done some studies on top-down attention and cognitive control processes too… They are not as bad as described here although there’s some relevance in regards to consequences. However we found that these brain functions were quite helpful simply because they are needed to separate relevant from irrelevant sensory information and to interact with the environment in a meaningful way.

  33. #33 okey oyna
    February 24, 2011

    Wonderful post, I agree completely and this does help put the fuss over Interenet tradeoffs into perspective. As others noted, city driving can be even worse, and some of us spend hours on the road under constant stimulus-driven distraction. When I lapse into a reverie to escape it, I quickly find myself jolted back to immediacy by the needs of driving. This was a brilliant way to raise the issue of tradeoffs in a less provocative way.

  34. #34 jackal
    March 27, 2011

    t’s not a bad cognitive model to think of reality itself as noise and the brain as a machine to find the likeliest (and most useful) statistical patterns in the noise. The more you try to seek out some particular stochastic pattern (i.e. information) the harder that is going to be on your brain. Which is easier, finding a specific piece of information by paging through a 28 volume encyclopedia or by searching a database

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    I can conclude this by referring to the BP oil spill. I swear that for a time, I kept seeing the same three pelicans from six different angles when I switched channels.

    I conclude that reality is elusive when watching television.

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