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Exciting big city living might be bad for mental health

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Urban lifestyles are often seen as more varied, more stimulating and more exciting than their more laid back suburban and rural counterparts. But they do come at a price to overall mental health. It turns out that all the stimulation and excitement is affecting parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. The new finding is all the more relevant when we consider that it is estimated that a whopping 70% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050.

Researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute at McGill University report in the journal Nature that people who live or were raised in cities show distinct differences in activity in certain brain regions than those who aren't city dwellers. Specifically, the region of the brain known as the amygdala show higher activation in city dwellers. The amygdalae, two almond-shaped structures at the base of the brain, are part of the very primitive brain responsible for largely automatic, reflexive activity. Specifically, the amygdalae are the regulators of the flight-or-fight response. They help an individual respond in emergency situations when it is advantageous to bypass the thinking process. Essentially, the amygdalae are responsible for the emotion of fear, anxiety and hostility.

It is easy to see that enlargement and/or activation of the amygdala is not such a good thing. Animals with consistently larger, more active amygdala are shown to be more aggressive and more territorial than those with smaller, less active amygdala. Humans have some of the most active amygdala around relative to brain volume, so further stimulation of this alarm center is doubtless unhealthy for our social lives.

City dwellers were also found to be affected in the region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain appears to play a role in a wide variety of autonomic functions, such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion.

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Clearly, a stimulating, stressful environment affects these functions negatively, resulting in chronic disease and impaired emotional responses. For example, a stunted emotional awareness results in an impaired recognition of emotional cues, thereby creating a population living at close quarters but deeply alienated from each other, as many researchers have noted over the years.

Changes in the cingulate cortex in individuals raised in cities from childhood on appear to be permanent.

Previous research has long demonstrated that people living in cities have a 21% increased risk of anxiety disorders and a 39% increased risk of mood disorders. In addition, the incidence of schizophrenia is doubled in those born and brought up in cities.

There is a wide variation between individuals’ ability to cope with stress, and that capacity – or incapacity – appears to be an innate temperamental predisposition. Nevertheless, everyone is impacted on some level. Furthermore, the study demonstrates that there is no such thing as habituation to the stress of city living. Urban landscapes simply provide too many stress variables for an individual to anticipate them and assign them to the recesses of conscious awareness.

What does this mean for the future 70% of humanity anticipated to be living in urban centers? It seems to point to an increase in social alienation, social tension and increased mental illness. On the other hand, on average, city dwellers are "wealthier and receive improved sanitation, nutrition, contraception and healthcare" wrote the researchers in Nature. These mediating effects on stress might counterbalance some of the problems of the activation of stress centers in the brain. Certainly future care in city planning and a generous allocation of resources towards mental health care would go a long way toward improving urban dwellers’ quality of life.