How city living stresses us out

By observing how the brain lights up in stressful situations, scientists have found city-dwellers are more sensitive to stress than their country cousins. Flickr

As if any further proof were needed that traffic jams and overcrowding make us anxious, scientists have concluded that city-dwellers are more sensitive to stress than country folk.

Urban environments have been linked to poor mental health outcomes before but the latest study, led by researchers at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, demonstrated how urbanite brains reacted more strongly to stressful situations than the brains of country people.

The paper was published in the journal Nature.

The researchers designed an experiment where the brains of 32 students were scanned as they worked on a difficult mathematical problem. While racing through the test under time pressure, the students were subjected to negative feedback through headphones.

“We’d tell individuals they were performing below average, and suggest impatiently they hurry up a bit, so they’d feel they were failing,” lead researcher Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg was quoted as saying on the Nature website.

The test was repeated on a further 23 subjects, with an added element: this time, the students could also see the scientists frowning disapprovingly at them.

In both experiments, the scientists were able to observe reactions in the amygdala (the part of the brain that processes emotion) and the cingulate cortex (which helps process negative emotions).

The amygdala responded only in city-dwelling subjects and the cingulate cortex responded more strongly in the city folk than those who grew up in small towns or the country.

Previous studies have found that city dwellers are at much higher risk of developing schizophrenia than people who live in the country.

Nature published an analysis of the Meyer-Lindenberg study by Daniel P. Kennedy and Ralph Adolphs from the California Institute of Technology in the U.S., which noted that the initial results would need further investigation in longitudinal studies to tease out the many variables that could influence an outcome.

The analysis also noted than in some countries, rural suicide rates outstrip urban suicide rates.

“Although there are a number of possible explanations for this observation, it could relate to cities’ provision of a richer, more stimulating and more interactive social environment, a larger social-support network and easier access to medical care,” the authors wrote.

Future research in the field could help scientists make recommendations to urban planners and architects, they said.