City living 'makes it harder to concentrate'

Times Square The sights and sounds of the city have a negative impact on the ability to focus

Cities really do disrupt people's ability to concentrate, suggests research.

Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London have studied a remote tribe in Africa - where some people have remained in the countryside while others have moved to urban areas.

It found the urbanised group found it much harder to focus their attention.

Researcher Karina Linnell says the difference in powers of concentration was much greater than expected.

It might also confirm the worst fears of all the caffeine-fuelled office workers trying to multi-task.

Dr Linnell, from the university's psychology department, carried out cognitive tests with the Himba tribe in Namibia in south west Africa - and also included a further comparison with young people in London.

She found that the Himba tribesmen and women who had stayed in a rural, cattle-herding setting were much better at tests requiring concentration than members of the same tribe who had been urbanised and were living in towns and cities.

Bright lights, big city

The results for urbanised Himba were "indistinguishable" from the results of undergraduates taking the same tests in London, said Dr Linnell.

The researchers suggest that people in an urban setting have too much stimulation, with an overload of sights and sounds competing for attention.

Himba people, Namibia The rural Himba people were much better at concentrating than the city dwellers Pic: WG

Concentration is improved when people's senses are aroused, says Dr Linnell, but if this becomes excessive it seems to have the opposite effect and reduces the ability to focus on a single task.

As such the people living in cities were not as good at tests which required sustained focus and the ability not to be distracted.

The rural living people were much better at such tests of concentration, even computer-based tasks, where they might have been expected to be less familiar with the technology.

This is not necessarily a case of being better or worse, says Dr Linnell, but it could be a reflection of what is needed to survive in an overcrowded urban setting.

It is also not a "fleeting" impact, she suggests, as the tests show that urbanised people from this tribe have developed a different way of looking at events.

"There are really quite profound differences as a function of how we live our lives," she says.

Another finding is that the Himba people who have moved to the city are more likely to be dissatisfied and show signs of unhappiness.

In contrast the simpler, frugal life of the rural tribespeople seems to leave them with a greater sense of contentment.

When so many of the world's population are now living in urban settings this has far-reaching significance, says Dr Linnell.

It could mean that many urban dwellers are performing below their capacity when it comes to tasks requiring sustained thinking.

"What if, for example, companies realised certain tasks would be better carried out by employees based outside of the urban environment where their concentration ability is better?" she says.

Dr Linnell also suggests that this urban disruption of concentration could be linked to a reduction in attention spans.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Typically the more expensive places to live in cities are those that have the best of both worlds - quite, leafy surroundings with plenty of space, and at the same time close to all the action . Most people cannot afford this and suffer the hustle and bustle. Property around Central Park in New York or Hyde park in London is an example - the solution might be better planning ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Why not have a balance of both? Not all cities are sprawling urban jungles.

    I live 20 minutes from a City centre. It is green, leafy, close to parks and quiet. In 20 minutes I can be in the hussle and bustle: theatres, cinemas, great shopping, coffee, bars etc.

    I would go stir crazy living in the countryside with nothing to do. But with 'smart living' you can get the best of all worlds!

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    As a previous country-dweller now moved to the city, I find cities over-stimulating. It's so bright all the time, there's music constantly playing everywhere you go and it's noisy 24hrs a day. I can't even sleep properly because of a daft pedestrian crossing across the road which flashes all through the night. Surely it's obvious that this would impact on concentration?

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    This can easily be demonstrated by driving along a rural road and passing a road sign. The information is easily absorbed. Doing the same in a city centre where there may be half a dozen signs at the same spot for directions, restrictions etc coupled with lane selection, with cyclists and jaywalkers thrown in is different. You can't concentrate on 6 things at the same time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Oh dear. I think these scientists will find that people have always withdrawn to quieter areas when they need to concentrate. That is why people choose to work in libraries, study's, spare rooms etc., where there are no audible and visible distractions. Did they really need to fly halfway around the world to figure this out?


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