Sunday, March 31, 2013

Your brain on cities

Cities are exciting, crowded, busy - and have measurable effects on the brains of the people who live in them. City dwellers have higher rates of mental health problems and over-active lizard brains, according to recent research published in Nature. This doesn't seem too surprising given the level of stimulation and decreased personal space in a city.

More surprising is that living in the city changes the way people pay attention. Because city dwellers have so much more to pay attention to, their focus becomes diffused and it is harder for them to focus on one thing unless it is unusually engaging. Rural folk are better at focusing on a task, unless their brains are overloaded in ways that mimic city life; then they show the same diffused focus. As Eric Jaffe concludes in an article in The Atlantic Cities,
So a quick summary, for those readers on the verge of losing focus: the brains of people in remote places seem ready to focus on the task at hand, while the brains of their urban counterparts seem prepared to explore the ever-changing conditions of city life. Certainly explains why some country folk find the city overwhelming, and some city folk find the country a little dull. Nothing personal — strictly neural.
No wonder it is so disorienting going from Bozeman to Chicago, or vice-versa; it takes a bit for the brain to adjust.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Mental Maps

Maybe young adults are content to use GPS to tell them where to go, rather than building a mental map of their community, because many of them were driven to school as children. A study reported on in the Atlantic concluded,
Children who had a “windshield perspective” from being driven everywhere weren’t able to accurately draw how the streets in their community connected, whereas children who walked or biked to get around produced detailed and highly accurate maps of their neighborhood street network.

So maybe these young adults have never had a solid mental map of the surroundings. Taking mass transit, while it is great in lots of respects, doesn't require much of a mental map either, once you figure out which stop is closest to where you want to go. This would make following GPS directions seem very natural.

It will be interesting to see what the consequences of this are in the next 30-50 years. Lack of a mental map would seem to result in less concern for the community, simply because it is harder to care about what you don't know. Or it could result in a larger sense of the community to be cared about because more of it is within your perceived environment. Mass transit could be more comfortable if you aren't thinking about a quicker way to drive, and driving would be less inviting if you can't easily plot a new route. (I wonder if there is a link between this and decreased car ownership rates among younger people.)

I can't imagine not having a mental map of my surroundings but, like writing letters, this may be something that fades with new generations.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Odd Temperature Scales

The things you learn reading Russian novels. In The Brothers Karamozov, I ran across a mention of temperature in a scale I didn't know: "eleven Reaumur". What? I looked it up and discovered that there are a lot of temperature scales other than Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin; there are also Rankine, Romer, Newton, Delisle, and Reaumur. Like Celsius, the zero in the Reaumer scale is set at the freezing point of water, but the boiling point of water is 80°, not 100°.

The scale was first proposed by Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in 1730. It was popular in Europe in the 16th century, especially France, Germany, and Russia, and showed up in novels by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov. Instead of saying "minus 12" or "12 below zero", the phrase was "twelve degrees of frost" (at least in The Brothers Karamozov), which is much cooler and more evocative of winter.

The Reaumur scale is used in one of my favorite infographics ever, this one showing Napoleon's march into - and back out of - Russia in 1812-1813. The temperatures along the bottom are in Reaumur degrees. The width of the line shows the number of men in the army; the thin black line shows the troops that returned to France. It was a cold winter: -30° R is -36° F.


In the 1790s, France officially went with the Celsius scale during the French Revolution, and it eventually spread with the metric system throughout Europe. It is still used in some dairies to measure the temperature of milk, and possibly in some parts of France

Russia also used the Delisle thermometer, which originally started at boiling water as zero and ran down 2400 degrees, accommodating those cold Russian winters. The Newton scale was invented by Isaac Newton around 1700; "he defined the 'zeroth degree of heat' as melting snow and '33 degrees of heat' as boiling water." The Rankine scale starts at absolute zero, like the Kelvin scale, but uses Fahrenheit degrees instead of Celsius; it is still occasionally used in a few engineering fields.

Friday, March 1, 2013


It is interesting how the very things that make us safer can sometimes make life more difficult for someone trying to rescue us in an emergency. The trend toward school lock-downs to protect kids makes it more difficult for law enforcement officers to safely find a gunman hiding in the building. The design decisions that make cars safer, like the Nader pin that keeps doors from swinging open in a crash, also make them harder to get into in order to remove someone from a smashed vehicle.

So often the trade-offs are between opposing benefits, like cost vs longevity or efficiency vs safety: the air-tight nature of energy-efficient new home construction increases smoke damage in a fire, and material-efficient engineered joists increase the danger of a floor collapsing during a fire. It isn't so often than the trade-offs are both held within one benefit, safety vs safety.