Sunday, July 24, 2011

Stress and the City

Medical researchers in Germany indicate that MRI scans of the brain show that city dwellers display different manifestations of stress than do those living in rural areas (see Figure 1 for citation information).

This seems plausible, given that dense urban areas possess numerous sources of stress, some environmental (noise for instance) and some social (the threat of or even reality of elevated crime levels in some neighborhoods, for example). It is also provocative information, given the efforts that are made by some in the design community to connect poor health outcomes with low-densities (in suburban areas) rather than high-density central cities.
Another part of Nature’s coverage of paper also caught my attention: editorial writer Alison Abbott suggested that the research “may also open the way for greater coopera­tion between neuroscientists and social scien­tists. ‘There has been a long history of mutual antipathy, particularly in psychiatry,’ says sociolo­gist Craig Morgan at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. ‘But this is the sort of study that can prove to both sides that they can gain from each others’ insights.’” (Nature, June 23 2010 p. 472).  The editorial continues, writing of the neurological research: “Yet he has had trouble interesting his social-science colleagues in setting up joint projects. Such lack of sympathy across the cultural divide is common, says Ernst Fehr, an econo­mist at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and a pioneer in the field of neuroeconomics, which studies the neurological basis of eco­nomic decisions. ‘But social problems have neurobiological effects, which, in turn, may exacerbate the social problems,’ he says. The social sciences have as much to gain from crossing disciplinary boundaries as the biological sciences, says Morgan. ‘Sociologists and epidemiologists establish associations that are plausible — like immigrants may suffer more mental illness because of social isolation — but they are validated when neuroscientists demonstrate a robust biological mechanism.’
These claims are interesting here, given that URBlog exists with the goal of providing information on cities to non-urbanists. It does though suggest some unnecessary antipathies on behalf of medical researchers. It is hardly plausible to suggest that social scientists are uninterested in mental health issues—the journal Social Science and Medicine published 18 papers in just 2010-11 on mental health in urban areas.
The problems are based in different research strategies. The following diagram (from Galea, 2005) shows some of the complexities of health outcomes. Moreover, Galea suggests that social scientists tend to work left to right (and often deductively, I’d suggest) while medical research starts (inductively) from the right hand side and tries to move left.  

 So, we have a complex real-world problem, and an almost-as-complicated problem of research design and methodology. We shall, in consequence, be focusing a good deal of attention on health issues in Current Research on Cities next year. 

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