I regret to announce that cromercrox, for it is he, deleted the original version of this post, entirely by accident. Here it is again, dragged out from some cache or another, though of course without all y’all’s insightful comments. We apologise for the inconvenience.
A few nights ago I was reading a bedtime story to Crox Minima. The story was The Tale of Johnny Town Mouse, a Beatrix Potter classic. The tale isn’t really about Johnny Town Mouse – it’s more about Timmy Willie, a field mouse from the country who gets transported to town by accident in a hamper of vegetables. Once in town he meetsthe eponymous Johnny, who lives in sophistication and elegance in a large town house, but at significant cost – the cats are always on the prowl for mice, as is Sarah the housemaid. The town mice take it all in their stride, but it’s all too much for Timmy Willie, who gratefully returns to his rural haven. Some time later Johnny Town Mouse pays Timmy Willie a visit, but returns to the town as soon as he can, complaining that the country is far too quiet. Timmy Willie’s behaviour in town shows all the symptoms of stress. He has no appetite, has a headache, can’t sleep and feels generally unwell.
All of which makes a suitable beginning to a study published in Your Favourite Weekly Etcetera Etcetera (and if you’re tutting about the over-long and barely relevant prolegomenon, count yersself lucky that I’m not Steve Gould, who’d have given you a learned exegesis on the architecture of Medieval cathedrals with bathetic interludes about baseball.)
The study, based on functional magnetic resonance imaging, shows how certain regions of the brain associated with emotion, mood and responses to stress are conditioned specifically by city life — see this news story, this News and Views feature, and the paper itself. To be yet more specific, activation in the amygdala was related to the size of city in which the subject currently lived, whereas activation in the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (or ‘pACC’, it sez ‘ere) was related to how long a subject had lived in a city during the formative years of zero to fifteen years.
But wait, there’s more.
The amygdala and pACC are functionally connected – but the connectivity is less in those who’d spent more of their early years living in cities. This is intriguing, as a reduced connection between these two brain regions has also been associated with genetic risk for certain psychiatric disorders, notably schizophrenia – which is very much more prevalent among those living in cities.
Cram enough rats in a barrel and they’ll start biting chunks out of one another: the results are certainly consistent with prior observation that city life is associated with increased risk of depression and anxiety, possibly related to insults to one’s perceived social status and sense of personal space. On the other hand, give rats plenty of things to play with and they’ll be happier and more well-adjusted than those living in monotonous surroundings: there are reports that suicide is more common in the country, and people in cities generally have easier access to social support and health care as well as a more stimulating social environment.
Some people thrive in the city. Our own Dr R. P. G. of Rotherhithe, for example, is a regular Johnny Town Mouse. He loves London and famously wrote in these pages that he ‘wouldn’t live in Norfolk for all the toes in Wroxham’. Your host, on the other hand, is very much with Timmy Willie, fond of wandering around the garden using a geranium leaf as an umbrella.
Those of us who live in the country, however, know how to make our own entertainment (and in case you were wondering, the country for the purposes of this study includes small towns, such as Cromer, although, as the study was carried out in Germany, this was presumably the Cromer in Schleswig-Holstein rather than the Cromer in Norfolk). By way of illustration I shall pass on this story told me by a rising young scientist whose name I shall not impart, to spare his
chances of tenure blushes.
A burned-out city slicker decides to make a new life for himself in a lone cabin in Alaska. He’s settling into his new life, enjoying his solitude, when one evening there’s a knock at the door. This is odd, as our hero hasn’t seen a living soul for months. He opens the door to a huge man in dungarees and check shirt, bushy of beard and mad of eye. “Howdy,” says the visitor. “Name’s Lars. I’m your neighbor up the track. Party. My place. Saturday. Seven Thirty.”
“Why, thank you,” says our hero, somewhat nervously. But before he can close the door, Lars barges across the threshold.
“There’ll be drinkin’,” says Lars.
“That’s fine by me,” says our hero, remembering how hard he’d partied in the good old days on Wall Street.
“… and there’ll be fightin’“, snarls Lars.
“I guess that’s fine, too,” says our hero, thinking that he’s more a lover than a fighter, but, hey, it’s not his party.
” … and there’ll be wild, wild sex!” concludes Lars.
That’s more like it, thinks our hero. “Is there a dress code? do I have to wear anything in particular?”
“Don’t matter,” says Lars – “there’ll just be you and me.”