How Urbanization has Changed Us
The Loss of Attentiveness & the Rise of Psychopathy
I. Original Paper
Gone are the days when a person would tell if inclement weather were on the (proverbial) horizon by the behavior of birds or other creatures, for example the flying inland of gulls, in favor of the era of weather apps which simply alert us from our phones or computers. Gone also are the days when a person would be informed by the clouds of crows cawing deafeningly as they swarm from place to place above a woodland canopy that it must be an owl or falcon to which they give chase, and from which, therefore, one must defend one’s chickens, rabbits, ducks, cats, or other such small pets or livestock, or by the sudden and uncharacteristic fall of silence upon local crow populations accompanied by their strategic diffusion and the careful positioning of their sentinels that a chickenhawk must be looming somewhere just over the (non-proverbial) horizon, for such thoughtful attention to the behavior of these creatures would reveal nothing of relevance to modern city-dwellers. Gone are the days when protecting one’s kin and oneself from starvation depended on attentiveness to the appropriate times of year to sew crops. Gone are the days when survival required attentiveness to nature in any way whatever. As a side effect to the urbanization of our society in the 20th century, we’ve grown regrettably distant from the natural world which we indwell, and this lack of attentiveness to nature has come with harrowing consequences.
In paragraph eight of The Greatest Migration in Human History, Nicholas Carr comes to the conclusion that as our society evolves, our brains will adapt to the distractions and demands of constant multi-tasking, our proclivity for “meditative thinking” obsolescing resultantly toward nihility. This, however, would be ultimately self-defeating, for as Sam Anderson writes in In Defense of Distraction (part five, entitled “Can we dope our brains into focus?”): “The most advanced Buddhist monks become world-class multitaskers. Meditation might speed up their mental processes enough to handle information overload.” It is therefore questionable whether our society can adapt to the need to constantly multitask when the very thing which improves our ability to do so is undermined by the constancy with which our society demands we do it. A parallel would be physical activity; rest punctuated by periods of intense physical exertion improves our physicality, but relentless exertion without sufficient time to recuperate leads to exhaustion, fatigue, and, in some cases, death.
In paragraphs two and three, Carr points out that many psychological studies over the past two decades have reinforced attention restoration theory (“ART”) by showing that the human mind grows sharper and calmer with retreat from the constant bombardment of stimuli that accompanies the modern world to a more rural setting, closer to nature, and that exposure to more natural settings leads to improved cognition and greater attentiveness, the logical corollary to this being that city-dwellers with little exposure to natural settings aren’t as sharp as they could be in a more rural environment. In paragraphs five and six Carr points us to research by the USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute which seems to indicate that being in a state of constant distraction can lead to a reduced ability to empathize with the psychological suffering of others. It’s not at all unreasonable to conclude from this, considering our modern society’s increasingly distracted lifestyle and the widespread reduction in attentiveness to the emotional needs of others, that our society is becoming mentally exhausted and decidedly more sociopathic. Nor is it unreasonable to conclude that this is a direct consequence of our modern society’s growing distance from the natural world.
One aspect of life which bears testament to the loss of attentiveness and growing sociopathy of our society is the increasingly ephemeral nature of sexual pairings. In the past and persisting in certain cases into the present, the procurement of a sexual partner was and in some cases remains a process that generally required a great deal of attentiveness. Particularly in the case of societies which practiced arranged marriages, future spouses began getting to know one another in early childhood, “playing house” together and affectionately calling each other “husband” and “wife”. In our own culture, until very recently, the ideal “fairytale” relationship began with a mutual childhood infatuation sparking a deep friendship that would inevitably lead to romance and eventually marriage, with the first kiss (ideally not just with each other, but for either of the couple thereunto) occurring at the marriage altar once the pair-bonding has been societally officiated, and the first copulatory act only subsequent to this. In an anthropological sense, marriage can be seen as a method of ritualizing and legitimizing not only the reproductive act itself but the context of pair-bonding in which it occurs as precursory to altering the dynamics of the population by the addition of offspring. In societies which recognize bilineal descent and form nuclear family units, like most band-level foraging societies (“hunter-gatherers”) and, until very recently, our own society, this required acute familiarity with one’s mate. With promiscuous sexual behavior being one of the diagnostic criteria for sociopathy/psychopathy (Babiak & Folino et al.) and sexual promiscuity or “casual sex” becoming evermore socially acceptable, it can hardly be doubted that the reduction in overall attentiveness visible in modern mate-selection processes and consequent objectification of potential sex partners as mere sources of personal pleasure via sexual gratification is evidence that our society is becoming less empathic and more sociopathic with the passage of time.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the correlation between urbanization and violence, where societal sociopathy turns to mass-psychopathy. That increases in population density leads to increased aggression and associated increase in the likelihood of violent conflict in a population is academic, if not simply a matter of common sense, as has been observed not only in humans but in a variety of other social organisms. Also academic is the fact that large civilizations with highly urbanized populations tend to be the most warlike. It cannot be regarded as coincidental that the 20th century brought with it not only a shift from a predominantly rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial society in the United States in the 1920s but also the first world wars, with marked increases in inner-city violence domestically throughout the century. That more than half the world’s population became urbanized in the early 2000’s should therefore be a cause of great concern.
This is nothing new. From Hebrew mythology we have the familiar example of Sodom & Gomorrah, and from Christian eschatology we have “Great Babylon” or the “Whore of Babylon” being used as a dysphemism for the Roman Empire and as a metaphor for advanced, decadent civilizations. What these ancient cultures were observing was the increase in sociopathic and psychopathic societal traits that accompany extreme urbanization as population growth leads to intensified warfare and increased population density leads to internal violence, sexual promiscuity, and a general decrease in the population’s sense of empathy. While this comes with advances in medicine and technology, often leading in at least some respects to an improved quality of life, the dragon which guards this treasure is the loss of our humanity.
Anderson, Sam. “In Defense of Distraction” New York Magazine (May 17, 2009)
Babiak, Paul; Folino, Jorge; et al. “Psychopathy: An Important Forensic Concept for the 21st Century” The Federal Bureau of Investigation: Law Enforcement Bulletin (1 July, 2012)
Carr, Nicholas. “The Greatest Migration in Human History” Adbuster (February 17, 2014)