Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Mon Sep 28th 2009 at 8:56am UTC

ComplexCity – How Cities Are Like the Human Brain

Jane Jacobs long ago showed us that cities are complex adaptive systems. Now new research by cognitive scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute finds that not only are cities organized along the same complex principles as the human brain, but evolve in ways that mirror the brain’s evolution.

“Natural selection has passively guided the evolution of mammalian brains throughout time, just as politicians and entrepreneurs have indirectly shaped the organization of cities large and small,” said Mark Changizi, a neurobiology expert and assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer, who led the study. “It seems both of these invisible hands have arrived at a similar conclusion: brains and cities, as they grow larger, have to be similarly densely interconnected to function optimally.” … “When scaling up in size and function, both cities and brains seem to follow similar empirical laws,” Changizi said. “They have to efficiently maintain a fixed level of connectedness, independent of the physical size of the brain or city, in order to work properly.”

Science Daily provides a fuller summary (via Planetizen). The full paper can be downloaded from Changizi’s website.

One Response to “ComplexCity – How Cities Are Like the Human Brain”

  1. Michael Wells Says:

    We went to a fascinating lecture Saturday on Music and the Brain. The speaker said that unlike what he was taught in grad school (and he’s only in his 40’s), the brain continues to make new cells and connections — if it’s used for learning.

    He also said that music is fairly unique among functions, because it doesn’t just use one or two sections of the brain but is a whole-brain activity — it lights up the parts of the brain dealing with memory, logic, kinetic body movement, tactile, sound of course, emotion. And for the musician (as opposed to the listener) sight, creativity, patterns and rulemaking — as in, what are the rules that make music the blues, or baroque?

    So what are the equivalents for cities? If the city continues to grow if it learns — how do cities learn? New cultures from immigrants, new businesses from entrepreneurs, new parks and transit modes?

    And what is city brain’s equivalent of music that engages all its parts? Could it be the arts, bringing together disparate kinds of people, supporting creative businesses, helping us remember or interpret, pushing for new forms?