Laura Helena Andrade and Janir Batista, Institute of Psychiatry, University of São Paulo Medical School

The Neurosocial City

You, what do you own the world?
How do you own disorder, disorder
Now, somewhere between the sacred silence
Sacred silence and sleep
Somewhere, between the sacred silence and sleep
Disorder, disorder, disorder

More wood for the fires, loud neighbors
Flashlight reveries caught in the headlights of a truck
Eating seeds is a past-time activity
The toxicity of our city, of our city

“Toxicity”, by Armemian American metal band – System of a Down (written by Daron Malakian, Shavo Odadjian, Serj Tankian, John Dolmayan)


Does life in the city make us mentally ill? What is toxic in city life that impacts our well-being? Fitzgerald and Rose propose that the social and natural sciences should find a new way to interrelate to better understand what is named as an ‘Urban Brain’. By using new technologies that allow us to link molecular genetics and systems of neuroscience with algorithm-based models of cities1 we might be able to understand “how city-dwellers lived the city in their minds and on the streets”.2

Is this true?

There is a general impression that life in cities in the 21st Century is more stressful, that we are living an epidemic of anxiety and depression. Baxter and colleagues 3argued that rather than an increase of anxiety and depression in population, urban living, rural–urban migration, the high rhythm of urbanization with changing in lifestyle increase the level of sub-threshold symptomatology such as fatigue, feeling of being overwhelmed by circumstance, taking things hard, core symptoms of the most disseminate measure of the concept of non-specific distress, the general health questionnaire. This construct is strongly associated with consequences of stressful social conditions such as anxiety and depressive disorders, heavy substance use, psychophysiological, and non-specific psychotic symptoms.4 Symptoms of specific syndromes could emerge, whether our nature and/or nurture make us more vulnerable or resilient.5

For Baxter et all, technological advances have led to lifestyle changes associated with shorter sleep duration, particularly in females, reduced physical activity and higher rates of obesity. But we cannot go back to an earlier era. People are connected via cell phones with social-media are like pseudopods that phagocyte good and bad contents. We still do not know the consequences of the impact of the technology on our brain, in our social relationships, and in our perception of the urban milieu.

Nowadays screens occupy a fundamental place in our lives, are already part of our evolutionary history. Children are exposed to them at ever-earlier ages. Ray Kurzweil’s6 statement that technology is becoming our second nature and transforming our language, our way of relating and thinking is coming true. Technology is both environment and part of our self. Technology can increase our sense of control over the environment, or catches our attention, impairing our ability to make judgments, planning, and diminish confidence in decision-making.

What would be great challenge in the integration of social sciences and life science, particularly the psychiatric science today? How to move from the classic polarities between the two disciplines the pendulum movement of biological-social-biological paradigms that is observed since early eras? And taking the particular case of Psychiatric Science, abandoning the discourse of sociology, as Rose said, “from being a prominent co -producer of psychiatric knowledge to being, perhaps, the foremost critic of psychiatric labeling, and psychiatric power.”7 Is it possible to move forward and integrate both sciences in the 21st century?  Can we actually “learn anything important for the encounter between those sciences today”?

It is key to attempt to combine methods and perspectives of sciences, and look at the subjectivity of urban living experience, asking the actors of urban life, how they experience their suffering and joy in such space.

There are many methodological aspects that should be considered in modeling how risk factors for psychological symptoms/disorders interact. We should keep the pluralist approach proposed by K. S. Kendler8, in searching for risk factors: “sitting at the crossroads of biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities”.

The upcoming UK-China project on urban mental health and migration in Shanghai is a great opportunity to go from a molecular neuroscience level to first-person experience, combining the tradition of observational epidemiological studies, to bring to the community the framework of randomized interventions, and ethnographic methods. But, using Kendler’s8 proposed paradigms, we should go further to “bring things back to the mental” and include good and bad subjectivities so that the experience of urban living can be fully understood.


Comment authors:

Laura Helena Andrade and Janir Batista,  Institute of Psychiatry, University of São Paulo Medical School



1. Lambert, K.G., Nelson, R.J., Jovanovic, T., Cerdá, M. (2015) ‘Brains in the city:Neurobiological effects of urbanization’, Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Review, pii: S0149-7634(15)00103-7. oi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.04.007. [Epub ahead of print] Review. PubMed PMID: 25936504

2. Fitzgerald, D. and Rose, N. (2015)  The Neurosocial City, UT Key Debate

3. Baxter A.J., Scott, K.M., Ferrari, A.J., Norman, R.E., Vos, T., Whiteford, H.A. (2014) Challenging the myth of an “epidemic” of common mental disorders: trends in the global prevalence of anxiety and depression between 1990 and 2010. Depress Anxiety. 31(6):506-16. doi: 10.1002/da.22230

4. Goldberg, D., Williams, P., (2000) General Health Questionnaire (GHQ)( Swindon, Wiltshire, UK: nferNelson)

5. Patten, S.B., (2013) Major depression epidemiology from a diathesis-stress conceptualization. BMC Psychiatry, Jan 11;13:19. doi: 10.1186/1471-244X-13-19

6. Kurzweil, R., (1999) The age of spiritual machines: when computers exceed human intelligence.Viking Press


8. Kendler, K.S., (2014)  The structure of psychiatric science. American Journal of Psychiatry, Sep;171(9):931-8. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13111539. Review