Tagesspiegel says living in Berlin is making your brain shrink

A recent article in Tagesspiegel detailed how living in Berlin changes your brain. That sentence, like the article, is a bit of linguistic gymnastics because it’s big cities that change your brain, researchers have proven, not specifically Berlin, though Berlin is a big city. The article couples this data with some very informed anecdotes and theories from very capable experts to come to the conclusion that Berlin, in the past and now, makes you into a different person, which explains why 60,000 people move here every year. Well, that and the cheap rent. And it being legal to drink beer in the M10.

Allow me to summarize, because either you don’t speak German, or you don’t have time to read a (very well-written) 3,000-word article (honestly, where do Germans find the time to read the behemoth, often-droning articles in their dailies? Productivity would climb 10 percent here if German journalists once a week considered using the inverted pyramid). Apparently, researchers have discovered that people who grow up in big cities have a smaller prefrontal cortex than their rural counterparts. The more time you spend in a big city as a child, the smaller it is. I have a degree in Lit. I have no idea what that means. Also, your amygdala gets over-stimulated, just like in people with depression and panic disorders. Again, Lit degree.

living in berlin
Berlin is hard, yo.

The problem, according to psychiatrist Mazda Adli at Charité, is that our brains were formed tens of thousands of years ago and can’t really deal with the stresses and density of a big city. As soon as we step out the front door, the brains of New Yorkers, Tokoyers, Berliners and Wahlberliners think we’re about to be attacked by a saber-tooth tiger or have spotted the perfect woolly mammoth for a weekend feast. Our brains are ready to murder and flee while we’re just trying to get a Club Mate at the Späti. We’re überfordert (overwhelmed). Always.

Living in Berlin is different

The article also lays out some differences in big cities. In Munich, they’ve discovered, people don’t go sprinting down the stairs of a subway station to catch their U7 at the last second. They walk and wait, in perfect Bavarian decency, for the next one, which is weird because subways don’t come as often in Munich. Here Tagesspiegel quotes Martina Löw, a professor at the Technische Universität (Technical University, the one on Ernst Reuter Platz): “People change depending on which city they move to … Cities are small universes that develop their own minutiae.” Even if you don’t like and don’t adopt the minutiae, you still have to deal with it, creating different rules for every city – you may not try to force your way onto the subway/tram before everyone gets off, but you’ll still have to deal with Berliners trying to do so.

Then we get to the meat, to the thing that makes Berlin different from all the other big cities: The individual. Everybody in Berlin is into themselves, Tagesspiegel claims, which lets everyone be themselves. No one’s going to care how you dress or what you do, because they only care about what they’re wearing or what they’re doing. So much so that your neighbors won’t greet you as they pass on the stairs, not even after a decade. That’s not only annoying but, according to the paper, it also makes people distrust others outside their cliques. In pre-war Germany it was the bureaucrats against the workers. Then Ossis against Wessis. Berliners (natives) against Wahlberliner (transplants). The Kreuzbergers against the Charlottenburgers. The Sharks hating the Jets. Oh, and the generic hate of the Schwaben (literally, people from Swabia in southern Germany but, generally in Berlin, anyone who has more money than you).

“Division was always a strong narrative in Berlin,” Professor Löw told Tagesspiegel. “There is very little trust in the things that connect us in Berlin. There’s no sense of a community.“ The academic admits that there are no studies to back up this thesis, but she still thinks it’s right. People in Berlin all believe they are different from each other, she says, and they like it that way: “Completely refusing to even think or live or feel community – that is very typical for Berlin. And of course that has consequences for the way people act.”

living in Berlin
Each and every one different and unique.

The article points out that this can make Berlin a brutal place for people who feel like outsiders but don’t want to feel like outsiders – if everyone else has a THING and you don’t, you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. I’m paraphrasing here. Possibly even projecting. But it’s what I took from it.

Psychiatrist Adli has some tips. He says you should make the city yours. Get to know your neighborhood and the people in it, even if you hate them (though in the article it didn’t say “hate”, it said, “even if you wish pimples on them,” which is a very endearing German saying). He also recommended taking every available mode of transport. DriveNow, the subway, Taxis, your feet. Or that bike you stole last week outside that café. “The feeling of being able to cover almost every route without any trouble in a reasonable time gives a special feeling of ownership in relation to the city.”

So there you have it: Your prefrontal cortex is getting smaller. Your amygdala is over-stimulated. You’re doing you. And you don’t call your mother often enough. Welcome to Berlin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first time I came to Berlin

I came to Berlin for the first time three different times. Granted, it was a different city two of those times, but I still came to Berlin for the first time three different times.

The first time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1987. Back then, I wanted to be a professional bike racer when I grew up and the Tour de France was starting in Berlin to celebrate the city’s 750th anniversary. In a bit of poor teenage planning, the friend of a friend where I was supposed to crash never showed up and so me and the American friend I was traveling with had to use all of our money to get a hotel for the first two nights we were there.

first time in Berlin
I’m going to be a pro! Actually, no yer not.

Luckily, the Tour de France had a massive marketing parade a half an hour before the race every day. They handed out crates of Sprite and boxes of pumpernickel bread like the Shriners tossing Toostie Pops at a July 4 parade. The Sprite and pumpernickel was our only sustenance for those first two days until I bumped into yet another friend who loaned us some cash.

We bought döner kebabs and hostel beds with the money and hung out with Allan Peiper, a professional from the Panasonic team, in between races. He was super-nice. Later, as I watched a recap of the race on TV, I even saw us watching from a grassy median somewhere in West Berlin. Over the past few days I’ve been watching scratchy YouTube vids of the Berlin stages trying to find my younger self. I’ll let you know if he shows up.

The thing I remember most from that trip is discovering that the cycling giants – the men who were my heroes – were very short. Like just as tall as I am. Bob Roll. Phil Anderson. And Stephen Roche. The great Greg Lemond was a giant of the time too but he wasn’t there because he’d just had a hunting accident, but I would later see him at other races and discover, yes, he’s short too. I also remember the East German border guards stamping my passport and using mirrors to look for stowaways under the train. We also took time to look at THE WALL.

Berlin, a second time

The second time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1995 as I was mourning my mother’s premature death by backpacking through Europe. I stayed in a hostel on what I now know is Chausseestrasse in eastern Berlin and walked 45 minutes with an Aussie backpacker through Mitte and Hackesche Markt to a club she knew called Delicious Donuts, which I would get to know better when I moved here. She danced and danced and danced as I alternately slept and thought about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no idea about ecstasy at the time and just marveled at her ability to keep grooving for hours. We hiked back to the hostel as the sun came up and I remember thinking some of the shops and galleries on Oranienburgerstrasse seemed interesting but mostly everything looked rundown and maybe scary. Plus the ever-present Fernsehturm looming over everything. It felt like the Stasi still had its eye on me.

The first time for the last time

The last time I came to Berlin for the first time was in 1998 after I’d moved to Frankfurt to work for Bloomberg News. Nobody in our office wanted to go to Berlin (imagine!) to cover anything so they started sending me whenever something went down in Berlin, which was about 1/10th as often as these days (the government was still in Bonn). I asked my co-workers what to do in Berlin and they suggested Oranienburgerstrasse in the former east.

Tacheles, sans hookers and dealers. Photo thanks John Graham via Creative Commons.

I was dating an American woman and she went with me on that first trip. After I was done for the day we got in a cab. “Oranienburgerstrasse!” we announced. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea it was the same street I’d walked down three years prior. Even more embarrassing, my hotel was at the Friedrichstrasse station just a few short blocks away. We could have – and should have – walked. But hey: Expense account.

Oranienburger strasse was very Mad Max. Many of the buildings were gray, decrepit and vacant and empty lots were overgrown and surrounded by mangled, rusty fencing. People seemed to seep in and out of every door, window and dirt path. A massive, bombed out department store set the dystopian tone for the entire street. Behind its grand, crumbling façade was a multi-story artist squat known as Tacheles with bars, studios and a movie theater. A ground floor resident welded huge steel beasts while listening to techno every night. The street itself was lined with bars, prostitutes and dealers.

It was fantastic. Oddly, lots of places in Eastern Europe still look this way and I wouldn’t call them fantastic. I’d call them scary.

When I got out of the cab, I looked around and felt inspired. When my girlfriend got out, she grabbed my arm. “Are you sure this is OK?” she asked. “Maybe we should go back to the hotel.” The cab pulled away, leaving us little choice. We went across the street to a bar whose entire interior was painted red (or was it orange?). Even though I went several times over the next couple of years, I could never remember its name. My girlfriend never quite felt safe that night but I somehow knew this was the the last time I would be going to Berlin for the first time.