How Cities Feed Our Cravings: A Study of Comfort and Place

One of the things that draws us to cities is that they let us have what we want, when we want it. It’s thrilling, yes. But the result is a consumer habit based much more heavily on desire, or even impulse, than on need.

Times Square bombarding passersby with endless things to crave. Ryan on Flickr

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Christine McLaren is the resident blogger at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a mobile think tank investigating solutions to urban problems. Recently she boarded a freighter ship en route to Berlin from New York, and will use the 15-day experience to write a series of articles examining the implications of comfort and place. This post is part one of the series. It originally appeared on the Lab’s blog.

It’s been exactly 24 hours since I boarded the Hanjin Palermo, and already I have learned a valuable lesson: iI’s one thing to say you’re leaving the comforts of city life behind for 15 days, and it’s another to actually do it.

This struck me this morning when I found myself with an incredibly strong craving for three things: Fresh berries, a run and an espresso with almond milk. In that order.

It sounds silly. I travel away from the comforts of home often, and there are a lot of things I miss when I do: My friends, my family, the mountains—even my barista. But for all my fretting about being cut off from city life, fruit, a run and an espresso are the last things I thought I’d miss right off the bat.

Completely by chance, I came upon a fascinating insight into the neurological function behind this. As I began the massive task of sifting through my Comfort Crash Course reading list, the first thing I came to was entitled “The Craving Brain,” a chapter in the Malcolm Gladwell-esque book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, suggested to me by a Lab|Log reader. It explains the fascinating, inextricable feedback loop between habit and craving.

What I learned is this: We develop cravings when our brains begin to anticipate the reward of a certain habitual action.

Scientists have found, for instance, that if a monkey is trained to pull a lever each time it sees a certain shape on a screen, and is rewarded with drops of its favorite juice each time it does so, its brain activity will spike in a manner that suggests happiness when it receives the juice. If it repeats this exercise enough times, however, its brain will begin to show happy spikes as soon as the monkey sees the shape—before it has even received the juice—because it is anticipating the reward. This is a craving.

If the juice then doesn’t arrive, however, the monkey’s brain shows the neurological pattern associated with desire or frustration, and it will, despite any distractions, stay glued to the screen to repeat the task in hopes of eventually receiving the reward. Thus, a habit is formed.

It’s a feedback loop.

“This explains why habits are so powerful: They create neurological cravings,” Duhigg writes. “Most of the time these cravings emerge so gradually that we’re not really aware they exist, so we’re often blind to their influence. But as we associate cues with certain rewards, a subconscious craving emerges in our brains that starts the habit loop spinning.”

It’s the same neurological function that makes us want a sugary, carby treat when we see a box of doughnuts, or reach over and grab a fry from our friend’s McDonald’s meal even though we’re not hungry and don’t even like the taste of fast food. Our brain is experiencing the happy reward of salt and fat before we’ve even put the food in our mouth. If we don’t put the food in our mouth, our brain will be disappointed, which makes us eat it.

This perfectly explains my strawberry, run and espresso craving. I’m used to having these things immediately upon waking up, so even before I go through the motions I’m anticipating the sweetness of the fruit, the endorphins of the run and the jolt of the espresso.

Credit: Dave Hoffman on Flickr

When I travel, I can usually adapt this routine, with different fruits, a new running spot and a coffee from a cafe. But here I don’t have that option. There is less on this ship than in even the smallest town: No stores, no cafes, no library, no parks—nor are there any roads to take me to another town in search of any of those things.

So this morning it was driving me nuts.

But it made me think a lot about the things we crave and do, and why we crave or do them. So much of what we do and want is simply because it’s there, like the box of doughnuts or the fry. We buy things we don’t need because we see them in store windows; we eat when we’re not hungry because we saw a flashing sign advertising 99-cent pizza. This is fine once in a while, but not when it becomes a way of life.

Of course it’s not just urban dwellers this happens to. People who live on top of mountains have daily rituals and habits that are fed by cravings, and so do animals. But in the city the opportunities are writ large. One of the things that draws us to cities is that they let us have what we want, when we want it. This is especially apparent to me right now, after spending the past few weeks in a nonstop city like New York, which not only bombards you with endless cues of things to crave, but also gives you the ability to satisfy those cravings at almost any time. It’s thrilling, yes. But the result is a consumer habit based much more heavily on desire, or even impulse, than on need.

I am no less guilty of this than anyone else. If you were to ask me to quickly list the top ten things that comfort me, at least half would be objects or foods. A list of things I regularly crave would look the same.

So it makes me wonder: If there is so much less to crave here away from it all, away from the opportunity to give in, how, in turn, will my habits change? Will they change again once I’m back on shore? Will I need less, or simply need different things?

Is comfort the satisfaction of a craving, or can I find comfort in the absence of satiation; in simply not craving?

This story was originally published on Lab|log at © 2012 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.

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