The brain-urbanisation metaphor and Arcade Fire
Suburban sprawl, the encroachment of a city onto the surrounding rural land is a phenomenon that continues to increase with rising populations. There are many perceived disadvantages to living in the suburbs, including the mandatory reliance on a car to travel, anonymity of architecture and street design, and a lack of connection with the land. This has led many suburbites to describe a spiritual ennui or a stifling emptiness. Naturally this has been reflected in the fiction, music, film and TV of recent times. I am choosing to focus very specifically on how the band Arcade Fire treats these themes. Though their most recent album, The Suburbs is clearly themed around growing up in the outskirts of a city, they have also consistently dealt with these ideas throughout their recording career. There are parallels between suburban sprawl and the manner in which the human brain develops over time with new experiences. By looking at a sprawling city as a brain, and the individual people or buildings as the individual brain cells, new understandings can be reached about what it means to live and die in the suburbs.
Covering light pollution, anonymous shopping malls, and a feeling of entrapment, Arcade Fire’s Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) is full of images portraying suburban life and the hopelessness and powerlessness it engenders.
‘Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small,
That we can never get away from the sprawl,
Living in the sprawl,
Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains,
And there’s no end in sight,
I need the darkness someone please cut the lights.’
The concept that suburban sprawl is making the world smaller is interesting as this could be perceived as either a positive or negative phenomenon. The way in which urban growth is taking over rural land, and joining together previously distinct cities means that people are more connected. This results in greater transport, cultural and health infrastructures in areas that were once relatively empty. Connectivity is often seen as a good thing in today’s society of always-on Internet, where anybody can be reached at any time, no matter where they are, through mobile phone contact. However, the negative aspect of increased connectivity throughout society, and what Arcade Fire appear to be reaching for in this song, is a feeling of inescapable claustrophobia. Despite its familiar comfort, its convenient services, it is the city centre, ‘the wilderness downtown’ (We Used to Wait) that causes the ‘power out in the heart of man’ (Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)). It is this oppressiveness that provides the spark for Arcade Fire’s great theme, the need for escape. They build underground passageways (Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)), know a place where vehicles don’t exist (No Cars Go), and try to escape the prison of their own bodies (My Body is a Cage).
The brain is often described in terms of its connections: tens of billions of individual neurons, each with thousands of synaptic links to other neurons. Each of these neurons is insignificant on their own; they simply carry a tiny electrical signal. This signal is chemically passed on to other cells, and countless other cells relay the same information. This then has a consequent effect on the whole brain, and accordingly the whole body. This could result in something as simple as a finger twitching, or as complex as Win Butler strumming out the chords to Rebellion (Lies) for the first time. This cumulative effect of many neurons behaving in the same way, producing a consistent message is an idea that can be applied to many situations outside of the human brain. For example, the individual neurons could represent individual computers, while the whole brain represents the Internet. The metaphor could extend to individual people and society too, whereby it is the connections between people and the global trends that result in observable phenomena. In Arcade Fire’s Wake Up, instead of neurons, we see consistent action in the ‘just a million little gods causing rainstorms, turning every good thing to rust’.
Neuroplasticity, the process by which neurons form new connections, changes how the network of cells functions, and proceeds in a manner somewhat similar in principle to that of urban sprawl. In the brain, connectivity is key and growth is facilitated by the formation of new pathways along which information can travel. Similarly in urban development, the roads are the lifelines upon which all other construction is based. In a song from Arcade Fire’s most recent album, Wasted Hours attempts to explain this form of suburban planning and the effect it has on young residents.
‘At first they built the road then they built the town
That’s why we’re still driving around and around
And all we see are kids in the buses longing to be free’
The forced dependence on a car has been blamed for increased obesity in the suburbs, as walking or biking is impractical due to the vast distances between areas. The greater number of cars also results in greater levels of air pollution, noise pollution and road traffic accidents. In addition to physical and mental health problems caused, the suburbs are wasteful and inefficient. This is a problem faced too by every human brain early in its existence. Up until late adolescence, the connections within the brain are ever multiplying. However by adolescence, it is estimated that the brain ‘prunes’ 30% – 40% of its total connections. This usually results in the brain maturing into its more stable, adult form, which is more efficient and arguably results in increased intelligence. However this pruning is also thought to be at least partially responsible for disorders such as schizophrenia, which often only appear in individuals in their early twenties. It could be argued that urban decay is a type of synaptic pruning of the city, whereby the formerly prosperous and thriving centre falls into abandonment and disrepair, severing its connections with other areas. This is good in some ways, as most of its occupants have access to better schools in the suburbs, there is arguably less crime, and land is cheaper. However, it also leads to all the suburban problems discussed previously, an existential schizophrenia of sorts.
The spiritual emptiness felt by many suburbites is symptomatic of the vast distances between home, work and leisure facilities; the lack of cultural history and the claustrophobia of always being connected to other people. Understanding the structure of the brain and how that changes over time can provide new meanings relating to urban development and its associated problems. Networks often behave in similar ways, whether they are comprised of neurons within the brain or constructions and people within a city. For Arcade Fire the only escape is the deep undisturbed sleep ‘between the click of the light and the start of the dream’ (No Cars Go) or to ‘dig a tunnel from my window to yours…and live out in the snow’ (Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)). Breaking out of the suburbs and becoming free from suburban angst ‘changes all the lead, sleeping in my head to gold’ (Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)).