The first time I met my neighbor, my heart did stop, briefly.

Do you remember those cylindrical, metallic “neuralyzers” that the men in black in Men in Black used to erase people’s short-term memories? I think about those things all the time. Specifically how great it would be to have one. It would be unethical to use my neuralyzer on other people, because I’m not a man in black. I would just want it for myself, for when I see or hear things I can’t really deal with. Or when I say or do things I immediately regret, which is pretty often. It would also be great at times like when I first met my neighbor.

My building has three units, and I had been living in mine for a few days before Stephen and I actually crossed paths. We introduced ourselves, talked a little about the neighborhood and our mutual intentions to be respectful and communicative, possibly even social, and then said good night. He turned and started walking to the stairs. But then he stopped and turned back.

“Oh, and, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.”

Of the sentences I realistically expect to hear in life, that may be my favorite. Do go on.

“The last tenant in your apartment, he was your age … he died in there.”


“But everything should be fine now,” he continued, and turned to leave again. “Well, good night.”

No one brought up this fact prior to my moving in. Stephen was right, he probably shouldn’t have told me. He would have spared me nights and nights of unwanted speculation. Gas leak? Murderous robbery? Something to do with the plumbing? But on the whole, I’m better off for having met my neighbor.

Specifically, according to new research published today from psychologists at the University of Michigan, I’m less likely to die of a heart attack than I would be if I gave in to my more introverted tendencies.

Social connection at the neighborhood level has long been known to be associated with good mental health, and some aspects of physical health. But this is the first study to look specifically at neighborhood social cohesion and heart attacks, which hit more than 700,000 Americans every year and cost everyone billions of dollars.

"There's evidence suggesting that negative factors of the neighborhood, things like density of fast food outlets, violence, noise, and poor air quality impact health,” lead researcher Eric Kim, a psychologist in his final year of doctoral work at the University of Michigan, told me. I'd add broken windows. One 2003 study found that “boarded-up housing” predicts high rates of gonorrhea in a neighborhood, as well as premature death due to cancer or complications of diabetes. (And murder.) More recently, researchers from University of Pennsylvania looked at the health detriments associated with vacant land. By their understanding, abandoned buildings lead to isolation and erosion of social relationships, mutual trust, and collective efficacy, which leads to poor physical health.

Kim’s team is focusing on the other side of things: the positive elements of a neighborhood that “might perhaps be protective or even enhancing of health." For a young scientist, Kim is precociously well versed in the language of hedging.


Read the full article "Always Talk to Strangers" at The Atlantic.