Soft Fascination

I have been thinking, of late, about the Mayan temples.

These temples, along with the aqueducts and reservoirs of the Mayan golden age, are wonderful feats of technology. They are a testament to the human capacity to make great things. They are also, equally, a testament to the availability of trees. To heat one square meter of the limestone plaster used to make these temples, the Mayans needed to burn 20 trees.

Today we live in a golden age of software. On the backs of our software frameworks we have created a highly connected and communicative global society. I may now, without thinking much of it, access the biggest encyclopedia in history from my bedroom, and hail a private car with a supercomputer that lives in my pocket.

As the Mayan temples were fueled by trees, our software is fueled by another natural resource: attention. Through software, we have remarkable reach into the attention of others. A single website can reach billions of people; a mobile app can notify me when I’m in my car. Attention is a powerful force, and collective attention is one of the most powerful forces we have. We may harness this force to create great things.

But we must take care. The flipside to being able to easily access the attention of others, of course, is that others can easily access ours.

There is a beautiful short story by Kurt Vonnegut, called Harrison Bergeron, in which intelligent people are required to wear an earpiece that is always interrupting them with a distracting sound, not allowing them to complete any thought that takes more than a few minutes to formulate.

I am reminded of this story each time my phone buzzes.

The psychologists, of course, have looked into this, well before my devices started giving me pause. The fragmentation of our attention, they tell us, leads to a decline in thoughtfulness, in deliberation, and, most prominently, in compassion. We are less kind when we are distracted.

Perhaps this is why we have seen a rise, in recent years, of things like meditation and Montessori. They are conservation practices for our attention. Meditation reserves a time of day (like the early morning) to cultivate concentration. Montessori reserves a time of life (early childhood) to do the same; Maria Montessori referred to the development of concentration as “the most important single result of our whole work.”

These practices are not so different, in spirit, than the Mayan practice of cultivating sacred groves. One reserves time to conserve attention, the other reserves space to conserve trees.

But there is more, here, than metaphor.

I remember reading, a few years back, a wonderful book by the psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, in which they developed a theory they called Attention Restoration Theory. In this book, they introduced something they called soft fascination. As opposed to hard fascination, which refers to patterns that grab our attention — a billboard in Times Square, an incoming text message, an iPad game — soft fascination refers to patterns that readily hold the attention, but in a serene way that permits a more reflective mode — a butterfly on a wildflower, the song of a nightingale, the movement of leaves on a tree.  Soft fascination, they showed, is a powerful restorative measure for attention.

This suggests a path for us as makers of space.

It suggests a path for makers because, while it’s always possible for people to make individual choices, the default choices are most powerful.

It is possible, individually, to create an practice where we each take some time each day and go into nature, but it would be easier if nature was present on our walk to work. It is possible, individually, to limit our children’s use of tablets, but it would be easier if our early-childhood environments were peaceful spaces where children could work with beautiful materials that gently hold their attention.

So perhaps the best way to cultivate our collective attention — and with it, our collective compassion — is through the design of our environments. We can work to create our environments to foster soft fascination, so that we experience small sacred moments scattered throughout the day. To begin, we don’t need grand gestures. Even a single tree on a barren street has a noticeable effect.

If we keep at it, and if we get the process right, we might find ourselves reshaping the city.

And in turn, we might find the city helping to reshape ourselves.