The World Beyond Your Head: Part 8, Becoming Attentional Designers and Architects

Related to the notion of "extended cognition" Matthew B. Crawford makes another point in The World Beyond Your Head that intersects with Hunting Magic Eels.

Specifically, Crawford opens the book with a lament at how affective capitalism has infiltrated almost every nook and cranny of our environment. Wherever I turn I'm bombarded with branding and marketing in sounds and images, even scents in some cases. Crawford calls this shared space our "attentional commons," and he rails at how this space has been taken over by retailers. Our attention can find no place to rest, visually or acoustically. This analysis is similar to the one made by James Smith in his books Desiring the Kingdom and You Are What You Love, how the "cultural liturgies" of capitalism capture, direct, and shape our desires.

Consequently, given how crowded and loud the attentional commons is, Crawford spends much of his book arguing that we need to exert more control over our personal environments. Again, this goes to the issue of extended cognition, how our external environment assists our mental processes. We can shape these environments with attentional jigs. Psychologists also call this "choice architecture," what some have called "nudges." For example, when stores put certain products at eye level, or candies at the checkout where you'll be standing, they are shaping choice via what they bring to your attention.

Crawford argues that we have to do something like this in our own lives. We have to become attentional designers and architects. We have to address our "ecology of attention" and adjust the choice architecture and nudges of our physical environments in order to guide and direct our attention where we want it to go. Otherwise, if we don't take control over our environment, we'll be pushed and pulled by the images and sounds of the marketplace.

This analysis converges upon suggestions I make in Hunting Magic Eels in the chapter "Liturgical Enchantments." Specifically, if we want to be reminded of God during the day we need to create some attention jigs, some choice architecture, some nudges. We need to attend to our environment and the attentional ecology of our surroundings. What have we placed around ourselves that draws our attention toward God? Is there anything by your bedside upon waking? Living room? In your car? Office? Anything around your neck, in your pocket, or on your hands? Have you placed around yourself material reminders of spiritual realities? 

As I recount in Hunting Magic Eels, one of the gifts from the liturgical Christian traditions is their use of sacramentals, material objects used to capture, direct, and inspire spiritual devotion. Sacramentals, from prayer beads to icons, are enchantment jigs, attentional nudges that help us "reclaim the Real" in a noisy and crowded attentional environment.

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