Quick: Do you know what phase the moon is in right now?
Personally, I have no idea—though I can tell you all about which cookie recipe is trending on Instagram and what people are fighting about on Twitter. Digital distractions like these have made many of us feel untethered from the rhythms of the natural world, and less attuned to the sights and sounds of daily life.
But you probably already know all about how social-media platforms, apps, and mobile games are engineered to monopolize our attention. The more pressing issue, according to journalist Rob Walker, author of the new book The Art of Noticing, is what we can do to regain control of our attention—and by extension, our minds.
“If you’re nothing but a function of what other people are doing to your attention, that doesn’t leave much left over of your humanity,” Walker explained in conversation with Lifehacker’s Melissa Kirsch at an event in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, this week.
In The Art of Noticing, Walker offers up 131 different exercises aimed at helping readers reconnect with their surroundings and take pleasure in the simple act of observation. The book suggests the solution to digital overload involves conscious engagement rather than self-denial; you can keep your smartphone, so long as you remember to look around every so often, too.
One exercise, “Name That Thing,” involves training yourself to spot objects that must surely have a name, and then finding out what they’re called. That’s how Walker himself learned that the base that supports a statue at a museum is called a plinth, while the trodden grass in a park, created by people going off-route again and again, is known as a desire path.
The effect of the game is to find yourself in a kind of reverse Eden. Instead of Adam choosing the names of animals, you’re discovering the universe of ingenious monikers that people have already given to all manner of creations. The game is also a clear example of how the art of noticing can make you feel not only more appreciative of the world, but more a part of it. In learning the terms plinth or desire path, you’re reminded of the broader community of art-lovers or hikers to which you belong.
Another exercise in the book instructs readers to pick an object that’s often overlooked, like a cell-phone tower or locksmith sticker, and track it over the course of several days. Walker looked for security cameras everywhere he went during a trip to San Francisco, while one of his students posts a photo on Instagram every time she sees one of the New York Times’ iconic blue plastic bags. Not only can the exercise help you learn to look at familiar surroundings with fresh eyes, but Walker says it’s a way of training yourself to overcome “inattentional blindness”—the human tendency to fail to notice perfectly visible objects because our attention is being directed elsewhere.
The ideas in The Art of Noticing were drawn from a range of artists, musicians, designers, behavioral psychologists, and entrepreneurs, along with Walker’s friends and students. One page invites readers to make like the modern composer John Cage and do their own cover of “4’33“—the famous experimental piece in which a musician walks out in front of an audience, sits before a piano, and plays absolutely nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds, so that the audience gradually grows attuned to the rustles, coughs, creaks, beeps, and hums that are their own kind of music. Performing “4’33” is basically a form of low-stakes meditation, according to Walker: You can sit in attentive silence without worrying, as beginners often do, that they’re somehow meditating wrong.
In fact, there’s a lot of overlap between the suggestions in The Art of Noticing and the art of mindfulness. Both involve finding ways to be more present in the world and learning to be aware of ourselves, others, and our surroundings without casting judgment upon what we find. (If trying to be less judgmental sounds tough, you might be a good candidate for the exercise called “Poeticize the Irritating.” Inspired by the work of poet Kenneth Goldsmith, Walker says that we can change our perceptions of annoying strangers by observing them as if they are putting on a “madcap improvisation performance.”)
There are plenty of benefits associated with the art of noticing. Research suggests that mindfulness practices may help boost creativity, reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, and make us feel more satisfied with our relationships. And sitting in the audience at the Cobble Hill courtyard where Walker spoke, it was easy for me to see how the act of observation can increase our feelings of connectedness. Taking note that one woman’s cotton-candy-colored hair was the same shade of pink as the splotches on her capri pants, I felt an undeniable wave of delight. Afterward, I dropped by a nearby grocery store, where a stranger asked if I’d been at Walker’s reading; she recognized the pattern of my dress. While I was noticing someone, another person was noticing me, too.
Of course, the world isn’t always as picturesque and companionable as a Brooklyn courtyard full of bookworms. But as highlighted by Goldsmith’s project “Broken New York,” which features photographs of objects that are “corroded, crumpled, crushed, crimped, creased and generally clapped-out,” noticing the things that are strange or bleak or damaged is valuable, too. Not only is this a more truthful way of moving through the world, it’s a potentially revolutionary act: The problems that we tune out are the ones that never get fixed.
But perhaps there’s no need to make the case for the art of noticing. Walker doesn’t think we need to have any particular reason to pay attention to our environment. As the poet Mary Oliver wrote, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” Or as Walker himself told the audience: “Attending to the world is a good thing on its own.”