By a mixture of luck (mostly) and judgement (minimal), I’ve found a rejuvenating space. A beautiful gallery with a great library and café, tons of natural light, cool jazz music and free wifi. Surrounded by skyscrapers and traffic, it’s a real oasis of calm. Maybe it’s why I’ve been struck by two recent and seemingly unrelated pieces of psychology research: one on how urban spaces can be more rejuvenating and another about whether attention spans increase with age. Bear with me here…
Given that more people on this planet now live in urban environments than rural, it’s surprising that planners, architects and psychologists haven’t put their heads together on the effect of this – or maybe not. So it’s great that a research study has been carried out in Iceland by Pall Lindal and Terry Hartig, which aimed to identify the kind of architecture that could make an urban environment more rejuvenating after a long day. Hundreds of Icelanders were asked to imagine returning home from a long, hard day at work. They were shown different computer-generated streetscapes that varied in aspects such as building height, degree of ornateness and complexity of design, and asked to rate each one in terms of its ‘restorative potential’.
Guess what: the huge, looming, multi-storey, sheer façade blocks didn’t really do it for people. What felt good: lower rise buildings, more complex design, varied rooflines and façades. You might be thinking: “No @£%* Sherlock”, yet just take a look around at any major new urban development and chances are it bears more resemblance to the former group of streetscapes than the latter. When will they get it? Until they do, it’s up to us to keep looking – those more restorative urban spaces are out there.
And boy, do we need to find them. The second piece of research uses some new approaches to bust a long-held tenet that attention span increases with age. Yes, you read that right. The theory goes that older people’s minds are less likely to wander because they’re losing spare cognitive capacity as the years roll by. Apparently, if you‘re the owner of a younger brain, you’re so abundant in cognitive resource your mind wanders off… just like that.
Jennifer McVay and colleagues in the USA tested this notion of capacity linked to mind wandering on both older and younger (student) participants and found it wanting. But although the link to capacity was tested and not found, the older respondents still lost focus less than the younger ones. The researchers’ explanation? That the older respondents were able to perform better in the unfamiliar research laboratory environment (in a college campus setting, as is very often the case), put thoughts of well-being and relationships aside, and get on with the task. However the student respondents were on familiar territory, which McVay et al suggest made it tougher for them to focus on the task. So no matter how many marbles you’ve got left, environment matters. Even us old farts can focus if distractions are reduced.