Meetings and Your Brain: How Physical Spaces Change How We Pay Attention

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Meetings and brain

Working or meeting in a new physical space helps our brains to pay attention, says author Tim Harford.

I am writing this from a coffee shop, sipping mint tea in the company of the low hum of conversation and the distant buzz of a coffee grinder — an everyday kind of experience that hasn’t been available to me for more than a year. I knew that it was doing good things for my mood, but — as Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist explained in a column in the Financial Times — it turns out that it’s also good for my brain.

The fact that our experience is what determines how we create and retain memories is at the root of the argument for braiding rewarding experiences into our meetings. But experience alone is not enough, Harford wrote. “A new physical space seems to be important if our brains are to pay attention.”

Harford points to the work of psychologist Barbara Tversky, who argues in her book, Mind in Motion, that the evolution of thinking relied not just on abstract ideas, but on place, space, and movement. If the pandemic has seemed like one long blur to you, the lack of movement and the sameness could help explain why. “No matter how many new people or old friends you talked to on Zoom or Skype, they all start to smear together,” Harford wrote, “because the physical context is monotonous: the conversations take place while one sits in the same chair, in the same room, staring at the same computer screen.”

It could also explain how things that once struck us as novel on screen can quickly lose their sparkle, or why we perk up when something unexpected happens on a Zoom call, even something as mundane as a cat suddenly jumping on a colleague’s desk. “Without a physical change of scene,” Harford wrote, “even new experiences all start to seem the same.”

It’s a powerful argument for considering the role of place — both on-screen and off — and constantly refreshing strategies for getting and keeping attention.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.


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