Right now, even as you read this, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. You are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.
So wrote Alexandra Horowitz in her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes
Her theme is that most of us pay little attention to what is right in front of us
So little, actually, that we are sleepwalkers in our own lives (sleepwalkers are parasomniacs who are unaware of their surroundings and their actions. Their sleepwalking episodes last from a few minutes to an hour).
Horowitz says that in order to keep from drowning in auditory, visual, and tactile sensations, we turn our attention away from some things and toward others. The more we concentrate, the more we close the doors and windows on the world around us. Cultural critic Maria Popova says we are cut off from the sound of the world breathing around us.
Horowitz walked around her neighborhood with others and looked at it through their eyes
She saw things she had never noticed before after walking her neighborhood with a geologist, typographer, illustrator, naturalist, doctor, blind woman, and a dog and having them describe for her the things they saw. Because of them, she was able to “see” her familiar neighborhood in very different ways. Horowitz described her experiences as delightful, alarming, and humbling when she realized she had been seeing almost nothing and missing almost everything.
What is this thing called paying attention?
Attention is described by psychologists as like putting a spotlight on some particular thing. We get closer and more involved, pushing to the side most of what is around us. Concentration is the ability to notice one small thing to the exclusion of all others by filtering out most of the things around us. The unintended consequence is that we lose sight of the fact that our experiences are more limiting than enlightening.
Yogi Berra said you can see a lot just by looking
Did you know the brains of creative thinkers increase the flow of information, allowing them to see more differences than most? This is the bunch that comes up with more new and interesting solutions to problems. Did you know you can train your brain by using your eyes?
Try this experiment
Watch this one-minute video of six people in a hallway passing balls back and forth as they constantly move around. Three people are wearing black shirts and three are wearing white shirts. Your task is to count the total number of times the people in white shirts pass the ball. Click here and watch the video now before reading on.
We process only what we are looking for and ignore the rest
The Invisible Gorilla is one of the most famous experiments in psychology. It shows us how when we focus on a single activity, we ignore everything else that is going on. You may have heard this activity called selective inattention, perceptual blindness, or inattentional blindness. Regardless of the term, the idea is the same: it is impossible for anyone to attend to all the visual stimuli around us, and what we most fail to see are things that are unexpected. We do not see the gorilla because it has nothing to do with white shirts and passing balls. We are not taking in everything that is going on because our brains subconsciously have filtered out the visual images that are not recognized as relevant (gorilla) to our goal (count the white shirts and passed balls).
Geoff Hart opened his review of Horowitz’ book by saying our ability to see is so basic that we take it for granted
Psychologists agree that as adults, we lose the ability to see things as we did when we were children. Horowitz says “An infant treats objects with an unprejudiced equivalence. A plastic truck is of no more intrinsic worth to the child than an empty box is, until the former is called a toy and the latter is called garbage.”
Learning by observation
Social psychologist Albert Bandura said we learn by watching others. All of us copied behaviors we saw before we were old enough to walk or talk or have any notion of our own mental processes.
Observation is the process of actively taking in our surroundings and noticing everything around us
We acquire knowledge and understanding through our senses, our experiences, and our thoughts about them. Only after we have made ourselves aware can we effectively evaluate, judge, reason, compute, and comprehend, the things we need to do to solve problems and make good decisions.
I wrote an article about observing the world around us and called it What Do You See at the Airport?
It talked about how airports are places where there are massive divisions of labor, millions of complex social encounters, and the implicit and explicit social order of public spaces. All of these things are happening right before our eyes, but most of us don’t see them because we’re not paying attention.
I tried Horowitz’ experiment on my own
Day One: I walked along a paved path that meanders between grassy areas and under tall, mature, and shady trees. The path is a loop nearly three miles long with barely a straightaway, surrounded by residences, canals, parks, ponds, landscaped areas, and flower beds on both sides.
Day Two: I walked the same loop, this time counterclockwise. It looks both the same and different from the other direction. I wondered how many people just go one way day after day and how many vary their direction.
Day Three: I focused on people, most of whom were plugged into portable electronics, listening to who knows what. Always-online people were inevitably turned inward. Always-online people turned off and tuned out their immediate environment to give their attention to music or podcasts or telephone conversations they brought with them. I observed that people who were plugged in nearly always looked straight ahead, walked with grim determination and almost never acknowledged those passing within a few feet of them. Unplugged people were likelier to nod, smile, wave, or say good morning.
Day Four: I focused my attention on birds. When we’re plugged in, we miss the sounds even more than the sights. Because I walked without electronics, earbuds, or headphones, I was able to hear hundreds of birds chirping, mockingbirds singing, limpkins screeching, geese honking, starlings squabbling, and more. There were birds staking out territory and birds calling for mates. I heard birds in front of me, behind me, and to the sides. Birds on the ground, in the trees, and in the air, some nearby and others in the distance. It was a cool soundtrack.
Day Five: I took a closer look at trees. Usually, as we walk or drive by trees, we see them, mentally classify them as TREES and relegate them to being “large woody plants with a single trunk, branches, and leaves.” We might as well paste in an icon, because we don’t look at them any more.
I started noticing how some of the leaves are long and thin while others are short and fat. There are round ones, pointy ones, dark foliage and light, some bearing fruits and flowers. Some had been chewed by bugs and others showed signs of disease. I stopped and collected specimens along the way. The variety of sizes, shapes, colors, and textures was quite remarkable and includes only the ones I could reach from the ground.
Day Six: I wrote about it.
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