Learning to Pay Attention

bluejayEven business is now teaching ‘observation skills’ as part of a ‘cultural anthropology’ skill set that also includes interviewing, story-gathering and story-telling, and ‘understanding that things are the way they are for a reason’ appreciation skills.

Why is it that we have have to teach adults to do something that every child knows how to do from birth? Is attention deficit a learning disability we acquire as we get older, and if so, why?

In business cultural anthropology, according to Conifer Research, you need to focus your attention on:

  • Confusion: employees and customers who are conflicted or unclear about what to do or how to do it
  • Barriers: obstructions that get in the way of people doing their job
  • Wear Patterns: lingering signs of stress in the use of products and tools
  • User Torture: obvious discomfort and struggle in making the tools, environment or process work the way it is supposed to or needs to
  • Duct Tape & String: workarounds that employees and customers have devised to solve problems

They argue that, if you interview people about their wants and needs, they will tell you what’s on the top of their consciousness, but miss the very real wants and needs that would be obvious from direct observation. But they also say you need to ask questions, through interviews, after or during observation, to understand what you’re really seeing and hearing, why it’s happening, and what could be done to make things better, instead of jumping to conclusions. In the process, the subject may learn as much as the observer. They suggest a process to map the experience of your employee or customer, as a means of archiving and focusing on improvement opportunities.

Paying attention is also a recurring message of environmentalists. The celebrated environmental writer and story-teller Barry Lopez says:

[My principal responsibility] is paying attention to what is going on there, so I can come home and tell a story that in some way or other is useful to the community… My life is defined largely around issues of language and story and landscape, and I would be hard pressed to separate those three issues. I think the way in which landscape is imperiled–by manipulation and attenuation to serve various political and economic policies–is almost indistinguishable from the way in which language and story are imperiled…

I first felt what we could call “a state of awe,” moments of recognizing a metaphysical dimension in landscapes, when I was six or seven years old. I remember at the Grand Canyon, in particular, when I was eight years old, being awestruck about everything that was around me, the richness–the smells, the tackiness of Ponderosa sap, the tenacity of wildflowers, those little ear tufts on the Kaibab squirrels–and spatial depth. The first mountain lion I saw was in the Grand Canyon, and it was an incident that went to the floor of my heart.

Perhaps the reason we no longer pay real attention is that we no longer have much opportunity to see and hear things that inspire a “state of awe” — we are surrounded by mediocrity and sameness and efficiency and noise that exhibit no integrity, dignity, subtlety, or respect for the sacredness of life and nature. And at the same time we are constantly barraged by assaults on our senses — sights and sounds that rudely compete for our attention until we become numb to all but the loudest and most violent and most outrageous — the brightest red light, the flashiest billboard, the thinnest waist, most defined abs and largest breasts, the most provocative lyrics and videos and special effects.

surtesWhen I was in Orlando recently at the Disney Institute I was frequently distracted from the astonishing and brilliant details of the Disney ‘customer experience’ by wonderful natural sights that no one else seemed to notice in the Disney World of sensory overload: Baby goslings chasing insects around a lamppost, ducks in the grass enjoying the constant spray from the nearby flume roller coaster ride, squirrels perched on the top of benches staring at the parades of costumed characters with great curiosity. If I had visited there back before I moved to the country and took up nature-watching, would I have been as oblivious to these simple joys as all the people around me?

In an earlier post entitled Stand Still and Look Until You Really See, I suggested six exercises to practice paying attention, designed especially for the left-brain-heavy:

  • Move in close, so you divert attention from individual objects and start to see instead colour, texture, shape, shadow, reflection, pattern
  • Find an unusual perspective from which to look — get down on the ground and look up, look at something through trees, through a microscope, or by candlelight, anything that will let you see things differently from usual
  • Look at things under unusual conditions — in the fog, at night, right after a heavy rain, just at dawn or dusk
  • Stimulate your other right-brain senses — get your nose up close to things, listen to birds, or insects, or train whistles, or music, walk in your bare feet
  • Walk or bicycle without a pre-determined destination, direction or time limit
  • Study something — birds at your bird-feeder, time-lapse of a flower over the course of a day or a week, a spider-web, how moving or dimming the lights in a room changes its character, how a bottle looks different when viewed from different angles

One of the most interesting theories about why we lose the ability to pay attention is related to the chemical dopamine, which occurs naturally in the body and is our body’s way of telling us that something we have just sensed or experienced is important and needs to be remembered. Here’s a theory from Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse:

Over time, the addict’s brain adapts to the torrent of dopamine by dampening the system down. Imaging experiments show that cocaine addicts’ brains don’t react to the things that turn on the rest of us, whether that’s romantic passion, food or cold, hard cash. Volkow’s research has also shown that addicts have fewer dopamine D2 receptors, which are found in parts of the brain involved in motivation and reward behavior. With fewer receptors, the dopamine system is desensitized, and the now-understimulated addict needs more and more of the drug to feel anything at all. Meanwhile, pathways associated with other interesting stimuli are left idle and lose strength. The prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain associated with judgment and inhibitory control–also stops functioning normally. It’s a neurological recipe for disaster. “You have enhanced motivation for the drug, and you have impaired prefrontal cortical systems. So you want the drugs pathologically, and you have reduced control of behavior, and what you’ve got is an addict,” says University of Michigan, Ann Arbor psychology professor Terry Robinson, who pioneered this new way of thinking about dopamine with his University of Michigan colleague Kent Berridge…

Obesity may involve similar malfunctions in the dopamine system. Volkow’s longtime Brookhaven collaborator Gene-Jack Wang has discovered that the brains of seriously obese people seem to be tuned toward food. Even when they are lying quietly in the scanning machine, the sensory cortex of their mouth, tongue and lips is more active than it is in normal-weight people, he says: “They are putting out their antennae.” Yet he also found that the dopamine circuitry of heavy people is less responsive, with fewer dopamine D2 receptors. Even among the obese, there are dopamine differences. The heaviest people in his study had fewer dopamine receptors than the lightest. Like addicts, overeaters may be compensating for a sluggish dopamine system by turning to the one thing that gets their neurons pumping. It’s a mark of changing times–and more sophisticated science–that the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse is thinking about doughnuts as well as heroin.

Are we, perhaps, all increasingly addicted to the rush of dopamine as we get older? Does the sheer constant noise and sensory barrage of messages competing for our attention eventually dull our senses to the point we cease being able to really pay attention to anything that isn’t the dopamine equivalent of a 200-decibel jet engine roar? And if so, does spending time in nature, or in meditation, help us begin to kick the dopamine habit, and open up our sensory palate to awareness we had ceased to be capable of? Are television and video games and junk food and driving in traffic and all the other high-stimulation events of modern life actually numbing us to awareness of who we are, of the importance of place and of nature, of the damage we are doing to the world, and of the messages our instincts and the rest of our Earth-organism are sending us?

And if this is so, how can we overcome this addiction, especially those of us who cannot still the din by walking through nearby wilderness or refocusing through meditation? Especially those of us who really like the stimulation that the dopamine rush gives us? Are we doomed to a life of numbness, and inability to pay attention to things that are really important?

Photo from my own collection. Sketch by Canadian artist Pierre Surtes.

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9 Responses to Learning to Pay Attention

  1. Tony Tross says:

    My understanding is that attention – to pain, joy, existence – is dynamically, on the fly, created by desire. Desire is the fundamental force of life, whether for food, procreation or ease, and is a forward movement into increasing intelligence. Thus, attention is the memetic attractor defining the evolution of intelligence.Paying attention is the ultimate sacrifice to IT, Tao, and so the highest (many puns intended)explication of our implicate Isness. Full attention is buddhaness.

  2. lugon says:

    A child drops her BoingBoy Machine ™ and shouts – “Daddy, I’m bored!”.Can I spend a whole evening just paying attention? What would come out of that?

  3. lugon says:

    Which means “Thanks, Dave”. Your post has serendipitously come my way so I may be able to help someone locally.

  4. Lia Pas says:

    R. Murray Schafer’s work may answer a number of questions you’ve posed here. http://www.patria.org/arcana/arcbooks.html has a listing of his works regarding soundscapes and noise pollution as well as retraining our sense of hearing to bring about mental clarity.Next week I’ll be returning to quiet Canada after 2 years in noisy noisy Japan. One of the things I’m looking forward to the most is having my “mind space” back so I can think and write again. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. John Frost says:

    First let me say that as a longtime reader and first time commenter, it’s a wonderful that there is a voice as strong as yours writing about these subjects. Thank you for your passion and time.I do want to point out a fact you may have over looked in this post. As a frequent visitor to Disney World and the Magic Kingdom (Florida’s version of Disneyland) I am always stopping to see the details. Both those of nature (about half of Disney World’s 40 square miles is devoted to maintaining its natural state – and Disney has spent a ton of money buying and restoring a 12,000 acre nature preserve just to the south of the property and at the head of the Florida Everglades) and design (Disney

  6. step back says:

    Dave,Long time reader, first comment back here.This is an absolutely powerful piece.It’s a multi, multi-dimensional world after all, if only we can tune in on the different details.As to your last back link, namely to the “addiction” of Civilization to the things that will surely kill us. Yes this is a very important question. Surely there are readers out there who are skilled in the dark arts of redirecting public attention so that the public becomes more “tuned” to the dangers that slide us ever closer to the edge of “Collapse”.Keep up the great work.

  7. I was just in Chicago for a weekend and even that jolt of “difference” — of seeing a city other than my own, and having no agenda, so we were able to sroll about and observe at a liesurely pace — changed the way I looked at Pittsburgh when I came home. Now I’m back to work at full-speed, and what little difference I noticed in my vacation time is gone from the immediate, but it’s always there in the subconscious. I quite enjoy being able to slow down for a little while here and there and just… observe.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the very kind comments. Some of you are clearly better practitioners of the art of paying attention than I am. John: I do know the whole story of Disney, including the natural legacy he left (though he did have his dark side) — the inability of people to see natural wonders with all the competing attention-attractors is not Disney’s fault, but the separation we have all suffered from our connectedness to the natural world, which precludes us from noticing nature. It is only recently that (due to my fortune at living in a relatively natural place) I have relearned to pay attention to it, to the point I cannot *not* pay attention to it even in the midst of noise and distraction. I am slowly becoming again a part of nature, re-belonging to it, and to not pay attention to it is as impossible as not paying attention to my own feelings, my own hunger, my own thirst. Justin, you make a good point that sometimes the best way to pay attention to what’s around you every day is to go elsewhere for a short time — the physical counterpart to meditation.

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