August 17, 2011


The Science of Attention Spans: Cathy Davidson's new book argues that we perceive only a fraction of everything going on around us, and this attention blindness ill prepares us for the multi-tasking Internet age. (Casey Schwartz, Aug 17, 2011, Daily Beast)

Cathy N. Davidson remembers a lunchtime lecture at Duke University a while back in which the speaker, someone from the university's medical school, told the audience he would play a video of people tossing balls back and forth and asked everyone to keep a close count of how many throws were made. Davidson, a Duke professor--and dyslexic--didn't even try. Instead, she leisurely watched the tape. In about 30 seconds, a figure in a gorilla suit wandered across the screen, stopped, beat its chest and wandered off. It turned out only Davidson noticed this creature--everyone else had been focused exclusively on the assigned task.

That experiment on "attention blindness" is at the heart of Davidson's new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Attention blindness--the fact that we perceive only a fraction of everything going on around us--is a basic characteristic of the human brain. It's also a saving grace, because we'd be incapacitated by the amount of information assaulting us if we noticed it all.

And yet, in her new book, Davidson argues that our attention blindness is a big problem that must be addressed--especially now that the Internet has come along and changed everything about how our lives work. The Internet, she notes, has thrust us into an interconnected, collaborative existence, marked by the total breakdown of barriers between work and leisure, public and private, home and office, domestic and foreign, and so on. She argues that although our lives have been irrevocably altered, our most important institutions are not. Those core institutions--school and work--are behaving for the most part as if nothing epochal has occurred.

Consider how bizarre it is that we still test kids by pretending that they need to be able to summon up information from their own memories even though there is no setting (outside of Gilligan's Island) in which this will ever be required, even though we know human memory is faulty to near uselessness for such purposes, and even though in real life settings we'll want them to be able to access information and collaborate with others instead.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 17, 2011 6:50 AM
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