In the UK they call them "witches' britches." They are the plastic bags that escape from landfills and become caught seemingly forever in the unreachable tree branches, littering the landscape with the detritus of our inconsiderate waste. I never noticed them until I heard an NPR narrative where Kathy Frederick recounts the progress, over two years, of this tattering plastic bag, ever-present and annoyingly out of reach, a symbol of timelessness and environmental disregards. It's such a presence in her life that she's even named it: Windy. (You can read her blog here: http://tinyurl.com/24thkdf ) I thought it was an eccentric object to care about then looked up and, for the first time, saw a plastic bag in a tree I was driving by. Then another. And another. Now, I see them everywhere, all the time. In a nutshell, that's how the brain science of attention works.
You've all experienced the phenomenon. Something happens--and then it happens again and again. You hear a name or notice something for the first time. It surprises you, it captures your attention. And then it seems, every time you turn around, there it is again. Except, of course, it was there all along. In the filtering process that is knowing the world, you did not pay attention to it before and therefore, for you, it didn't exist. It wasn't important to your way of navigating the world so you didn't see it. Once it becomes important, you see it over and over. Like those plastic bags in trees. Witches' britches. I formerly edited them out of the landscape the way most people do. Now I see them everywhere.
When you were born, there were only a very few things you knew to pay attention to--the sounds you heard in the womb, the tastes, the smells, passed through to you to your mother's body. That was your ecology. You were already conditioned, by the time you were born, to know those were important and to pay more attention to those than to other sounds and tastes---or to feel imperiled and disrupted when suddenly a new palette of sounds or tastes or smells came into your tiny life. French neuroscientists are beginning to find ways to see "racism" in infants--how they act more disturbed when those who talk, smell, or present them with different flavors come into their lives. They've documented it for six month old babies and, last I heard, they were working with two month old babies. We used to think you learned abstract concepts such as "race" and "racism." You do. Just earlier, as part of the intimacy of becoming part of the family (however defined by those around you) into which you happen to be born. For the only concrete thing that babies pay attention to when they are born is what feeds them--that's literal and metaphoric. They build attention by learning what feeds the person(s) who feed them--and paying attention to that. My favorite example is sound. A newborn can hear all the sounds in all the worlds' languages. By six months of age, as the infant is sorting out which sounds in her particular world constitute the communication system (language) of that world, an infant is no longer hearing irrelevant sounds, and, soon after, cannot hear them. A newborn Japanese infant can hear "r" and "l." By six month, she cannot because her language does not have a distinction between "r" and "l." If she wants to learn English as an adult--where the distinction between "r" and "l" means something--she will have to relearn how to hear sounds she used to be able to hear.
Everything is like that, all the time, our whole lives. We do not pay attention to what is not useful to us--until it smacks us in the face, and then we do. It distracts us. You hear Kathy Frederick go on, with great wit and sometimes even pathos, about Windy the plastic bag and suddenly you see them where they used to be invisible. You see an actor give a great performance and suddenly he turns up as a bit player in tv shows, in late night movies as you channel surf, in parades on tv, even in commercials. You hear a word you've never heard before and everyone is using it. Each of those new occurrences is a distraction from your normal pattern. You are paying attention in a new way. Sometimes it's delightful, a new set of experiences--one of the great boons of travel and culture shock. It helps you see the world anew. Sometimes (plastic bags in trees) it's darn annoying. Sometimes (as with 9/11), tragically so, with enormous global political consequences. Are there more terrorists now, in our everyday lives, than there were before that horrific event? Numerically, probably not. For the great majority of people, not at all, but "terrorism" is now a word everyone knows and looks out for--everywhere, all the time.
Why am I so interested in how attention works? Because the digital revolution that has become so important in our personal lives, in learning, and in the work place in the last 15 years has reorganized our attention dramatically. For many, the world is full of distraction. It seems harmful. Disruptive. Unproductive. It's not, but suddenly, because of new arrangements in our lives, we are seeing things we didn't see before. It's a kind of "culture shock." If you are born into it, it's life. If you have to learn it anew, it's disruptive. It's pattern-breaking. It's paying attention in a new way. It's seeing something that may have existed before--like your tendency to "multitask" (as if living life isn't, by nature, multitasking!)--without having the firm institutions in place (like how to shut down, switch off sometime) to help you out with the busy business of life.
We think we know what "school" and "work" are but we know what the institutions of the 19th and 20th century taught us to count as "school" and "work." How we learn and how our work is organized has changed vastly in the last 15 years but our institutions are changing more slowly. We are in a transitional moment. Things seem out of control because we are paying attention in new ways all the time. We used to see the trees. Now we see the plastic bags caught in them, blowing in the breeze, but not going away. A little like life these days for a lot of people. Next time you drive along a busy highway, check out the trees. I promise you will see more plastic bags than you ever saw before. When you do, use it as a chance to reflect on all the things that are there but that you are not seeing. They exist. You just don't pay attention to them because they don't seem important and then, one day, they do.