I opened the back door and walked out past the wind blown patio onto the greening grass beyond. Not so different from any other morning since the snows melted. Immediately, my eyes were drawn to the milky orb suspended grandly in the dawning southwest sky. The moon, full and bright, called. And I gazed and gazed, fully engrossed in the wonder of nature that it is. I took out my phone camera wanting to capture this moment. Click! Swipe.
The photo didn’t do it justice. That which hung bright and bold in my eyes was dwarfed by the painting around it. And then I saw. I looked to my left, above, below, to my right and realised that by being drawn to the moon I had missed out on sensing, experiencing, everything else around me. It was time to walk and attend to this.
I believe that the correct term for my focus on the moon is visual selective attention. We, as humans, are incapable of processing all of the stimuli that we encounter and, therefore, our minds actively select that which we deem more important at any particular moment. Yet what is it that makes something more important?
When we encounter similar stimuli over a period of time and these stimuli are repeated without us experiencing any reward or punishment from them, we learn not to respond to them. Behaviourally, we become habituated. This is a valuable human response which allows us to survive in a complex environment, it allows us to ignore information which is redundant, or which we already know, and focus on that which is central to the task at hand. And it serves us well on a day-to-day basis.
At times like this, when we are in familiar environments and we encounter something new, and that something new evokes an emotional response, we tend to be attracted to it, we notice it. This is the fundamental principle upon which advertising, a trillion dollar industry, works.
As educators we need to know that this is how our students and we, for that matter, might be in a classroom setting. Learning requires attention and maintaining or focusing such attention in a space where distractions might exist is something we need to be aware of and attend to. This, in itself, is something we must, and can, learn to do.
However, in such settings, there is also a dark side that occurs when students become so fixated on one thing that they disregard the bigger picture. One place where we see this occurring is in time bound exam type situations where students may become so stressed with their inability to respond successfully to a prompt, that they cannot see beyond this. They lose track of time, they don’t respond to the all of the paper, and, ultimately, what they show us is not a valid demonstration of their understanding.
Such selectivity can also have deleterious effects in the bigger frame of life. As adults, we have been trained to perceive the world through the cultural filters that we have grown up with, or through the schemas and the expectations that we operate from. In addition, our intuitions lead us to believe that we see the world as it is, when, in fact we miss much of it. This leads to an inattentional blindness where we don’t notice things that might otherwise be important or meaningful. I remember being told in a motorcycling course I took years ago, to never assume that I was visible to other road users. This conscious perspective shift has stayed with me even as I drive, cycle, and walk in places where there is traffic – I might believe I am fully visible, and so might others, but this is not the case. Had I not taken this to heart, I might well not be here right now writing this.
It should come as no surprise, then, that unless we are actively looking, we also miss the nuances that exist. We don’t see those subtle signals that might give colour to an experience, that might give an indication of something deeper otherwise hidden. Furthermore, in this way, we also tend to overlook many of the less obvious similarities that might exist between us, those similarities that might bind us as humans. We are not just blind to others but to ourselves as well.
We are biologically wired to direct our attention, this is inescapable. However, this does not mean that we have to simply accept this as a given and move on. Rather, when we look at the world we can do so knowing that we are filtering it and, if we are adept enough, with an awareness of what these filters may be and how they may act. Such awareness is conscious and done with intent. It comes from within, from taking a step back and reflecting on where our own attention is focused and why, how we are using it and what this evokes. If we do so, knowing that all we see is a part of what is, we then allow ourselves the scope to ask the question: What else is there?
This morning, I was captured by the moon. So captured that I wanted to preserve this feeling in a photograph. Yet it was this photograph, ironically, that caused me to consider what I had missed and prompted me to go beyond that which had attracted my gaze and to see a little more of that which I was a part of.