“The true art of memory is the art of attention,” wrote Samuel Johnson. Wise words, indeed, but what exactly is this art? Do we really know what it means when we say we are paying attention to something? One possible answer comes from another literary source that, while admittedly fictional, provides a great deal of insight into what it is that distinguishes actual attention from simple looking: Sherlock Holmes.
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes asks his companion Dr Watson how many stairs lead up to their residence, 221B Baker Street. Watson draws a blank. “And yet I believe my eyes are as good as yours,” the doctor remarks. “Quite so,” Holmes is quick to respond. But the acuity of Watson’s vision is not the issue. He continues, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” And in that distinction lies the key to the meaning of attention. It’s not a matter of physically seeing; it’s a question instead of both seeing and observing.
Our vision is highly selective: the retina normally captures about ten billion bits per second of visual information, but only ten thousand bits actually make it to the first layer of the visual cortex. To top it off, only 10% of the area’s synapses are dedicated to incoming visual information at all. Or, to put it differently, our brains are bombarded by something like eleven million pieces of data at any given time, and of that, we are able to consciously process only about forty. What that basically means is that we “see” precious little of what’s around us. Instead, our sight is selectively filtered based on any number of factors: our state of mind, our mood, our thoughts, our motivation, our goals. So, we might think we’re paying attention, but what is it, exactly, that we’re paying attention to?
Consider the so-called cocktail party effect: you are at a party, surrounded by the din of conversation, when all of a sudden, your ears perk up after someone says your name. Now you begin to pay attention. What before was a meaningless wall of noise has in that single instant acquired meaning. As a study published last year in the journal Nature showed, when we pick up on one voice and ignore others, our brains somehow discard the information coming from superfluous sources.
This basic principle governs our attention all the time. We attend to things that are somehow important to us, and fail to note those that aren’t. It’s a common phenomenon. Pregnant women start noticing other pregnant women everywhere, whereas before, everyone seemed blissfully unattached. We tend to remember dreams that then seem to come true – and promptly forget those that don’t. After 9/11, people reported seeing the number eleven everywhere, as if it had suddenly materialized out of the blue. In none of these cases does the environment change. What changes is our perception of it, or, to put it in Holmes’s words, what changes is what we observe – and in the past, just passively saw without actively noting.
Our attention is a finite resource. There is only so much of it to go around, and the choices we make about how we allocate it make a big difference in what we see versus what we both see and observe. As with most things, attention is about attaining a golden mean of sorts. Pay too much attention to one thing, and you fail to note anything else. Spread your attention between too many things, and you don’t really pay attention to any of them.