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Reblogged from Bookface: A Reader’s Online Diary

MONDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2011

Now You See It, by Cathy N. Davidson

I began this book tentatively, ready to set it down at the first sign of boredom. Given that it’s a book about the science of attention, this preconception already amused me. My attention, however, never wavered. In fact, if I’d been reading a paper copy rather than the e-book, the pages would have been drenched with highlighter ink and margin scribbles.

Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke University, opens the book by citing a famous experiment which took place some years ago. I vaguely remembered reading about it at the time, but I didn’t quite get the impact until she elucidated. Researchers asked subjects to watch a videotape of people in dark and light shirts throwing basketballs back & forth between them. How many basketballs do the white-shirts throw? asked the researchers. The subjects focused all their attention on the basketballs flying hither, thither and yon. Almost none of them noticed the gorilla that walked onto the court, beating its chest and doing a little dance. It sounds incredible, but as Davidson explains, when we’re intensely focused on one thing, we can overlook a gorilla. And, unless someone else spots it and mentions it, we won’t ever know that we overlooked it.
Now You See It examines why we pay attention to the things we do, why that may not be such a great idea in the present age, and how we might re-learn to pay attention to give ourselves more of a chance to see the gorilla as well as the basketballs. An unnoticed gorilla, after all, might be a very dangerous thing.  We need to learn new ways of seeing: “For over a hundred years, we’ve been training people to see in a particularly individual, deliberative way. No one ever told us that our way of seeing excluded everything else. It’s hard for us to believe we’re not seeing all there is to see.”
Davidson’s specialty is education, and she immediately pounces upon the oft-heard criticism that children today are being ruined by the internet and electronic games. Look at our current standard education system, she insists: Everything about it, including classroom design, is set up to crank out graduates ready for life in the industrial society. The problem? We no longer live in an industrial society.

Think about our kids’ schools. My grandmother came to this country in steerage, by steamship, but when I look at the photograph of her standing tall and proud in her eighth-grade class in Chicago, surrounded by immigrants from other places, the schoolroom itself looks entirely familiar. Her classroom could be plopped down almost unchanged in any large, urban public school today. What’s more, many features of that classroom and what she learned there were structured to help her adjust to the new industrial, manufacturing-based economy she was entering. That economy, as we all know, has been transformed irrevocably by globalization and the changes wrought by the information age. If kids must face the challenges of this new, global, distributed information economy, what are we doing to structure the classroom of the twenty-first century to help them? In this time of massive change, we’re giving our kids the tests and lesson plans designed for their great-great-grandparents.

As our environment changes, Davidson maintains, our brain adapts. New technologies have always made us anxious, but over time, we learn to manage. The internet is not necessarily fatal to young brains.

A chief concern is speed. Trains, bicycles, and especially the automobile (the “horseless carriage”) all seemed to push humans beyond their natural, God-given, biological limits. Early critics of the car, for example, simply refused to believe they could be safe because, after all, human attention and reflexes were not created to handle so much information flying past the windshield. That debate reached a crescendo in 1904, when the Hollywood film director Harry Myers received the world’s first speeding ticket, when he was clocked rushing down the streets of Dayton, Ohio, at the death-defying speed of twelve miles per hour…

What this line of argument overlooks is that the brain is not static. It is built for learning and is changed by what it encounters and what operations it performs. Retooled by the tools we use, our brain adjusts and adapts…

We have heard many times that the contemporary era’s distractions are bad for us, but are they? All we really know is that our digital age demands a different form of attention than we’ve needed before.

For those Luddites among us, this is but one of Davidson’s eye-opening statistics:  “By one estimate, 65 percent of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet.” In other words, training for specific trades or skills is a thing of the past. Children today need to learn how to learn, and like it or not, the internet plays largely in today’s world.

In addition to the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic, kids should be learning critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and problem solving, all of the skills one can build upon and mesh with the skills of others. We need to test students on how critically they think about the issues of the digital age—privacy, security, or credibility. We could write algorithms to test how well kids sort the information that comes at them, how wisely they decide what is or is not reliable information. It would also be easy to assess the effectiveness of their use of new technologies and all the multimedia tools not only at their disposal but more and more necessary for their future employment. If you can’t get on Twitter, you haven’t passed that test.

In one engrossing section, Davidson focuses on an infant and how “Baby Andy” learns, almost from the day of his birth, what warrants his attention.

Not only is attention learned behavior, but it is shaped by what we value, and values are a key part of cultural transmission, one generation to another. The absorption of those values into our habitual behavior is also biological. We change brain pathways, and we make neural efficiencies when we learn. That is the physiology of attention blindness. Of course those values change with time and circumstances. We are constantly disrupting previous patterns and forming new ones…

In the nursery that we learned that the world is far, far too vast to be mastered one bit at a time. We need to organize all the stuff of the world around us. We need priorities and categories that make navigating through life easier and more efficient. And that’s exactly where we get into trouble…

[Baby Andy’s mother uses] a high, lilting voice that she doesn’t use with anyone else. Linguists call that voice, with its special sounds, inflections, vocabulary, and syntax, Motherese. It turns out that American mothers use Motherese statistically more often than just about anyone else on the planet. Asking babies questions and then answering them also turns out to be how you build a specifically Western baby. That question-and-answer structure is foundational for a lot of Western linguistic, philosophical, and even personality structures, extending, basically, from Socrates to The Paper Chase to Hogwarts. We want to build an Andy who asks questions and demands answers. When his mother coos at him, we can call it love. Or we can call it being an American. Love may be natural, but how we express it is entirely learned and culturally distinctive…

 Ethnographic studies of preschoolers using picture cards and other games show that they develop a remarkably accurate map of the subtle socioeconomic, racial, and gender hierarchies implicit (and often not explicitly articulated) in a society. Even before they can talk, infants are able to understand the dynamics of fear in their society. Babies being walked down a city street can be seen to bristle more when they pass adults of a different race, although in America, tragically, black babies, like white babies, are more likely to be frightened by an encounter with a black male stranger than a white one.

But the brain is, of course, plastic. Just as we can learn, we can un-learn and re-learn. And, Davidson says, we must re-examine how we learn. Rote memorisation is a relic of that industrial age of the past. It doesn’t give kids any significant problem-solving skills, nor do anything to nourish creative thinking. She makes a compelling case for educational games. The older readers among us might stiffen as we read this, but deep down we know that it is possible to learn and have fun at the same time. She responds to the tired allegation that the Columbine shooters played violent video games, ergo video games produce mass murderers.

Of course some video games are appalling in their violence. And of course there are horrific school shooters who play video games. If 97 percent of teens are now playing games, there is likely to be, among them, someone seriously disturbed enough to perpetrate a tragedy. Or to win eight Gold Medals in swimming at the 2008 Olympics. Or to do just about anything else. If nearly everyone is playing video games, we’re not talking about a social problem anymore. We’re talking about a changed environment.

Not only does Davidson recommend re-tooling our school systems, she says we’re long overdo to revisit how we work. Few of us clock in and out anymore; the borders between work and leisure are blurred. In fact nearly every border in the workplace is blurred. She mentions a team of software engineers — 1 in the US, 1 in the UK, and 1 in India, all women. Despite the differences in culture and geography, they’ve worked together fabulously, and one remarked, “It would be a shame to separate us.” That comment would have been nonsensical in the pre-Internet days. It’s remarkable now.

Another man has founded a hugely successful software testing firm. Such companies are infamous for high employee turn-over and erratic work results. Simply put, few people want to sit in a cubicle, day in and day out, staring at computer code, looking for inconsistencies and bugs. The company’s founder realised, after watching his autistic son, that this would in fact be the dream job for someone with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. So that’s who he hires. A windowless cubicle with no human distractions, spending hours looking at patterns and numerical sequences — these folks love their jobs. What was once considered a handicap is now their greatest strength in the workplace.

Davidson also profiles that historically stodgy conservative company, Big Blue. I was dumbstruck to read that IBM now conducts many of its international brain-storming meetings on-line.  Teleconferencing? No, that’s too 20th-century. They are meeting — or more precisely, their avatars are meeting — in Second Life, the virtual reality environment.

IBM has its own “islands,” or virtual meeting spaces in Second Life, for its employees. And it’s not the only company there. About thirteen hundred organizations and businesses now hold meetings in Second Life.

Tony O’Driscoll, an HR expert, attends a meeting using an avatar named Lawanda, an overweight black woman. “Lawanda” is on a mission to show her co-workers their own biases in a way they won’t forget.

As an HR expert, she knows why she’s being ignored. She’s read all the research on weight bias, especially against women—how college students would rather have a heroin addict for a roommate than an obese person, how being even fifteen pounds overweight means doctors take you less seriously and are more likely to misdiagnose and undertreat you, and how, in business, being overweight lowers your chances of being hired or promoted. She also is familiar with the research on how women executives are paid less, promoted less, and given less credit for their ideas than their male counterparts. And she knows the even more depressing studies about African Americans in the workplace, including one conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT. They sent out the exact same résumés, changing only the names—such as switching a name like Lisa to Lawanda—and found that applicants with black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to be contacted for a job interview.

After a few minutes of the meeting, seeing that the other avatars were not treating Lawanda equitably, O’Driscoll suggested they all switch to an alternate view that Second Life provides — it’s a view from above, allowing all the participants to view the whole transaction from a distance. Immediately, nearly everyone spotted that they were all excluding Lawanda from their conversations.

“That moment,” O’Driscoll says, “is almost impossible to duplicate in real life. The ability to see yourself as others see you.” What’s equally important, he says, is then deciding, if you don’t like what you see, to make a correction on the spot and do it better the next time.

Now You See It is loaded with examples of educational and workplace innovation. Davidson makes sure that you see it, and see it, and see it again. She backs it up her success stories with brain science. This book should be on the curriculum of every teaching college in the world, and I wish politicians would take the time to read it before passing benighted legislation like “No Child Left Behind”, which is devised to prepare American students for life in the 19th century. This is an exciting, optimistic, inspiring book. It gave me the sense that I could not only see but maybe even befriend that gorilla.

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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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