Attention Overload

| March 26, 2013

I recently parked at a roadside pullout to retrieve a cold drink from the ice chest in the back of my truck. I turned the engine off , thinking that this will be a good place to perch on the tailgate for a bit and appreciate the beauty of the day and the place. I was in one of Utah’s National Parks, scouting for a new workshop itinerary. As I stood there, rummaging through the ice for the last can of iced tea, a car parked behind me. With its motor still running, the driver’s window slid partly down to reveal the top half of an iPad aimed at the view across the road. I could smell the artificial scent of chemical air freshener wafting out of the narrow slit, and hear the loud booming beat of music I could not recognize. A second later I heard the synthesized sound of a fake shutter, the window slid back up, and the car continued on down the road, its passengers never knowing the silence left in their wake, never feeling the grit of the sandstone, never smelling the delicate aroma of sagebrush, never hearing the mocking laughter of pinyon jays, never feeling the breeze on their faces – never experiencing the place. They were there for the sole purpose of recording an image, never really disconnecting from the (presumably) urban technology-rich environment they left to get here. Same experience, different view.

This occurred shortly after reading The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist – a brilliant and deeply troubling account of Western history correlated with the evolving dominance of certain brain functions. Beyond the narrative, though, one thing I found immensely fascinating was McGilchrist’s reference to the brain as a generator of attention, and the different parts of it as paying different kinds of attention to the world. Some parts of the brain pay focused attention to things, independent of context, while others seek to understand the whole, and are more tolerant of ambiguity in details. It is the balance between these two types of attention that makes our perception of the world. His assertion is that the growing dominance of focused attention (associated with the left hemisphere of the brain) is responsible for many cultural trends in the last few centuries, and that it is leading us toward a loss of creativity, compassion, spirituality and other things we often associate with what it means to be a human being.

The experience I described above made me think about this separation between focused vs. holistic attention. The photographer was entirely interested in one focused task: to make an image he could bring back to show others – a conduit to future social interaction having little to do with the context out of which the image was taken. In the process, he was completely oblivious to the sensory and emotional aspects of the experience. His physical presence put him in a place of astounding beauty, but in many senses he was never actually there. I wondered if he even knew what was there to experience beyond a subject to photograph.

This led me to another interesting account I read a while ago. In his book Beauty in Photography, photographer Robert Adams writes:

“Our discouragement in the presence of beauty results, surely, from the way we have damaged the country, from what appears to be our inability now to stop, and from the fact that few of us can any longer hope to own a piece of undisturbed land. Which is to say that what bothers us about primordial beauty is that it is no longer characteristic. Unspoiled places sadden us because they are, in an important sense, no longer true.”

These words were written in 1996. They are as untrue today, seventeen years later, as they were then. They do, however, painfully and faithfully represent our collective Stockholm syndrome when it comes to natural beauty (and I use the word in the greatest context possible: the physical, emotional, spiritual, multi-sensory array of experiences that make such places elevate our existence as living beings). It’s not that unspoiled beauty is “no longer true,” rather it’s that we choose to believe so. We bought into the idea that such things are no longer, and are in too big of a hurry to write them off and to plan a future without them. In truth, the United States alone has nearly a million square miles of mostly-undeveloped public lands. Legal designations aside, there is still natural wild beauty to be found in relative abundance on this planet. The problem is that we stopped paying attention to them, shifting our limited resources instead to the manufactured reality of cities, gadgets, mass entertainment, the Internet, etc.

Attention is the currency of the mind. It is the hard cost we pay for having awareness, perhaps even consciousness. What we don’t pay attention to, we are not aware of, and may as well believe to be untrue or non-existent. And though many are quick to suggest that modern society suffers from attention deficit, I think it is actually the opposite that is true. We have the same amount of attention we always had. We are just spreading it too thin, and not always on the right things. We don’t have a deficit in attention, we have an overload of temptations to spend it on, and are lacking the mechanisms to properly prioritize this spending.

From an evolutionary perspective it’s easy to suggest that we are designed to pay attention to distractions: exceptional sounds, colors, shapes and sensations that may suggest social or existential threat or reward. Imagine prehistoric humans roaming their quiet world. A movement in the grass may suggest a predator or enemy, a sharp call may indicate the presence of edible or dangerous wildlife, a burst of color may be fruit or a poisonous snake, regular geometric shapes stand out from the fractal geometry of nature and may be dwellings or other products indicating the presence of unknown people. These were exceptions in an otherwise orderly world. In contrast, today, we are bombarded with unnatural sounds, bright colors, architecture and objects of interesting shapes explicitly designed to command our attention.

Attention is crucial to experience. The less of it we assign to any one activity, the less capable we’ll be of appreciating it, of being aware of all its nuances and lessons and, ultimately, the less satisfying our experience of it will be. A meal eaten in front of the TV will not be as rewarding as a meal experienced as a primary focus of attention, savored slowly and deliberately. The same is true for experiencing the wild; the more distractions we bring into it – sounds and scents and anxieties and social interactions – the less of it we experience and the more prone we are to dismiss it as lacking. This is not attention deficit, it’s attention overload. We invest our awareness in too many things and, not surprisingly, get little return from each of them.

The solution is no secret. We know it from medicine, from financial planning, and from any number of other disciplines dealing with scarce resources: stop the bleeding, close the loopholes, pool your resources, scrape your pennies, eliminate all the little things that drain your attention and squander it on things yielding little return. Use your new found wealth to purchase something important and lasting: deep and meaningful experiences.

Turn off, tune out, drop in.

Monsoon Eve

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (18)

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  1. Echoes of the Buddhist concept of “Mindfulness”

  2. Love this! I personally try to not shoot for the first day when out and hold off until I feel that connection, the wind, smell, and experience. Thanks!

  3. Wise words, Guy. I, too, have been guilty of ignoring the absolute beauty of the moment in pursuit of the ‘perfect’ image. I’ve learned to always put the camera down and simply be, for a time, wherever I find myself. And in that regard, I’m looking very forward to 4 undisturbed days alone, roaming the desert. I’ll be sure to stop, listen, see, and feel everything.

  4. Josh Cripps says:

    Good thoughts as always, Guy. I suspect that these same iPad-wielding folks who pulled up behind you are the same folks who bang on the glass at a zoo, trying to get the tiger to look at them. Yearning for a deeper connection with nature but not recognizing how to get a genuine one.

    I have to say I noticed an interesting shift in my own views over the last few years. For ages I was adamantly opposed to hiking with an iPod/walkan/whathaveyou for the precise reasons you outline here: I wanted to listen to the wind, the wsssshhhhhhhh of the trees, the babble of the creeks, and the calls of the birds. That song of the wild was to be the soundtrack for my explorations.

    Then last year I was doing the same hike over and over in a repeated attempt to create a photo. Three miles out, three miles back (in the dark), three miles out, three miles back (in the dark). On a whim I brought my iPod along and on my three mile hike back (in the dark) I popped my earbuds in. Holy cow, what an incredible experience the hike became! Instead of superseding my connection to the nature around me, the music added to it. My emotional response to the music was overlaid on and amplified my emotional response to the area. It was like a was in my own private movie, and I could choose the soundtrack (and the accompanying emotional content) at will.

    I can’t argue that the iPod gave me a deeper connection to the area, because after all, I could no longer hear the sounds of the river I was hiking next to. But I will say that the overall emotional response I had was tremendous. So now when I’m hiking in some beautiful spot and I want to underscore the emotional reaction I’m having to the area, I’ll turn on some tunes and off I go to a very profound place.



  5. I just finished reading this on my lunch break at the office, which is an extreme case of attention overload. My Monday – Friday world is a place of a multitude of short events that call out for my attention before the next event pulls me away. Days like this can leave me weary.

    The opposite is my time in the wilderness. Slowing down, getting away from distractions, and just soaking in quiet beauty can recharge my soul. Sometimes the habits developed Monday – Friday can work their way into my wilderness time causing me to rush to a place, shoot like mad, and then move on. Later I wish I had slowed down and spent more time in each place. I should take Eric’s advice and take the first day to enjoy my surroundings.

    Thanks for sharing your insight Guy. I need to remember this the next time I get out.

  6. Terrific commentary, Guy. I very much agree with the thoughts you’ve shared here.

    For me, this is one of the reasons I love photography so much: Taking a great picture – effectively capturing the essence of a place/animal/etc. and conveying the emotions that it induces in you – requires requires a great deal of focus and attention – not on your gear (assuming you’ve become comfortable enough with it), but on the surrounding environment. I find photography forces me to forget about all the worries and attention stealers in my life, and focus on becoming one with my present surroundings (as much as possible).

    BTW, thank your lucky stars that car of “disconnected” people rolled up their window and kept on going. Doesn’t sound like they would have been made for a pleasant addition to the scene.

  7. Rafael Rojas says:

    Really interesting post Guy. Very much in line with what a mindful state of of mind would suggest in order to really appreciate the moment, the place, the fact we are alive.

    It also brings to mind what Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says on his “Flow” book: “People who can enjoy themselves in a variety of situations have the ability to screen out stimulation and to focus only on what they decide is relevant for the moment.”

    Personally, I avoid at all cost to have internet, connect to social media, use my smart phone or take any gadget with me every time I go out to visit, travel and/or photograph any place.

    That might be also the reason why I enjoy so much using my old Hasselblad film camera these days…Their manual use becomes intuitive in the same way I can drive without thinking, and the lack of LCD becomes another source of distraction less…But that is another story.

    thanks for the post Guy,


  8. Brad Mangas says:

    I wonder more and more how long it will take before the vast majority of citizens become completely oblivious to nature and consider it simply something you drive through to get to another city. From my experiences we are not far from that now. A person who values nature and takes time to actually appreciate it seems to be the minority today. I’m not sure what this will result in but I can only imagine it could be devastating to the future of wild places, flora and fauna. This is a rather “glass half empty” view and personally isn’t how I chose to relate to nature and the natural world but maintains a place in my thoughts none the less. Hopefully it will allow me to give more attention to the solution rather than the problem.

    The solution to this will not come quickly but as you point out can and will come if attention is give to it. I have always appreciated your writings Guy and should thank you for the thoughts and emotions it stirs within my own life. Thank you for making these subjects a prominent part of what you do. I can only speak for myself but you do make a difference, and that is what we all need more of.

  9. Dan Baumbach says:

    Not long ago I was standing on the road just next to Curry Village in Yosemite. From the road, there’s a good view of Half Dome. A car with tourists drives by and stops. A hand with a camera pops out of the sunroof and snaps a photo of Half Dome. The car turns around and drives away.

  10. Wonderful article Guy!

    A few years ago I was exploring parts of the Grand Canyon, hiking and making images. I had just come back from a trail hike and was in the parking lot when I saw a car park as someone rushed out, ran to the edge, snapped a picture, turned around to run back to the car while excitedly yelled, “I got the Grand Canyon!” …

    Got the Grand Canyon? …

    Your article also reminds me of the way that I feel about photographers who bait raptors in order to “get the shot” … not only does baiting lack ethics in wildlife photography, but its practice lacks the patience which is the beauty behind the art of photography.
    Seems so many want the “fast food” approach to everything. I love to lose myself in the experiences, forget that time exists.

    Thank you Guy,

  11. Daniel Ruf says:

    An amazingly beautiful article, Guy. As many comments have mentioned I, too, have seen the phenomenon of the “quick snap”. In my opinion they are looking for “trophies” not experiences. The good side is they are not obstructing the landscape for very long. The bad side…they are part of an ever increasing voting block.

  12. Great article, as always, Guy. It is often a challenge for me to be truly present, and as a nature photographer, that challenge extends to my experiences in the wild. I often go out with the intention of taking a particular kind of picture under specific conditions. I tend to be product-oriented anyway, so I have to remind myself to be there first, think about photographing it later, and let go of what I hoped to find in order to see what is there.

    Sometimes the camera itself is a gadget I have to put aside for a while in order to experience a place.

  13. Matthew C. says:

    Monsoon Eve is extraordinary, one of your finest!

  14. Greg Russell says:

    I think that any of us who have spent time in national parks have experiences like this–yours, Dan’s in Yosemite, and I certainly have many of my own. I remember once, when we had just come out of a technical canyon in Zion, and we were waiting alongside the main road for our ride. People were driving by, snapping pictures of the sandstone cliffs just as you describe here. What a wonderful dichotomy: the canyoneer gets up close and personal with Zion, and the tourist grabs a quick snap on his way to Springdale or St. George or Las Vegas.

    I agree with your point completely about being present in the moment–it’s becoming a lost art, which saddens me greatly.

  15. Great article, I sometimes wonder whether it’s the joy of photography that drives me to the top of a mountain or the shear elation of being there when dawn breaks!