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.
About the Author (Author Profile)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.
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