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By Samantha Reid
Picture an ordinary city street: there’s a man walking his dog, someone delivering the mail, a car driving by, a neighbor looking down from her window. Each perspective is different, all within the same experience.
While we know that what we personally experience is the product of what we perceive, what we don’t often talk about is why we have what Alexandra Horowitz describes as “adaptive ignorance,” or how we somehow overlook many crucial aspects of our lives (reasons to be grateful, other perspectives, and so on).
Is there a purpose for our individual, subjective experience of things, and if we could broaden our understanding to perceive more than one perspective at a time – or be open to truly bearing witness to the extraordinary within the ordinary – would it make our lives more fulfilling?
In her book, “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes,” she tests her hypothesis by taking walks with a series of different people, including an urban sociologist, the well-known artist Maira Kalman, a geologist, a physician, and a sound designer, a child and a dog. She asks them what they see, how they see it, and why most of us do not see the same things.
It not only reveals the power of human attention, but also what it means to truly be an observer of the world.
Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.
By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.
She argues that adaptive ignorance is important, as it is our ultimate concentration tool. It allows us to savor each unique layer of life by being able to see it on its own. At the same time, the inability to see with dimension – or perceive outside of our default – limits us in a pretty profound way. She says it’s imperative that we are both able to focus on the minutiae, but still able to observe the parts of the world, and our lives, that would otherwise go unseen and unremembered.
Simply giving a name to a sound can change the experience of it: when we see the thing that clatters or moans or sighs, we hear it differently.
Ultimately, it’s realizing that a hyper-focused life is not necessarily a happy one, nor is it often objectively perceived. The things we do when we procrastinate, or the things we do when we’re just “wasting time” (such as the walk to work) are crucial. A too heavily focused mind is one that’s narrow; one that allows itself to roam, however, can learn.
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