There’s too much reality happening for a person to take it all in. Human brains have this marvelous facility we call attention, that allows us to filter the firehose of information that’s coming in, and winnow it down to a useful set of things we can use to get stuff done. For something to be in our attention, most everything else is out of it. Attention excludes things, on purpose, because of the reality that we would be crippled if we attempted to take in even a tiny flake of what reality is.
So this exclusion is necessary, but it’s also bad in a certain way. You can’t understand, react to, or integrate information that you’re ignoring. This post is about helping to understand our own limitations and improve on them, by becoming more conscious of the facts.
As a useful myth to help me make sense of attention and reality, I’ve adopted the radio station. When you tune into a radio station, you can listen to the music there. But you also know that there are 12 other radio stations, which are passing through your body invisibly at every single moment. They’re there, but you’re not tuned into them and that’s OK.
Consider a time when you were in a group of people. Maybe it was a meeting at work, at a meeting of a masonic lodge, or when you were at a sporting event. What are the “radio stations” of human signals that are playing here?
- The actual words coming out of people’s mouths, and what they mean
- The relationships between the individuals
- How each individual is thinking or feeling.
There are many other “radio stations” but these three will do for the example. Most of the time, most of us are listening to the first channel. We listen to what people are saying and take it at face value. We try to evaluate whether it makes sense, and whether we agree.
The game though is to shut off your default radio station, and “tune to another station” and observe what’s happening. Try for example ignoring every single thing that comes out of people’s mouths, and instead focus on body language. What can you tell about people’s relationships in the room on the basis of how they hold themselves?
Usually just a few minutes on a given radio station is enough. This is just an exercise in focused attention & perception. As you do it, you’ll start to notice things, which will further guide your attention.
For the third channel – focus on just one person with your attention. Look at their hair, clothes, posture, and facial expression. Did they sleep well last night? What is their mood like? Are they engaged in the discussion or checked out? If you notice anything there, does it connect to what they just said (on the other radio station)?
Flip the Game on Yourself
Now, take the radio station game and apply it to yourself. Shift your attention around every few minutes, and consider the radio stations being transmitted by you.
- Every part of your body is sending information. Each feels a certain way; some are quiet and in the background and relatively content, others may be screaming
- There’s a part of your brain that’s thinking about today and making plans. What is it telling you?
- There’s a long-term part of your person that thinks about where you’re going. What is it saying?
- What is your heart rate and breathing doing right now?
The purpose of the game is to expose you to how much information is going on and how much we’re missing on the average day. It is also there to help “bump you out of your default”. However you normally approach the world, the radio station game will help get you out of that and shifted into a new perspective. It’s common to find some really fascinating information on other radio stations if you’re looking carefully.
In particular, looking at other people can be a powerful tool for developing perception and empathy.
The final takeaway for some, is a profound respect for our limitations. The more radio stations you notice, the more enormous the universe seems, and the more impossibly unknowable the universe may appear.
And if you get that far, and can relate to what I’m saying there, then maybe you’ll understand that you’ve just heard a snatch of a melody on a new radio station that cannot be named.