05 January 2006

Visual thinking practice: Attention

How much do you really use your eyes in a typical day? Do you really notice what's around you, or do you hurry from meeting to meeting, deep in thought about that next appointment or the to-do list in your back pocket?

Researchers have estimated that your eyes generate more than 10 million bits of visual data every second, but your brain only digests about 40 bits, and by the time you pay conscious attention, you fully process only about 16 bits.

That's 16 out of 10 million. What are the chances that those 16 bits are the right ones?

Attention is not an accident, it's an act of will. You can improve your visual acuity by choosing to pay more attention to your environment. This will help you heighten your visual sensitivity, and will also give you many moments of unexpected delight.

Here's an exercise that will help you heighten your attention, and improve your awareness of your surroundings:

1. Get a digital camera or sketchbook. If you don't have either one, you can use a stack of index cards and a paper clip. The digital camera is my favorite for this: one of the reasons I love digital cameras is that there's no such thing as wasted film -- you can take a thousand pictures for virtually the same price as one.

2. Choose a subject -- something you intend to notice that day. Your subject should be something you will be likely to see several times during the day, but that you rarely pay attention to. It could be windows, or letters of the alphabet, or triangles -- anything that you can search for in your immediate surroundings.

3. For the rest of the day, keep your eye out for your subject. Whenever you see it, take a close look at it and see what you notice. If you have a camera, take a picture of it. If not, draw a quick sketch or make some notes about what you noticed.

You will find that if you choose a new subject each day, you will quickly become far more finely tuned to your surroundings, and you will notice many things that other people simply don't see.

The phenomenon of not noticing your surroundings has been called "plant blindness" -- scientists think that the brain is finely tuned to things that move, that are brightly colored or otherwise conspicuous, and to ignore everything else. In other words, your brain is alert to notice anything that might pose a threat. This is definitely helpful when crossing the street, but maybe less so in many other situations.

There's other research that says that you pay more attention to everything in your environment when you are actively searching for something (Think about the last time you lost a contact lens or set of keys). So by searching for circles, or windows, you'll improve your ability to notice everything else.

Practice noticing the things that surround you. You will improve your visual thinking skills, and may find an unexpected treasure or two. Here are some of the treasures I've found:

- St. Louis water meters
- A day in the life of a shed
- Leaves

Visual thinking is the practice of using pictures to enhance your ability to solve problems, think about complex issues and communicate effectively. Are you ready to work on your visual thinking skills? You don't have to be an artist.

For more about visual thinking, visit visual thinking school or join our visual thinking group on Flickr.

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Anonymous said...

This is a fine essay. I am passing it on to a friend who needs some inspiration. I always find something in your blog that sparks my imagination. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

There is an interesting view regarding the subject "what do we pay attention to". It's by an swedish neurobiologist named David Ingvar who says we pay attention to things that are somehow related to something he calls "future memories", which are the little stories we create all the time about possibilities in our future. It's worth taking a look.
Best regards
Bruno Carneiro

Unknown said...

Thank you everyone!

Anonymous said...

Too little time to post a nice comment, but good job anyway on the blog. I'm actually lookign for digital camera rating sites. I'll click a few more links down on the SE results. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Is there a source for those stats in the second paragraph? I've been trying to find a source of this kind of information for some time!

Andy Smith

Unknown said...

Try Norretranders, The User illusion.

Reputationist said...

Professor Mihaly Cskinszentmialyi in his book, "Flow: the psychology of optimal experience", describes flow using the same brain processing data. His intention to is relate the phenomenolgy of positive and negative psychic energy that he connects to attention as an step towards being happy.

The positive energy he claims is the drive which we (our consciosness) humans use to push towards happiness. The negative as the entropy away from it.

My question for you is the issue of positive or negative off-base and the question of better stated for happiness is really and matter of taste?

Anonymous said...

Dave, it is very useful to condense wisdom into practice, in this case, making attention an action, a practice. I love your works.

I'm a guy fluctuating between an artist mindset and a logical person in business. When I'm creative like an artist, randomness and free thinking seems to prevail, when I'm in business mode, focus and attention seems to prevail.

I found that it is not the strength of either side of my brain brings me success. It is the dance choregraphed between these two parties that gives a uniquely creative and logical individual.

Attention given to randomness and free thinking always produces solid results. So I'm a strong advocate of capturing ideas, capturing the results of attentions, no matter how trivial it may seems, then process them later in organized fashion. This simple process/practice really proved successful for me.

Check out this "How to be Creative" drawing:

I hope the drawing can illustrate the idea better than my poor writing.