by Carla (Nelson) Berg
A small incident the other
day reminded me how often I automatically filter out things I don't think I
"need" to see. Literally.
One of my friends kept
mentioning that she and I must be on line at the same time. I figured she had something
like ICQ, the software that lets you track pals on the Net to see when they are online to
chat. "What's ICQ?" she asked when she wrote back, which told me that wasn't
Then when I went to a
message board she and I both visit, it hit me between the eyes: the messages had
"time stamps" which showed when they were posted. Her notes often appeared
within minutes of mine, which said we'd been online at the same time.
Nothing remarkable about
that -- except I'd never noticed those particular time stamps before.
The numbers didn't
register in my visual field, even though they were right next to the dates which I do scan
daily. Intent on surfing the month/day string to find notes I hadn't yet seen, my
auto-filter blocked out the part that noted the time. Since I didn't need to know the
time to find what I was seeking, it was as if that part of the text didn't exist.
Having a mind that scans
like a high speed searchlight comes in handy at times. But it can also be a bit scary in
terms of what one fails to see beyond the boundary of that beam.
Auto-Filtering: I've long known I am almost "hyperlexic" in terms of
reading speed, but until scanning text on computer screens became routine, I didn't
reflect on the process. I just noted I read extra-fast and left it at that.
In the early days of
computing, it was common to see vast quantities of plain ascii text quickly unroll before
your eyes. Only then did I became aware I was constantly filling in gaps in the eye of my
mind. I'd glimpse part of a word or phrase flash by and my brain inserted the rest. But it
only became obvious when the text sped by line by line, and I had to break stride when my
hunch was wrong.
When reading a printed
page, this process is self-correcting. All of the words are there to see all at once; you
don't have to wonder what's coming. But when pages unroll on screen, there is time to
anticipate and then see your mistakes.
No wonder I am so lousy at
catching typos, I laughed when it hit me. I see what I think is supposed to be
there based on a pattern-matching scheme that detects the "gestalts" of whole
words, and as soon as the pattern makes sense, I bounce on to the next.
So intent am I on
digesting ideas, I swallow words and phrases whole; the individual letters are only
footprints on a path to larger game.
Seeking: All the above reminded me of something I
read years ago, early in learning about the mechanics of attention. It struck home so much
it's stuck in my head ever since. Educational psychologist, Sidney Zental, who does
clinical studies of learning differences, said some kinds of minds instinctively target
the most "salient" things in sight, nearly oblivious to the rest.
When I shared that
observation online, it provoked a debate between some clinicians about what salience
meant. Some equated it with "prominence" -- what was the literally largest or
hardest to miss. Others saw it as a synonym for "significance" or
Salience can, in fact, be
read either way, but the context in this case was about significance and personal
relevance, i.e. "which parts of what there is to see matter most to me?"
That is a different
question than "what is here to be seen?" This does, of course, get
bouncier brains in trouble at times.
Looking for Lions and Bears: Thom
Hartmann explores some of this in his book ADD: A Different Perception. People with
"Hunter" style minds, he suggests, are seekers who perpetually scan the mental
landscape looking for virtual lions and bears to tackle.
Being able to filter out
non-essential stimuli on the fly might have been an essential survival skill back when our
forebears roamed among lions for real. Anyone who lacked that ability might have quickly
become a lion's next meal.
So it is, Hartmann
speculates, Hunter types of today might literally be genetic descendants of ancient
trackers, extra- adept at seeking the strongest scents while blocking out what's
Hand down these traits for
thousands of years and we arrive at a common modern conundrum: How a bouncing-brained
child can't stick with his homework unless chained to his desk, but can lock on like a
laser to a video game for hours.
If you understand the
dynamics of stim-driven psyches, it's not such a mystery. The game is extremely salient,
firing up his prey-seeking side; the homework isn't. Attending to things he doesn't feel
driven to know feels about as natural to him as walking pigeon-toed.
on prey: It was rather disconcerting to be reminded again the extent to which
my mind works in similar ways, so intent on its own brand of prey, it doesn't see words
that get in its way.
I may not fit the typical
profiles of cant-focus distractibility, but my psyche is just as much a heat-seeking
missile as a hyperactive kid who can't sit still. His body is wired to get up and move,
seeking physical stimuli, while I am wired to roam through forests of words, pouncing on
new concepts to chew.
Each of us resemble
Hartmann's "Hunters" in our own ways, pulled like magnets to the most personally
salient parts of our environments. But where hypermental me gets some strokes for reading
and learning quickly, hyperkinetic he may only get grief for fidgeting in his seat.
"hyperness" is cerebral and cognitive, I might be tagged an absent- minded
professor type and given permission (to an extent) to forget what day it is when I am
overfocusing on my work.
But my hyperkinetic cousin
might only be called a space cadet or worse. Even if the forces that drive him aren't
so different from mine.
And even if he is every
bit as bright.