copyright notice
 

Having a mind that scans like a high speed searchlight comes in handy -- but it can also be a bit scary...

   .

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

1.5 
Salience Seekers
Hunt for Attentional Prey

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 it. 

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. 

Salience 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 importance. 

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 irrelevant. 

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. 

Intent 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. 

Because my "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. 

- o -

 

  

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

..

.

.

.

.

Attending to things he doesn't feel driven to know is as about natural for him as walking pigeon-toed...

Related links:


Surviving Sane Index

Carla's Collection

Hyperthink/Ink Index

Back to previous chapterAhead to next chapter 

Copyright 1997, the Professional Resource Group, Carla (Nelson) Berg, and the individual authors who reserve all rights to their own works. So long as this copyright notice remains intact, permission is given to copy this article for personal use, or for viewing by members of non-profit groups if no cost is attached. Web links are encouraged, just please let us know via email as we may wish to cross-link with you. For all other uses, including reprinting for any commercial purposes, please inquire via email to bouncingbrains@yahoo.com

 

 

About the author: California science and health writer and veteran newspaper columnist, Carla (Nelson) Berg, is host of www. bouncingbrains. com and publisher of its digital magazine, HYPERTHINK_INK. She is also leader of GO MIND, the Mind-Brain Sciences Forum on CompuServe, a meeting place for mind professionals, and co-leader of GO ADD, where she has been a long-time advisor to adults and parents dealing with attention differences and a virtual talk show host interviewing specialists. The mother of two ADD teens, she jokes that she is also "clearly a source of their bouncing brain genes."