In Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn , Cathy Davidson shows us what's in front of our noses.
You warn about the problem of "attention blindness" in the information age. What is that?
"Attention blindness" is a basic feature of the brain—we pay attention to what's important at the moment by training ourselves to be oblivious to what's extraneous. There's a wonderful experiment demonstrating it, which has subjects watch a video of people passing basketballs and counting the passes. Then someone in a gorilla suit strides through the video—but most subjects don't see the gorilla because they are counting passes! With the rise of the Internet, we're in a liminal moment when we can count basketballs and see the gorilla—my metaphor for the monumental new thing. Pundits say, "The Internet is ruining our brain, we can't concentrate anymore," but we shouldn't miss the creativity of this transitional moment.
Are modern office workers too distracted by multitasking?
We're always multitasking; there's no such thing as mono-tasking. The most distracting thing in the workplace isn't e-mail; it's a life event like divorce, a child or parent in trouble, a disease. Still, it's weird that we work in an office environment that's constructed to keep us isolated and on task, yet gives us a desktop computer that brings the world to us in one click of a mouse. You get Aunt Em's banana-bread recipe along with urgent e-mails from your boss about the spreadsheet or from your child's principal saying your kid got in a fight. We need systems that help filter our attention, and I give examples in the book.
You're a fierce critic of conventional education. What do video games teach kids that traditional classrooms don't?
I was in a faculty seminar studying games as learning tools, and we all had to learn a game. I chose the one everyone hated—Grand Theft Auto. It took me months to kill the little old white lady, but I did—and what happened? She turned out to be Tony's mother, and Tony was after me! No one told me that when I played this horrible, violent video game, I would not only learn dexterity and sociology, I would learn practical and moral causality. I had to deal with the complex social repercussions of violence: friends of Tony's were suddenly my enemies. And I was learning those consequences in a situationally powerful way that said, "Cathy, you think it's good to kill a little old lady hobbling down the street? You are a loser!" It's not a bad way to learn.