By Richard Smoley
Behavioural scientist Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School and Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School conducted a simple experiment to see when and whether people can detect a dodge. They recorded a speaker answering a question about universal health care (a controversial issue in the US). Then they attached the same answer to three separate questions: the original question about health care, one on illegal drug use, and a third about terrorism. Amazingly, subjects found the speaker just as trustworthy when he gave the response about health care to a question about illegal drug use – a related but different subject – as when he responded to the original question about health care. Moreover, when quizzed immediately afterward, almost none of the subjects could remember exactly what question had been asked.
Part of the reason for these findings, Rogers believes, is simply that humans have poor attention spans. Poor attention is “universal to all animals that we managed to study,” says Rogers. “Though we don’t realise it, we go through our lives detecting just the gist of what’s going on. Even if we wanted to pay attention to each answer, we would have a limited capacity” to do so. Another, related reason is that when people are listening to a speaker, they are taking in nonverbal signals such as body language, facial expressions, and likability. In short, even when doing something as simple as listening to a speaker, the audience is overwhelmed by information, enabling politicians to dodge answers without appearing to.
These findings have more than a theoretical importance. Faced with economic and social crisis, and haunted by the spectre of global conflict, famine, and environmental collapse, people are demanding change. At the same time, however, there is a widespread suspicion of all political and economic ideologies. World civilisation at this point is like a sick man who shifts restlessly in bed, unable to find a comfortable position. It may be that what is needed is not a change in ideologies, but a change in consciousness.
The problem goes deeper than merely detecting whether a politician has answered a question or not. Many of the world’s great spiritual traditions frequently tell us that we live in illusion. The twentieth-century spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff said, “A modern man lives in sleep, in sleep he is born and in sleep he dies.” The contemporary Tibetan lama Tarthang Tulku writes, “Because our powers of self-observation are usually not well developed, we are often blind to our suffering.” Could they be saying that it’s our poor capacity for attention that is keeping us in cognitive bondage?
Proposed remedies for this chronic and widespread attention-deficit disorder vary to some degree. For Gurdjieff, the answer lay (at least in part) in what he called self-remembering: an attention that is divided between the world outside and the world within. How does this work in practice? One Gurdjieffian teacher pointed out to me how, under ordinary circumstances, when you look out the window, your attention goes with it. In a certain sense you go out the window as well. Your sense of yourself is lost. To counter this, he suggested that when you look out a window, you keep some attention for yourself, even if it’s something as simple as a conscious awareness of a hand or a foot. “When you look out the window,you don’t go out the window,” as he put it.
For Tarthang Tulku, the answer lies along a slightly different route. He believes that our failure of attention has to do with a deep-seated fear of discomfort. Our suffering goes on under the surface, and we refuse to touch it out of avoidance of the emotional pain that it would bring. One alternative that he recommends is not only to touch the pain, but to explore it – to feel it as fully as possible. “Whenever we are caught in a physical or mental conflict, we can focus on it, heat it up, go into the centre of it,” he says. Going directly into psychological pain in this way will often transform it into a new, dynamic, and more creative energy.
There are many other approaches, but the point is the same: to sharpen and focus a capacity for attention does not forget what question was asked, that does not go out the window. In this the seed of will is sown. The British occultist Charles R. Tetworth writes about the training of a magician: