The Eyes May Look, But It’s Your Brain That Sees

When I step outside my door, I step into a world of mostly green: trees and grass. In our subdivision, there are trees and grass in everyone’s front yards; there is an undeveloped natural area right across from my house; and to the rear, a 98-acre park, consisting mostly of wooded areas with a three-mile bike trail winding through the trees.

There’s so much green that two of my granddaughters, who have spent most of their lives to this point (6 and 9 years) in New Mexico, always comment about “so much green” when they come to visit Nina and GrandBob.

I see green, but is it really green?

According to the National Institute of Health, the eyes may look, but it’s the brain that sees.

 

How We See

There are many different parts of the eye that help to create vision.

  • Light passes through the cornea, the clear, dome-shaped surface that covers the front of the eye.
  • The cornea bends – or refracts – this incoming light.
  • The iris, the colored part of the eye, regulates the size of the pupil, the opening that controls the amount of light that enters the eye.
  • Behind the pupil is the lens, a clear part of the eye that further focuses light, or an image, onto the retina.
  • The retina is a thin, delicate, photosensitive tissue.
  • This tissue contains the special “photoreceptor” cells that convert light into electrical signals.
  • These electrical signals are processed further, and then travel from the retina of the eye to the brain through the optic nerve, a bundle of about one million nerve fibers.

But even with all that, we “see” with our brains; our eyes “simply” collect visual information and begin this complex process.

According to ScienceNordic, our brain quickly adapts to new surroundings and only sees the most important information captured though our eyes.

Certain objects attract our attention in a particular way. It could be something that is especially ugly or something that we perceive as being rather pretty.

So, what is it that catches and keeps our eye fixed to something “nice”? How does the brain choose what to observe and ignore?

Two Types of Vision

Roughly speaking, we have two systems of vision. One system prevents us from bumping into things and enables us to move around. It’s called “orientation attention,” and it operates quickly, saving energy, as the brain is not required to develop a full understanding of your surroundings.

The other system is called “discover attention.” This operates more slowly, as the brain collects information from our memory to obtain a full understanding of the scene.

An example of the two systems in operation can be seen when you walk down the street. The orientation system allows you to easily move in and out of the path of other people, and stops you from falling over or walking into a lamppost. But when your eye catches sight of something interesting in a shop window, you switch over to the discover system to get the full picture.

The object you’re looking at might seem familiar, but has a different shape or color. How long you spend looking at the object, depends on how much sense it makes to you and the number of other things you’re thinking about at that time.

How to Fix Your Attention

We use these two systems alternatively without even realizing it. Since the orientation system requires less energy, we quickly switch back to it when we have enough information.

In reality, we know that objects with certain characteristics are better at catching our attention, while others are better at holding our attention.

Reflecting on Leonardo da Vinci’s comment that “the average human looks without seeing,” author Michael Gelb invites people to improve our senses – and our minds and experiences along the way – by “seeing” like da Vinci. Saoer vedere (knowing how to see) was one of da Vinci’s mottoes, and the cornerstone of his artistic and scientific work. Use this self-assessment of “vision” to start “seeing” like da Vinci:

  • I am sensitive to color harmonies and clashes
  • I look out into the far horizon and up to the sky at least once a day
  • I am good at describing a scene in detail
  • I like doodling and drawing
  • Friends would describe me as alert
  • I am sensitive to subtle changes in lighting
  • I can picture things clearly in my mind’s eye

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, Michael J. Gelb

Spot Something New Every Day

We spend most of our time in familiar places that have lost their inherent novelty. We take these surroundings for granted, and we stop paying close attention. A recurring commute becomes profoundly numbing. Psychologists who study perception call this phenomenon inattentional blindness.

You can fight inattentional blindness by resolving to notice something different every day on your regular walks or commutes.

The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker

As for my daily walks, this week I’ve been looking at all that green, specifically the trees in my neighborhood. I’m mentally cataloging all the different species, and then noticing how they fit into their immediate environment, and to what purpose.

In other words, I’m walking with “discover attention.”

What about you? Which ‘”attention” will you use most today?

inspired by Alexandra Horowitz’s On Looking

and Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

 

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Leadership Lessons from the Sidewalk

In a recent post on walking unplugged, I mentioned that I would be walking the next day with my feet.

I wasn’t trying to be flippant – I was merely stating that your feet can tell you a lot about where you’re walking, and what you’re walking on, and in the process, you can learn a lot.

It brought to mind this post on my other website: Sometimes the Best Part of the Story is Under Your Feet.

With that going through my head, I began my walk – and it wasn’t long before I realized Leadership Lessons the sidewalk could teach me.

In a short, two-mile walk through my neighborhood, I felt and observed the following:

  • Raised Sidewalk – visible, growing tree roots: Leaders should always be looking for things that will help them grow and lift their capabilities.
  • Sunken Sidewalk – hidden sources of water: Leaders should be cautious of hidden things that will bring them down and stunt their capabilities.
  • New Sidewalk Section – replacing to make it functional again: As your leadership grows and matures, you can count on learning new ways to do some things better.
  • Clean Sidewalk – appearances matter: Leaders must present themselves in the best manner possible, which instills confidence.
  • Dirty, Stained Sidewalk – see above: Conversely, sloppy appearances give others pause.
  • Cracked Sidewalk – too heavy a load: Leaders aren’t super heroes, and must balance the “load” they carry.
  • Grass in Sidewalk – maybe lazy, but at least distracted: Leaders who allow interruptions won’t be able to focus.
  • Grass growing over the Sidewalk – know your boundaries: Leaders know that boundaries help focus attention and align teams.
  • Sidewalks – take you somewhere: Leaders don’t fly solo; they must take others with them.
  • Sidewalks – make your journey easier: Well-prepared leaders are in a better position to help others on the journey.
  • Sidewalks – make your journey safer: Leaders watch out for the safety and welfare of others.
  • Sidewalks – lift you above the road: Leaders must rise above their surroundings.

In their civic role, sidewalks play a vital purpose in city, town, and suburban life. As conduits for pedestrian movement and access, they enhance connectivity and promote walking.  Safe, accessible, and well-maintained sidewalks are a fundamental and necessary investment.

But for me, they provide great leadership lessons.

And of course, I couldn’t resist sharing Shel Silverstein’s most appropriate poem:

“There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.”

― Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

 

How to Find Something You Aren’t Looking For

Over the coming century, the most vital human resource in need of conservation and protection is likely to be our own consciousness and mental space.

Tim Wu

A runner I have never been, and not likely to ever be.

A road biker (bicycle) I once was (150+ miles per week), and plan to be again one day.

Active sports participation (first as a player on various teams, and then as an active soccer coach for 14 years) is long past.

My exercise now is walking.

Not a lot – sometimes a couple of miles a day, sometimes three-four miles daily.

For the longest time, I listened to podcasts during these walks. I would have time to listen to at least two or three, and often came back from those walks with eight-ten voice memos on my phone.

Yesterday, I walked unplugged from my phone…

 

Pay attention to what you pay attention to. That’s pretty much all the information you need.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal

While I will always be a learner, both by genetics and environment (vocation), I think that hour a day might be better put to use paying attention, and seeking to grow wiser, not just smarter.

The stimulation of modern life, philosopher Georg Simmel complained in 1903, wears down the senses, leaving us dull, indifferent, and unable to focus on what really matters.

In the 1950s, writer William Whyte lamented in Life magazine that “billboards, neon signs,” and obnoxious advertising were converting the American landscape into one long roadside distraction.

“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention,” economist Herb Simon warned in 1971.

The sense that external forces seek to seize our attention isn’t new – but it feels particularly acute today. Billboards, shop windows, addictive video games, endless news cycles, and commercial appeals tantalize us from all directions. We contend with the myriad distractions flowing through the pocket-sized screens we carry with us everywhere. By various estimates, a typical smartphone owner checks a device 150 times per day – every six minutes – and touches, swipes, or taps it more than 2,500 times.

The Art of Noticing, Rob Walker

And so I walk, unplugged.

Yesterday, I watched for American flags. In my neighborhood, I’m never out of sight of one. Some are bright and relatively new, since we are in the Memorial Day – Flag Day – Independence Day period. Others, not so much (mine included). Looking a little faded, I’ve got a new one on the way. The American flag has always been more than a piece of cloth to me. A symbol for sure, but one rich with history, sacrifice, and uncommon wisdom.

I’ve also listened to the summer sounds of a mid-morning North Carolina symphony of insects and birds. The insects I’m guessing are mostly cicadas and katydids – first one, then the another, then a whole chorus. And then quiet. And then it starts over.

With one section of my walk bordering a park and the streets and yards filled with trees, I can always hear birds – robins, blue jays, mockingbirds, crows, and more – including a nighttime hair-raising screech owl.

I listened for sounds I didn’t hear – cars up and down the street. Most people have gone to work if they’re going, and lunchtime hasn’t yet arrived. No planes on approach to CLT – that means the winds have shifted direction, and the landing pattern, often overhead, is further to the west. About a mile away, I-77 traffic is no doubt busy – but I didn’t hear it, again thanks to the wind direction.

Tomorrow I’m walking with my feet. Well, of course I will. But I’m going to “listen” to what my feet are saying about the path I choose, and see what I can learn.

When you actively notice new things, that puts you in the present…As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging, and it turns out…it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.

Ellen J. Langer

 

inspired by The Art of Noticing, by Rob Walker