The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.
When I get home from a social gathering, I am often asked a series of very specific questions. What decorations did they have? What was Tina wearing? What kind of cake did they have? My answer is usually, “I dunno…”.
It’s not that I don’t notice things; I just notice different things.
When you leave a place, how much do you remember about it? If someone asked you the color of the wall in your friend’s living room, would you know? Do you notice what people are wearing?
One study found that the retina can transmit information to the brain at the rate of ten million bits per second, but only a tiny fraction of that information reaches our conscious thought. While receiving visual input, we’re also hearing things, smelling things, feeling things, and maybe tasting things. Our minds are simultaneously occupied with thoughts that are unrelated to our senses. Although all of the sensory information is available to us, we’re accessing only a very small part.
I recently did a little experiment. While running through the woods, I glanced in a particular direction, then looked away. I thought about what I saw and identified particular things—a fallen log, a small tree, several large trunks. Then I looked back and took a closer look, consciously trying to take in every detail. There was so much more than I registered in my glance. There was tall grass, smaller plants, a bird—tons of stuff. All of those details were there in the glance; they just never made it to my conscious mind.
While on the same run, I intentionally let myself get fixated on a challenge I was having at work and go deep into it. Then, like when the music stops in musical chairs, I suddenly and totally concentrated on my senses. I heard birds, I heard traffic, I saw the details of the path ahead of me, I registered the smells of the woods. All of that information was available and being fed to my brain, but it wasn’t registering while I was lost in thought.
Even those trained in observation, like those in law enforcement, don’t see everything. They see the things they are trained to notice.
Each of us notices different things—but it is also true that some notice more than others. Some people don’t pay much attention to their surroundings, while others “see” a lot more of what is going on around them.
For me, this was a revelation. It started me down a road of (1) trying to notice “more” of what my senses tell me, and (2) being specific about what I notice.
On the first point, paying attention to what our senses are telling us is part of being present generally. This means always directing part of our brain to be in the moment and focused on the here and now. For many of us, a lot of our attention is on the past or the future. We end up passing through the present on the way to somewhere else and missing it. Being present keeps us more in sync with the world around us.
What we Notice
Another interesting question relates to what we notice. Of all the things I see (or hear, smell, touch, or taste) what do I care about and why? Do I care about the color of the wall in my friend’s living room? Not really—that will always be part of the visual data that won’t make it into my RAM. But more important than what we don’t notice is what we do notice. I try to notice small changes in the weather, plants and animals, changes in my own state (physical, mental, and emotional), and people. Paying attention to people can be fascinating and very beneficial. What people call “insight” is often just an awareness of someone’s emotional state, which can be obtained by paying attention to their facial expression, their body language, or how they speak. I’m certainly no expert, but even a basic awareness of these aspects can have immediate benefits to our personal relationships.
The potential for awareness is also one more argument against the propensity for boredom. People who become bored because nothing interesting is happening don’t notice that there is always something interesting happening. With very few exceptions, every moment we have will contain something that is new, interesting, exciting, or beautiful—we just have to be aware of it.