Monday, January 5

The Basketball Game

Here's the link to OVGuide's video copy of CNBC's hour-long investigative report, Crackberry'd: The Truth About Information Overload, first aired January 4, 2011.  The centerpiece of the report is a very short video of a basketball game practice session that was designed as a psycho-epistemological test.  The viewer is given a simple counting task while watching the practice.  Then after the test ends the tape is played at a slightly slower speed to show the viewer what he missed.  The revelation is so astounding it can be a life changer.

If this is your first encounter I'd strongly recommend that you take the test cold, as part of watching the CNBC report. But for people who like to read the last page of a mystery novel first, here is a YouTube video of just the experiment with accompanying text that gives away the plot -- although providing the viewer with some advance idea of what's actually happening during the basketball game might make no difference to the test.

The test was used by CNBC to demonstrate that the human brain is not wired to multitask. It was also used by a defense attorney in a murder trial to challenge eyewitness testimony; jurists later explained that it was mostly on the strength of the test that they turned in a not guilty verdict. 

The question I ask is whether the test is indeed a fair demonstration of the brain's difficulty with splitting its attention, or whether human attentiveness has degenerated -- or a combination of the two factors.

I was reminded of the basketball game recently when I explained to a repairman a problem with a washing machine. I was struck by the 'attitude of listening' that came over his face and manifested in his eyes. He was giving my words his full attention.  I realized I wouldn't have to repeat my explanation or any part of it -- repetition being such a common feature of modern life that it's done unthinkingly.

So notable was this demonstration of fully focused attention that I had to restrain myself from asking the man, who had a Mexican accent, whether he was from rural Mexico.  I'm now sorry I didn't bring the conversation around to the topic of exactly where he hailed from. In my travels I'd noted that villagers in remote regions had concentrative powers that seemed extraordinary by modern standards, powers accompanied by feats of memory that are also considered extraordinary. 

I have wondered many times if these extraordinary mental powers are the way all humans were before literacy, although not all the villagers I encountered were illiterate -- and certainly the Mexican repairman wasn't illiterate.

George Gurdjieff made a huge issue about the poor attention span of modernized peoples; one might say it was the 'chief feature' of his teachings. He made these observations long before the advent of digital attention distracters.  He even concocted his own test of attention that greatly predated the one represented by the basketball game. 

His three-part book, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson or An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man contains sentences that are paragraphs long -- some as long as an entire page -- and filled with made-up words of several syllables that are a hodgepodge of Russian/Central Asian languages, English, etc.

My first experience with trying to read Beelzebub's Tales was that I fell asleep after struggling to mentally process a few sentences, or was unable to remember a word I'd read by the time I got to the end of a page. At one point I contemplated standing on my head while reading, in hopes the additional blood supply to the brain would help my concentration.

Finally I blurted angrily, "I will not be beaten by words on a page. I can do this."  I then turned the book upside down and forced myself to read and reread a page in that manner until out of sheer desperation, it seemed, my brain entered a realm of greatly heightened concentration -- a supreme effort that was physically exhausting.

Beelzebub's Tales wasn't Mr Gurdjieff's only test to back his argument that modern peoples had such a limited attention span they were literal sleepwalkers. I'm not sure he proved his argument that the limited attention represents an actual stage of sleep.  But at the least, the disciples who had the mental grit and stamina to endure the physical training he put them through were living demonstrations that with supreme efforts humans can accomplish feats of concentration that to all appearances are superhuman.

Would trained attention produce a human brain better suited to the modern era and the demands of multitasking?  I think that's a dangerous question given the very low character of modern peoples, which is marked by a maniacal overestimation of their intelligence. 

Granted, the mania is not new. Old world history and parables are littered with tales of people who developed supernormal powers along with an inflated view of their intelligence but whose character was so bad they quickly brought themselves down.  It's the story of the mythic fall of Atlantis.

In any case the last we need in an era of rampant bad character and puffy heads is millions of idiots with the concentrative powers of a god.  And so I venture the human race is slated, at least for now, to struggle along with quite average concentrative powers.

Yet nowhere is it written that our attention must be dashed into so many shards by blind misuse of modern technologies that our mental and physical health are harmed and we're a serious danger or inconvenience to others.  That is the great lesson of Crackberry'd and the basketball game.

My New Year's wish is that you and I will be guided by the lesson in 2015.

I am slowing down as much as I can. I am listening as carefully as I can. I am focusing on one task at a time as much as I can.  And, taking a page from Mr Gurdjieff's teachings, I am struggling to keep remembering my aim to think more about where my attention is at any time.


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