Sleight of Mind

An old college friend we called Honest Jim used to say, “The hand is quicker than the eye, but they’re both quicker than the mind.” I no longer remember what first occasioned this remark, but it anticipated a relatively recent coinage in psychology known as “inattentional blindness.” In effect, you don’t see what you’re not paying attention to, even when it is staring you in the face. Stage magicians have long made use of this precept when putting one over on their audiences. Yes, the hand is quicker than the eye, especially when one’s attention is artfully directed elsewhere. Las Vegas pickpocket artist Apollo Robbins noted, “It’s all about the choreography of people’s attention. Attention is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”

Psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock introduced the concept of inattentional blindness when they published their book of the same title in 1998. They described a series of experiments in which test subjects who were asked to pay attention to particular objects on a computer screen often failed to notice other conspicuous objects on screen that were in plain sight. In one notable example, half of observers watching a basketball game failed to notice a man in a gorilla suit who walked on screen, stopped to face the camera, thumped his chest and then walked off. "I came away from our studies convinced that there's no conscious perception without attention," Mack concluded.

Why do we only see what we are looking for? Start with the fact that we are being bombarded with visual stimuli all the time, way more than we can consciously absorb, so we have to decide what to pay attention to. No doubt there are sound evolutionary reasons for focusing on certain things that are most necessary to our survival: food, sex, danger. Things that move tend to attract our attention, because they are most likely to be predators or prey; ditto certain pleasing attributes we associate with the opposite sex. Over time we develop various habits of seeing, visual shortcuts that enable us quickly to find what we are looking for without getting distracted by everything else in our field of vision.

For a photographer or other visual artist, those habits of seeing are blinders that have to come off. There must be a reversal of field so the conceptual framework through which we normally view the world becomes the background, and the raw input of our visual cortex becomes primary: color, shape, texture, light and shadow. There is nothing magical about this process. The artist learns to attend to what the mind seeks to point away from. Think of it as a kind of reverse sleight of mind. In order to see, there is no need to go looking elsewhere for anything. You just have to pay attention to what is staring you in the face.

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