Image blitzes in the form of bright, eye-catching sights and signals distract us, demand our attention and blunt our senses. “Brain disorder is a cultural disorder”, is the thesis touted by Dr. Christoph Türcke.
Newspapers and books, the author says, are becoming “text-poorer and image-richer”; websites lacking multimedia content seem uninteresting; we switch TV channels anytime the tension drops even slightly, as fast, expensive changes of scene are meant to captivate viewers’ attention. Nowadays anyone seeking attention must join the ranks of the unrelenting image-barrage machine and lure users in with visual cues.
At the heart of the debate is the nascent attention deficit we are nurturing that is the result of the myriad possibilities for distraction coupled with numbing images. Given the glut of offerings all around us, we are afraid of missing something and so try to parse our attention, giving a bit of it to everything and everyone. The critique is that our concentration is dwindling due to our heightened distractibility. Loud, flashy advertising and the omnipresent din of multimedia information blunt our senses and reduce our ability to concentrate.
In psychology, attention is the measure of the duration and quality of focusing awareness on a particular topic, feature or object. Besides flashy visual and sound cues, our attention is also attracted by the relevance of the content displayed. We see a lot, but perceive and pursue only those things which are in some way relevant for us. Selecting information through selective perception is thus a natural and necessary process to avoid total overload. The question is not whether we can focus our attention, but rather when and how we focus it.
Many of the colorful and extravagant visual cues and signals used today are man-made imitations of nature: colorful males attract females with shows of appeal and strength, while the same optical cues can signal danger to potential enemies. At issue is who I am and what is relevant to me. But beware! Focusing attention on a specific characteristic can be both a selection and an exclusion criterion at once. If I am looking for pop art by Roy Lichtenstein, for example, I will certainly not be distracted by the minimalist designs of Dieter Rams.
To be noticed, you have to do more than just be loud and bright. What we find relevant are those things that satisfy our needs or create new ones. Anyone who understands that can bask in all kinds of attention.
Süddeutsche Zeitung No. 54, Feature section, March 5, 2012. Article: “Konzentration, bitte.” (“Concentration, please.”)
Ansorge, U. & Leder, H., Wahrnehmung und Aufmersamkeit (Perception and Attention), 2011.
Photo © James Forsyth