Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn - Cathy N. Davidson (2011)
Part I. Distraction and Difference
The Keys to Attention and
the Changing Brain
Chapter 1. Learning from the Distraction Experts
The slim, attractive father in the T-shirt and the loose fitting “dad jeans” twirls his eight-year-old daughter around their living room as an infant slumbers nearby. His home is neat, modest, comfortable. Here’s a good provider, a loving and reliable family man. Leafy afternoon light casts a golden glow as soothing classical music plays gently in the background. Well-being and being well infuse the scene. I know what will happen next; I’ve witnessed this scene a hundred times before. The music swells, we’re building to the happy-ever-after ending. This story will turn out fine.
Especially if I can convince my doctor to order me some Cymbalta.
That’s the move that drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company wants me to make, extrapolating from the contented man in the ad to myself, moving from my couch in front of the television to my doctor’s office where I will request Cymbalta. We’ve seen this man at the beginning of the commercial leaning his head back against a wall, his face etched in despair in a bleak hallway. By the end of the commercial, there he is, dancing with his daughter before the drug’s logo appears and the words “depression hurts” fade in and the voice-over reassures us, “Cymbalta can help.” The space between “before” and “after” is where the magic happens.1
Not by coincidence, that same space is occupied by the familiar voice-over required by the Food and Drug Administration warning of possible side effects. Thanks to FDA regulations, Eli Lilly can’t advertise on television without listing for me the possible negative consequences of taking their drug, which most of us would probably agree is a good thing, at least for consumers. For Eli Lilly, who’s in the business of selling as many pills as possible, those regulations are more of a nuisance, which is why presenting the negative side effects of a drug in the least damaging manner falls to the advertising companies who help the drug makers design their commercials. Draftfcb Healthcare, the advertising firm that holds the Cymbalta account, has the job of fulfilling the FDA requirements for stating side effects clearly while somehow distracting my attention from the mandatory but scary warnings about liver damage, suicidal thoughts, and fatality.
It turns out that Draftfcb performs this task marvelously. Its ads for Cymbalta comprise the single most successful prescription drug campaign on television, the gold standard in the competitive direct-to-consumer marketing industry. After this ad campaign began, Cymbalta’s first-quarter sales rose 88 percent, with Draftfcb credited with securing that dominance of market share.2 So, then, they are the distraction experts.
It should come as no surprise that advertisers spend millions of dollars each year studying the science of attention, both through empirical research and testing with target audiences. Draftfcb’s motto is “6.5 seconds.” That motto is based on their research indicating that a typical viewer really pays attention to only 6.5 seconds of any TV ad. Their goal is to “capture the consumer’s attention and motivate them to act” in that brief time.3 They want to ensure that we spend our 6.5 seconds of attention on “Cymbalta can help” and not on “liver damage.”
How do they do that? How do they know what will motivate us to disregard the frightening side effects and believe in the twirling promises of happiness ever after? We are rational human beings, and, more than this, we’re seasoned consumers, growing ever more skeptical of advertising in general. Yet these ads work. They convince us, even against our better judgment. How is that possible? What do the makers of the Cymbalta ad know about us that we don’t know about ourselves?
You can find lots of parodies of the Cymbalta ad on YouTube. Comedians, too, poke fun at happy ads that minimize the potent side effects, but it turns out that even this knowing attitude doesn’t make us as wary as one might expect. A study of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads presented as part of testimony to Congress found that viewers were more likely to remember hearing positive rather than negative claims in the ads by a margin of nearly two to one. Among those viewers who recalled hearing any recitation of the side effects at all, twice as many could recall the content and substance (the message) of the positive information over the negative.4
This is an alarming figure, given that the FDA maintains an entire division dedicated to monitoring and screening these ads for balance and accuracy.5 We have to wonder what we’re doing with the side-effect information on the screen. Are we tuning it out? Are we laughing at the obviousness and silliness of the positive parts of the ads and still being convinced by them? Or do the makers of drugs like Cymbalta understand our own patterns of attention and distraction so well that it’s easy for them to hide the negative right there, in plain sight?
We’ll be looking, in this chapter, at how distraction is used to persuade us to choose differently, how attention is shaped by our emotions, and how what we value focuses what we notice in our world. By looking closely at how Draftfcb assesses the components of our attention and distraction, we can begin to see ourselves better. If they know enough about our cognitive patterns to fit them to their own goals, surely we can learn how to manipulate those processes for our own success.
The Cymbalta ad runs for 75 seconds, not 6.5 seconds. Draftfcb’s job is to carefully craft the ad so our attention is hooked by the right 10 percent.6 Entitled “No One,” the commercial begins with the viewer placed in the position of the lonely outsider to his or her own life. The first scenes make us feel as if we’re watching home movies taken during some happy time in the recent past. The home video tape has a date on it: 10/17/06, roughly three years before the release of the commercial. In this narrative, happiness existed not so long ago; the proof is in the pudding of this home video with its jumpy, amateur footage, intimate and fun, its brightly colored scenes of couples and families romping together on a camping trip, acting goofy for the camera.
But all is not well. The edges of the home-video images are seared in ominous black that threatens to engulf the happy scene. The voice-over begins almost immediately, with a concerned female asking in a maternal alto rich with sympathy, “When you’re depressed, where do you want to go?” She speaks the answer—“nowhere”—as the word appears on screen, typed in white lowercase letters on a black card, as in an old silent movie. The same soothing female voice next asks, “Who do you feel like seeing?” and “no one” appears in white letters against the black background.
It’s at this point that the images begin to change. As the voice begins to spell out the symptoms of depression, we see its victims. A middle-class African American man (a subgroup statistically underrepresented in commercials but more likely to suffer from depression than white men), probably in his thirties, leans his head against a wall at a workplace, perhaps a hospital or a modern office. He looks very much a victim of depression, rooted nowhere, attached to no one. Next we see an attractive (but not too attractive) young woman in her twenties with flat black eyes and olive-toned skin. She doesn’t meet the camera’s gaze. All around her is deep black. Then a pale white woman, this one in her fifties or sixties, somewhat dowdy, sits nervous and alone at a kitchen table, fingers to her lips, her eyes wandering and anxious. It’s a broad enough spectrum of age, race, and gender to invite in almost any potential sufferer.
“Depression hurts . . . in so many ways,” that sympathetic female voice-over is saying, with pauses between the hard words: “Sadness. Loss of interest. Anxiety.” And then, with a hopeful rising inflection, the punch line: “Cymbalta can help.” Suddenly, the images of the sad and anxious individuals come to a halt. In their place is the vibrant Cymbalta logo, the antithesis and antidote to depression. It’s a whirl of innocent, exuberant energy, an almost childlike doodle of turquoise and lime green, a bit of stylistic whimsy to relieve the grimness.
If the narrative spun by the commercial seems obvious, that’s part of the point. We already know the story of this ad from a lifetime of happy tales, beginning with bedtime stories, children’s books, fairy tales, myths, and adventure stories, all the optimistic fables we were raised on. Cymbalta to the rescue! This ad is carefully crafted as a transformation story, with scenes of peril and punishment rewarded by a happy ending. We know Cymbalta will fulfill our expectations for the psychological version of the rags-to-riches plot.
And it is just then, with the happy logo promising redemption, that, with no break in the cadence of her speech, no pause or even shift in the sympathetic tone of her mother-voice, that the voice-over actress starts to list the side effects. Why here? Because this is the best place to take advantage of our mind’s training in following the very type of narrative this commercial is plying. The advertiser understands the power of associations built up over a lifetime, the cues that will help us make a leap to the way this story ends. The side-effects roll call comes at the place in the commercial where we are least likely to pay attention because our mind already knows the end to the story.
That doesn’t mean that Draftfcb isn’t going to do everything it can to lead us along, even if we already know the path. Every aspect of this Cymbalta ad is rooted in the science of attention. Not much is left to chance in a multi-billion-dollar industry.7
Music helps keep us on our way. The Cymbalta ad has a sound track, an adaptation of a poignant piece by Robert Schumann, Kinderszenen, opus 15, no. 1, the same music played in a dramatic moment of memory at the piano in the movie Sophie’s Choice, starring Meryl Streep. In this ad, the evocative music plays as a woman’s voice murmurs the side effects of Cymbalta sotto voce.
The maternal-sounding voice is carefully planned too. Like narrative, characteristics of voice come with cultural expectations and preconceptions that help to persuade or dissuade us during our 6.5 seconds of attention. We think we listen to what people are saying, but it turns out we’re a little like dogs in that we sometimes hear the tone of voice and don’t even pay attention to what that voice is actually saying. How we hear, how we listen, and how we comprehend (three very different topics, it turns out) are all relevant to the side-effect voice-over. In ordinary conversation, Americans speak about 165 words per minute. For New Yorkers, it’s closer to 200. News announcer Walter Cronkite famously trained himself to speak more slowly, at around 125 words per minute, to encourage people to pay more attention to the news. Since Cronkite, it is the convention of American newscasters to articulate slowly, especially for the most important part of a story. In general, in the American English speech pattern, our voice drops to a deeper pitch the more slowly we speak. Test audiences associate both slowness and a deeper sound with truthfulness, importance, and calm.
In the voice-over acting business, drug commercials are their own specialty niche. They require special training. For side effects, you need to speak clearly enough to pass FDA muster but you want to make sure you avoid anything that will actually capture listeners’ attention. The most common method involves using a nonconventional speaking pattern in which the voice drops, not rises, as you speed up your delivery. Standard acting classes teach you how to hit the beginnings and endings of words (think of just about anyone trained in traditional methods of British stage acting doing the “To be or not to be” speech in Hamlet). By contrast, voice-over classes help you master selective mumbling. When you deliver the news about potential liver damage, you soften consonants and end sounds, so you are speaking in a murmur as soothing and inconsequential as a parent’s babble to a baby. When you introduce the product at the beginning of the commercial and when you deliver the punch line at the end, your diction is much slower and your words are carefully e-nun-ci-a-ted.
If viewers remember the positive but not the negative content of the ad, it is because highly skilled professionals have worked hard to make the conditions for distraction possible, even probable. They have researched other technical matters, such as camera angles and speeds, cutting techniques, the science of color, and on and on. Things that we nonprofessionals think of as “incidental” have typically been tried on test audiences and are anything but. I know someone who participated in a study in which two ads were shown, one with the side effects recited with a little cartoon of a bee flying across the TV screen, another identical but for the bee. The audience was half as likely to remember the negative side effects if they watched the version with the distracting bee.8
This speaks to the power of the images in focusing our attention, and the Cymbalta ad proves a fine example of this power. As the soothing alto voice recites potential side effects, the images transform from tragic to happy: The attractive young woman isolated against the black background now smiles sweetly from the window, despite the rain; there’s more camping with couples and kids and dogs; the anxious older woman has left the kitchen table and now tenderly holds hands with an older man, presumably her loving husband, in another window, this one full of sunlight. And there’s that man, the one who had leaned his head against the wall in despair, now twirling his young daughter, nuzzling his baby. Liver damage? Suicidal thoughts? Not here! It’s all happening, the happy ending is nigh. With Cymbalta, relief is on the way.
Of course none of these techniques designed to manipulate our attention would matter if the message weren’t the one we already wanted to believe in. From infancy on, our sense of ourselves has gone hand-in-hand with our need to think of ourselves as in control (even when we’re not). Growing up in Western culture is almost synonymous with being in control, and everything about the ad plays upon that message. It is Draftfcb Healthcare’s challenge to play into these deep-seated cultural values of self-worth. The Cymbalta ad moves seamlessly across all the realms of work, home, friends, loved ones, and family. Failure at one is failure at all; the man who is in despair at work is playing with his daughter after help comes his way. Success at one is key to success at all, which means that, without Cymbalta, everything is in jeopardy.
It is a brilliant commercial, no matter what you think about the ethics of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising. In seventy-five seconds, the panoply of our culture’s values is condensed into a powerful and compelling narrative, all supported by the most sophisticated tricks of the trade. For the commercial to work, we have to be able to identify so closely with the people—actors, of course—that we see their pain as our pain, their solution as ours. If they can get past all the shameful feelings required in admitting one’s weakness and getting help, we can too. Surely you’ve seen the commercial in which the guy’s reflection in a store window speaks to him and tells him he shouldn’t be embarrassed about talking to his doctor about his erectile dysfunction. The guy listens to his reflection and walks out of his doctor’s office a taller, more potent man.
BY DECONSTRUCTING THE SEVENTY-FIVE-SECOND CYMBALTA ad, we can make ourselves aware of how unnatural persuasion is. All the components in this ad have been researched, planned, constructed, tested, edited, tried out in front of studio audiences, discussed in focus groups, re-edited, and tested yet again. Those seventy-five seconds distill hundreds of research studies, experiments, insights, acting lessons, film production classes, and more.
But what is it that all these tests are reaching for? In this case, advertisers are seeking out the very fabric of our attention, the patterns and values that we have come to see as so natural that we really don’t even see them anymore. We know what the series of images in this narrative means, so we don’t really have to think about it. We have internalized the voice cues, the swelling music, so deeply that we hear the meaning without having to hear the words. By plugging into the unconscious patterns of our attention, the only thing that really needs to disrupt our attention—the added element to the narrative we’re meant to see anew—is the drug itself. Everything else is constructed so as to be as unobtrusive as possible. And it works.
At least this ad does, here in the United States. Part of the trick is that we can be wooed by the logic of the admen only if we are part of the cultural script it writes for us and writes us into. I learned this for myself when I went to teach in Japan for the first time in the 1980s. I hadn’t intended to go, and it would be hard to be less prepared than I was for the trip. I’d been to Canada but not much of anywhere else in the world, and in a matter of weeks, I suddenly found myself living in a tiny apartment outside of Osaka, in a lovely town with only one or two other gaijin, “foreigners.” Having had barely enough time to sublet my apartment back in Michigan and pack my bags, I arrived with no Japanese and quickly enrolled in a local language school. My teacher was sure that, if I watched television commercials, I’d pick up the language quickly, because commercials often use simple language and repetition to make their point.
I admit I’m terrible at learning languages, so that may have had something to do with my confusion. But I also found that commercials were a perfect shorthand to cultural values—and upon first arriving in Japan, I had no idea what those were. So much in the commercial was unspoken, or wrapped up in euphemism, or so steeped in cultural references I didn’t know that I often missed the sales pitch entirely. I could reduce my bilingual Japanese friends and students to tears with my guesses, which more often than not were miles off the mark. Was that gray-haired man in the traditional men’s haori robe pitching ramen, funeral services, or a cure for constipation? You’d think you’d be able to tell which was which, but I was so decisively wrong so often that it became almost a shtick, a cross-cultural icebreaker, during my first stint in Japan for me to narrate what I thought was going on, which invariably wasn’t at all.
The experience of finding TV ads in Japan indecipherable made me see how attention is rooted in cultural values embedded so deeply that we can barely see them.
As such, not only is attention learned behavior, but it is shaped by what we value, and values are a key part of cultural transmission, one generation to another. The absorption of those values into our habitual behavior is also biological. We change brain pathways, and we make neural efficiencies when we learn. That is the physiology of attention blindness. Of course those values change with time and circumstances. We are constantly disrupting previous patterns and forming new ones, which puts ad agencies like Draftfcb in a position not just to reinforce those patterns, but to change them.
In ways less commercially driven, parents and teachers are crafting attention too. We’re all researching, planning, constructing, testing, editing, trying out, editing again, shaping, reshaping, and, in other ways, typically without any conscious thought, crafting our values and expectations into a narrative as compelling and as acceptable as the Cymbalta ad. Our attention in the rest of our lives is no more natural, innate, genetic, or universal than is the crafted, produced version of attention in the Cymbalta ad.
But then the questions remain: Why? Why are we prisoners of attention? How did we get this way? Why do we see certain things so naturally and miss others that seem so obvious once others point them out to us? Where do our patterns of attention come from, and do we have any say in how they are shaped?
To answer those questions, we need to go back, all the way back to the nursery, where our own brains were formed and where we learned what to value. To say that another way, in the nursery we began to learn what is important to pay attention to—and what isn’t. It’s also in the nursery that we learned that the world is far, far too vast to be mastered one bit at a time. We need to organize all the stuff of the world around us. We need priorities and categories that make navigating through life easier and more efficient. And that’s exactly where we get into trouble.
Years ago, I visited friends with their four-month-old baby. It was a large family gathering, with all the attention of parents, grandparents, nephews, cousins, aunts, uncles, plus a gaggle of friends all trained on little Andrew. Baby Andrew, on the other hand, had no interest in us. He was lying in his crib in the nursery, totally and happily absorbed by whirring fan blades making shadows and swooshing sounds overhead. When his mother picked him up and began rocking him, he began staring in another direction, oblivious to all the preening adult attention.
“What’s he looking at?” Grandfather asked peevishly as Andrew stared in rapt attention elsewhere.
A few of us squatted down beside the rocker to see in the direction that Baby Andrew was looking. That’s when we saw the light shine through the slits in a Venetian blind as the rocker moved back, then disappear as the rocker moved forward, a dramatic chiaroscuro of light and shadow that was far more fascinating to Baby Andrew than his grandfather’s attentions. So what did we do to divert him from that fascinating display and convince him to look at us instead? We did what any self-respecting adult would do. We shook a rattle at him. We distracted him from the absorbing light by an unexpected sound.
In a nutshell, all attention works that way, even for adults. Even multitasking is really multidistraction, with attention not supplemented but displaced from one point of focus to another. That’s basic Brain Biology 101. But that’s not the whole story. Sometimes there is continuity as we move from one distraction to another, and sometimes there’s not very much. Many distractions happen and are simply forgotten. Others we take with us. We apply information from one experience when we need it in another. What makes the difference between the forgettable and the important is what I call learning.
From birth on, Baby Andrew is being taught, by those smiling, rattling grandparents and everyone else, what is and what is not worth paying attention to. Light through Venetian blinds is pretty, but not worth paying attention to in most situations. We count it as a distraction. The rattle isn’t worthy of attention either, except as a mechanism for getting Andrew’s attention and trying to make him focus on what isimportant in his world: all the relatives and friends gathered to focus love, affection, and what anthropologists would call “kinship bonds” on him. In shaking the rattle, we didn’t make the light go away. We just put it in a proper hierarchy of unimportant to very important things, of things that don’t matter and other things that are worthy of attention—that is, the things we adults consider to be more important. We diverted Baby Andrew’s attention from the light in the same way Draftfcb stows the side effects.
That day in the nursery with Baby Andy happened decades ago, and grown-up Andy now has a healthy law practice and kids of his own. How did he go from fascinated preoccupation with the motions of fan blades and sunlight through Venetian blinds to passing the bar exam and raising a family? There was no rule book. And yet, if we want to understand how our attention works—and how we can be brought along by the makers of Cymbalta or stumped in times of tremendous change such as our own—we need to uncover the patterns that shaped Andy. And just as these are revealed in the Cymbalta commercial to be diverse and multifaceted, covering everything from sense inputs to values, so are the patterns that shape each of us woven together beginning in our earliest moments.
Infants are not born paying attention. When babies come into the world, they think everything is worthy of attention. They see the whole world unsorted. They use those around them—their attitudes, gestures, emotions, language—as the scaffolding on which to build their own sense of what they should be paying attention to.9 Particularly from their main caregivers (typically, their mothers), they learn what they should be paying attention to, what counts, what is rewarded, and how to categorize all that does count into language, the single best organizer of what does or doesn’t count in a society. Each language sorts and categorizes the world in a unique way, marking differences between approved and disapproved, good and bad, and other distinctions that an infant being raised into that society needs to learn.
Adults looking at infants are in awe of how “quickly” kids learn language, but, when you realize that every contact they make reinforces language in the most positive and powerful ways possible, with affection and reward being the fulfillment of the baby’s basic needs, it becomes clear that language learning doesn’t actually happen quickly at all. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become a virtuoso at just about anything worth doing. There are approximately 8,765 hours in a year, and babies are awake and getting feedback from the world a lot of that time. The process of learning the complexities of vocabulary, syntax, and grammar can extend into adolescence and beyond.10 Even the full and clear articulation of all of the complex sounds of a language (including the difficult consonant blends in English) is a long process, taking up to seven or eight years. Adult learning builds on the efficiencies of past learning—which is why it is so difficult to unravel the process in order to see how much we’ve learned.
Infant psychologists, cognitive scientists, neurologists, and cultural anthropologists have studied how infant learning happens, all in an effort to understand the boundaries between culture and biology. They have studied our developmental patterns of attention as carefully as Draftfcb has. This is important because, as we have seen, we can’t really see ourselves very clearly. Many times, we assume we are acting “naturally” when we’re in fact enacting a cultural script that has been repeated for us many times and that we are beginning to imitate even as early as four months into life.
Andy came into a very particular world with a very specific genetic inheritance. The interaction between those two things, nature and nurture, is where attention begins. We’re looking at a few minutes in the life of Baby Andrew. But look in the mirror! Baby Andy R Us. Our attention and selectivity begins here.
WHAT’S ANDREW’S BACKSTORY? BEFORE WE can even focus on seventy-five seconds in his crib life, we need to situate him, because these details, though selected randomly, will come together in all sorts of different ways to create the norms, values, and patterns that he sees as the world. Those details are analogous to the particulars in the home movie at the beginning of the Cymbalta ad, the one that makes clear we’re looking at a middle-class, nuclear family, with enough leisure to go on a vacation in a camper. In our own little scene, Andrew is lying in a crib in his very own nursery in suburban Philadelphia. Let’s say his mother is a professional woman but, as far as we can tell, she’s now devoting herself to child care. We could say, for example, that she is on leave from her city law firm to take care of him for the first six months of his life. Mother and Daddy like to believe they are liberated co-parents; they both talked for months about “being pregnant.” But, like most men in his world, Daddy doesn’t take time off from his firm for parental leave. How can he? He’s part owner of a small advertising firm. Maybe his biggest accounts are direct-to-consumer television ads, and like everyone in television, he’s a bundle of anxieties about what the move to all-digital television format, with shows on demand anytime you want them, will do to his bottom line. He can’t be taking time off to play with Andy. Someone has to be the family breadwinner.
Andy has a big sister, Ashley, who is seven. Ashley’s best friend is named Sharon. The two of them visit Baby Andy in the nursery from time to time. Andy’s parents would call themselves Protestants, maybe Episcopalian, if asked, although there was at least one great-grandparent back there reputed to be Jewish and another who was German Catholic, and they aren’t a particularly observant family in any religious tradition.
Why are these categories important? One reason is that once everything is located in a proper category, the category itself (for better or worse) answers a host of unaskable questions. A category is a shorthand. “He’s a nerd” is a categorical statement that does and doesn’t tell you much about the whole person but says a lot about a society’s attitude toward people who are focused on intellectual matters. In Andy’s case, even if no one specified the various sociological and demographic labels, there are telltale signs of what category Andy fits into, just from the seemingly neutral fact that Andy sleeps alone in a crib in his own room (that he even has his own room!), and he isn’t even weaned yet.
Andy’s too little to know it yet, but in many societies, if his parents had isolated him alone in a crib in a separate room, they’d be considered cruel and abusive. If Andy had been born in that kind of society, he’d be getting more sympathy when he whimpered over being left alone again. Not in Philadelphia, though. Be tough, little Andy!
How well Andy fares alone in his crib represents a system of values that Andy learns by example, by the responses of those around him to his behavior, or by the concern or happiness of those around him, rarely by actual instruction. At four months, he’s already aware that people pay more attention to him when he cries about some things than about others. He is already aware that crying when he’s hurt brings succor fastest. Even at four months, he’s starting to realize crying has certain powers to command attention—but also that this tactic has to be used selectively or people aren’t as nice to him. They hold him, pat him, soothe him, all of which signals crying should stop.
Four-month-old Andy is also becoming aware that not everyone cries. He’s learning that crying is a kind of alarm when he is around other infants, and he’s becoming attuned to the crying of those around him. He’s beginning to make a “how crying is valued” map of the world. Big Sister cries less than Andy, Mama cries less than Big Sister. Daddy never cries.
If we share Baby Andrew’s backstory, we might not think twice about anything in our little scene (unless we happen to be one of those psychologists, neuroscientists, or anthropologists). In situations where we share the same cultural script, we proceed as if that script were natural. In most circumstances, it is invisible. That’s what “natural” means. In certain situations, though, we are jolted from our sense of the natural and then are suddenly forced to think about how and why we have certain habits. This is culture shock. When we’re plunked down into a very different society, especially if we do not know the language and don’t have a guide from our own culture, we suddenly start seeing what is “strange” about other customs and behaviors; we also see others treating our way of doing things as strange. “Natural” is always relative to our world.
Andrew learns the rules from family members who provide scaffolding for the values he is developing. Andy’s family may not be aware they are teaching Andy what to pay attention to and what to ignore. He’d be happy watching the fan blades twirl all day, so long as other basic needs for food, warmth, protection, and affection were being met. But the rest of the family, even his older sister, has already figured out that there isn’t much reward in this world for staring at the shadows. If Andy is going to live with these bigger people, he has to learn their strange ways. That’s what you do in a new culture, and if you are Andy, you have begun to enter the culture of your parents long before you’ve even begun to speak, simply by shifting your attention from fans and Venetian blinds to faces and wordlike sounds.
SO WHAT CAN SEVENTY-FIVE SECONDS of Baby Andy’s crib life tell us about the specifics of his developing attention? Let’s see. Start with Mama bending over his crib. “Is that a cute little nose, Baby Andrew?” she asks. Andrew is too young to realize it and Mama doesn’t either, but in those few words she is helping to form many complex patterns of attention all at once. Attention is being shaped around values of “cuteness” (an idea of beauty), “little” (more aesthetics but also, when applied to a nose, with a whiff of ethnic values), and “nose” (a distinctive body part with functions that define it and that also need to be controlled). Americans, it turns out, are particularly obsessed about noses, not only their shape but their function. Americans stigmatize people of different national origins, class, ethnicity, and race based on scent, suggesting those who are not white and middle class “smell bad,” a vague value advertisers exploit extremely well. As a white, middle-class American, I probably wouldn’t have noticed our obsession with smell before I lived in Japan. I sometimes encountered Japanese, especially older ones, who would physically stand away from me and other gaijin. I asked a friend about it once and she informed me that, to Japanese, all Americans smell like wet dogs.
Mama’s question is also very American linguistically. It exhibits the habit of asking Andrew a question even though he is far too little to understand it or to answer, in a high, lilting voice that she doesn’t use with anyone else. Linguists call that voice, with its special sounds, inflections, vocabulary, and syntax, Motherese. It turns out that American mothers use Motherese statistically more often than just about anyone else on the planet. Asking babies questions and then answering them also turns out to be how you build a specifically Western baby. That question-and-answer structure is foundational for a lot of Western linguistic, philosophical, and even personality structures, extending, basically, from Socrates to The Paper Chase to Hogwarts. We want to build an Andy who asks questions and demands answers.
When his mother coos at him, we can call it love. Or we can call it being an American. Love may be natural, but how we express it is entirely learned and culturally distinctive.
Let’s say Mama turns on a bright Mozart flute concerto. “Pretty,” Mama says, pointing to the music player. She’s building values again, in this case class values, an aesthetic appreciation of a particular kind of music. That’s what Mama wants for her baby. In fact, Andrew might even recognize the music, because it was the same music she played while she was pregnant. Somewhere in the late 1990s, new audio technologies confirmed that babies can hear from the sixth month of gestation, and a smart advertising campaign was mounted trying to convince anxious pregnant mothers that, if they played Mozart, it would give their infants an appreciation for classical music that somehow would make them smarter. It is true that Andrew would be born recognizing Mozart as well as the sounds of American English and that he would be startled into attention if suddenly his nursery filled with the sounds of African music and people speaking Somali. It is not true he would be any smarter for being born used to hearing Mozart.
If Andrew’s parents were listening to him as carefully as he was listening to the languages in his world, they might also have recognized that their baby cries with an accent. This is actually quite a new discovery. A study conducted in 2009 revealed that newborns cry in the language patterns they hear in utero. French newborns cry with an upward inflection, German babies cry with a falling inflection, mimicking the speech patterns of their parents.11 Andy cries in American.
Even at four months, a number of Andy’s behavior patterns are already distinctively American. For example, he is already smiling more than his Mexican or Kenyan or Japanese equivalents would. His American parents interact with him with a lot of talking, looking, and smiling—more than parents would in most other countries, in fact.12 Smiling and crying are also Andy’s two best gambits for eliciting the much-desired touch from his American parents. American parents rank almost at the bottom on the international scale of parent-infant physical affection, meaning that we just don’t touch and hold our babies as much as people do in most other cultures. Some people believe that is why American babies are more verbally boisterous—crying, babbling, claiming attention by making noise, using their voices to claim some of the touch they crave.13 Because he’s an American baby boy, Andy gets even less touching than Big Sister did when she was his age. That disparate treatment of male and female infants is more extreme in America than in most other countries. Andy doesn’t realize that he is being touched (or not touched) American-style.14
The cognitive psychologist Richard Nisbett and his international team of researchers have now conducted dozens of experiments with mothers and children that show how radically different child rearing is in different cultures. Even how we go about communicating our social building blocks varies, it turns out. For example, Americans love to name things—like “nose” or “Dada”—for their infants. We do this far more than a Japanese, Korean, Hong Kong, or Taiwanese mother would. We’re “noun-obsessed.” We like organizing the world into categories. We like nouns and we like giving the things of the world names and labels. We might think this is natural. How else would anyone group the world efficiently? That turns out not to be a rhetorical question but one with myriad answers, varying from culture to culture.
In one experiment, in which mothers were supposed to present their children with toys—a stuffed dog, a pig, a car, and a truck—the American mothers used twice as many object labels as Japanese mothers, even with their very youngest children. The American mother would say something like: “That’s a car. See the car? You like it? It’s got nice wheels.” The Japanese mother would say, “Here! It goes vroom vroom.I give it to you. Now give this to me. Yes! Thank you.” The Japanese mothers performed for their kids twice as many social routines that introduced the concept of polite giving and receiving, and they spent twice as much time emphasizing relationships, community, process, and exchange without describing the objects themselves. They used far more verbs and fewer nouns. As Nisbett notes wryly, “Strange as it may seem to Westerners, Asians don’t seem to regard object naming as part of the job description for a parent.”15
This is how babies learn their world. They are not simply learning difference. They are beginning to chart out the concepts and the distinctions made by those whose world they mirror; they are learning the value of those distinctions and the values of those who make them.16 People depend on those distinctions and teach them to their children. But distinctions are normative, sensory, behavioral, social, cognitive, and affective all at once. Learning happens in categories, with values clumped together in our words, concepts, and actions. And this is where attention and its concomitant attention blindness come from.
WE’VE ANALYZED ONLY THE TIP of the iceberg in a scene that, so far, has probably lasted only ten seconds or so. What else might go on in this little scene? Let’s say little Andrew cries and, using Motherese, his mama asks, “Is my little Andrew hungry?” She starts to pick him up but then puts him back down, wrinkling her nose. “Stinky! Let’s get this diaper changed.” American again! Attitudes toward defecation rank way up there in the taboos and practices that anthropologists chart in every culture.
Let’s add another person to our scene. “Daddy’s here!” the mother calls out. Mama’s announcing Daddy’s arrival is another way of signaling to her baby that this is an occasion to pay attention to, a personage commanding attention. “Look! Daddy’s put away his cell phone!” Mama might add, words of praise that give weight and importance to any attention Andrew receives from Daddy. On the other hand, because attention is based on difference, remarking Daddy’s attention also suggests it’s not something that is routine. If Andrew wants to get his needs met quickly, as a general rule, he better holler first for Mama.
Again, these gestures happening in an instant do not come with lesson plans or Post-it notes or annotations. It’s how culture is learned, how attention is learned. But it is learned so early, reinforced so often, that we do not stop to think of it as anything other than reflexive, automatic, “natural” behavior. Mama reports glowingly to Daddy about how Baby Andrew stopped crying when she put on the Baby Mozart tape and says that he might even have said “Dada” today. Here we have another lesson in attention blindness in action, the sifting of the world into meaningful language. Amid all the other babbling of a four-month-old, those two special syllables—“da-da”—were plucked out by Mama, emphasized, rewarded, encouraged, and thereby given meaning along with affection. Different cultures reward early language acquisition in different ways. Perhaps not surprisingly, given our culture’s high valuation of language, in the West we consider precocious language skills as a distinguishing mark of an intelligent child. We spend a lot of time discerning words in baby babble, praising what we think are words, and bragging about an infant’s early word mastery to others.
If Andy hasn’t been fed yet because of the interruptions of the stinky diaper and the appearance of Daddy, it’s time for him to start fussing. If into our scene come big sister Ashley and her BFF Sharon and they want to “play with the baby,” it may require an actual shriek from Andrew to train the room’s attention back on his needs. He may not even notice when Ashley touches him but, if he’s fussing, Mama may well react by cautioning Ashley to be careful around the baby. If it is best friend Sharon who did the touching, Mama’s warning will be more insistent. (Yes, psychologists have studied all of these things.) “Not too hard,” Mama might warn her, a great way of communicating kinship relationships and rules, even without the help of a local Margaret Mead to describe what those are. Every society defines kinship differently, something I certainly saw in Japan when my students were baffled that “aunt” and “cousin” had so many kinship possibilities in English. We use “aunt” for the sister or the sister-in-law of a parent; “cousin” is so vague in our kinship system it basically means sharing a common ancestor. Other cultures describe familial relationships with different degrees of specificity.
When little Andy reaches up and grips Sis’s finger, everyone takes turns commenting on how strong he is. Infant psychologists inform us that strength and smartness are far more often assigned to boy infants and cuteness to girl infants, even for newborns and even when the boy is smaller than the girl in the nursery. Boys aren’t touched as much, but they are praised more for being smart.
“Señor?” a stranger says from the doorway. Mama doesn’t know she draws closer to Baby Andrew at that time, but she probably does, even as she spins around to see who said that word. She wasn’t expecting anyone. Daddy turns too, and then walks over to the stranger in the door. He pats the man on the back and, without introducing him, speaking of him in the third person, says, “Here’s our plumber,” and then walks him out the door. Mama’s shoulders relax but Andy has a lot here to figure out, and even at four months, he is starting to put together a world where some people belong, some move back and forth unexpectedly but freely, and others are really not welcome over the threshold of the nursery without special permission by those who usually are in the nursery. “Strangers” get attention. They are different; they distract.
By the normal ideas in developmental psychology, such as those advanced by the brilliant Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget, complex social ideas such as concepts of race do not really enter a child’s mind until much later, even in the early teen years. Yet increasingly, studies of infants as young as Andrew are showing that, on the most basic level of paying attention—turning a head in the direction of someone who talks a new language, who has different food or bodily smells, or who elicits apprehension from a parent—race and ethnicity begin to be factored in long before the concepts themselves are defined.
Ethnographic studies of preschoolers using picture cards and other games show that they develop a remarkably accurate map of the subtle socioeconomic, racial, and gender hierarchies implicit (and often not explicitly articulated) in a society.17 Even before they can talk, infants are able to understand the dynamics of fear in their society. Babies being walked down a city street can be seen to bristle more when they pass adults of a different race, although in America, tragically, black babies, like white babies, are more likely to be frightened by an encounter with a black male stranger than a white one. Similar dynamics around complex social constructs such as gender and taboo subjects such as sexuality also manifest themselves at a far earlier, and even preverbal, stage than was previously believed possible. The new work being done in the lab of French neuroscientist Olivier Pascalis suggests that, by six months of age, babies notice the difference between faces of their own race and those of other races and ethnicities.18
Cute, nose, Mozart, Daddy, pretty, hungry, stinky, strong, careful, and stranger are some of the labels being built into Andy’s cognitive system for mapping the world. He’s learning how to pay attention to these, and he’s learning the values so thoroughly that they will be close to automatic by the time he starts school, and then formal education will complete the process. He won’t know why certain things go with other things, but he will act as if there’s no other way for this to be—because that’s how he’s built. He won’t even see any differently unless he has to.
WE’VE ONLY SCRATCHED THE SURFACE of all there is to know in a mere seventy-five seconds in Andrew’s world, but it is a start at understanding how simple events, attitudes, sensory experiences, and linguistic cues are encouraging Andrew’s habits of paying attention to what counts. Andrew doesn’t understand this in anything like a rational or systematic way, but he is certainly getting the message that he’s getting a message. He doesn’t know the word for it yet, but he is noticing, even at four months, that there are patterns in his world and that those patterns have something important to do with him. For example, he is already wondering what everyone is trying to tell him, what it could possibly mean, and why some things are repeated over and over in so many ways, as if people are afraid he’s not going to understand them.
And one other thing: Why, Baby Andrew wonders, is just about everything in his room—the walls, the carpet, the blankets, the stuffed toys, the clothes—so darn blue?
Attention begins in the nursery, but as we age, we also learn to shape and reshape the values we learn there. Learning is the cartography of cultural value, indistinguishable from the landscape of our attention—and our blindness. We map the world around us in our own behaviors. And we can be tricked or herded in ways we might not wish to be when we encounter features of the world that aren’t anywhere on our map. When we encounter a mismatch between our values and some new experience, we have a choice to either hold on to our values against all the evidence, to insist they are right or natural no matter what; or we can rethink them and even reject them, a process that can be smooth or traumatic, partial or complete. In any case, this process is a key component of the science of attention.
Once you have a category, it’s hard to see past it without some serious reconsideration. That’s the unlearning necessary to break an old habit before we can adopt a new one. It’s a constant process and a crucial one.
That is exactly why it’s so useful to understand what is going on with Andy. This story is not just about child rearing. It is about our own blind spots, and how we came to have them. By understanding that process, we increase our chances of intercepting the process, of intervening, and of changing its outcome. If the makers of the Cymbalta ad can understand our expectations well enough to manipulate them, so can we. But the only way we have a chance of paying attention differently is by understanding what we pay attention to when we’re not thinking about it and where our reflexes and habits of attention came from. We cannot disrupt them, we cannot change them, until we understand these basic facts.
ANDY’S STORY IS OUR STORY. We no longer know our own preverbal history. Because of the categories by which we bundle our world, we can see efficiently. But those same categories make us miss everything else. Andy’s job is to mimic and to master his culture’s categories, long before he has the words to describe them and long before he’s developed sophisticated sociological terms to explain them away. Mostly, in infancy, he detects the feeling of the categories, as conveyed to him by the people who care for him most and on whom he depends for everything.
Andy’s process is the one we all go through as human beings. This process teaches our brain to pay attention, which means it is how our brain learns not to pay attention to the things that aren’t considered important to those around us. But those other things do exist, all the time, even if we are not noticing them. That is simply how the brain science of attention works, with the world around us focusing our attention on what counts. What we are counting makes the things that don’t count invisible to us.
As adults, we are not as helpless as little Andy anymore. We have the power to make choices. When confronted with the new—with what seems odd or outrageous, annoying or nonsensical—we can deny it has any value. We can label it a worthless distraction. Or we can try, on our own or with the help of others, to redraw our maps to account for the new. We can actually use the new to reshape how we focus our attention.
We have the capacity to learn, which is to say we have the capacity to change. We were born with that capacity. Just ask Andy. This is why we had to return to the scene of the nursery, to discover how we came to know the world. By understanding how we learned our patterns of attention, we can also begin to change them.