This is a riff on the same subject I wrote about for MGC today. Sort of, not really, but it’s closely related. While I was sitting at my desk formulating the post in my head, a notification box popped up in the corner of my screen, I glanced at it, and then ignored it. Later, I’ll delete the email unread. What was it? Yet another ad. I get a lot of those into my emails for various places. Some, I actually want to see. I pay attention to them, look at them, and perhaps even take action based on them. Most, even of the companies I’ve explicitly permitted to market to me, I simply delete unopened and unread. In years past when I sent out formal business newsletters, and tracked how many people actually opened them, how many clicked through to the offer, and all those important statistics, I knew that a one percent open rate was great, and it would be an even smaller fraction who who click through.
Which is fine. I got an email yesterday offering me free shipping on an item I do actually want. And had I taken action on it that morning, I’d have done an order with them. But by the afternoon, I’d had a household need come up that took precedence, and wiped out the discretionary budget for the month. So that ad will go to waste – or rather, I’ll look for it to come around again, and plan to take advantage of it then. But my point is that ads, notifications, and pop-ups all get ignored.
We all know the story of the boy who cried wolf, and it resonates with us. We’ve all slept through an alarm clock, because our brain woke part way up, went ‘oh, that again’ and snoozed right back off. The human mind is under constant bombardment, and the key to our very survival is learning what we can ignore, and what we need to react to. If everything gets our fight or flight senses going, then we’ll suffer and die after a short unhappy life.
The Junior Mad Scientist and I were talking recently about drinking enough water, and I suggested an app with an alarm or reminder to drink every so often. She shook her head. She’d already tried one, and it didn’t take long for her to start ignoring the pop-ups telling her to take a drink. Her brain had filtered them out as unnecessary noise in the daily routine.
How do we do this ignoring of distractions, or even routine things we know we need to do, like drinking water? Or for that matter, going to the bathroom? Oh, wait, you can’t ignore that urge forever… and that’s because the body has that message linked to the pain center. Your bladder is very capable of it’s own alarm, and for that matter it makes a good alarm clock, perhaps better than the external one. Scientists are studying how we can be trained to ignore small distractions – in this study, a tap on the hand or foot – in hopes of being able to train people to tune out chronic pains that can’t be eased like the bladder can be.
Similar to the external of ads and billboards, the body takes care of most of our daily processes without us ever having to think about them. We drive down the interstate with billboards lining the side of the road, one message after another after another… and we pay no more attention to them than we do our digestive processes, up until we have a case of heartburn. No more than we pay attention to the other cars and drivers on the road – until one of them does something that takes them out of the pattern of traffic, and then we get hyperalert, because that break in the pattern leads to Bad Things. This seeking after patterns, relentlessly, and discarding things that don’t fit into our patterns, is what being human is. It’s why machines that can be trained to do the same sort of pattern-making might be able to become better at, say, driving, than humans can be.
Humans do something machines can’t, because we have apophenia. We see patterns even where there is no pattern, and from that comes art, creativity, and the drive to make visible something that exists only in our own mind. A machine of sheer logic cannot dream up a new pattern from data which has no pattern inherent in it. The very annoying ability that allows us to sleep through the alarm clock, and makes us drive dangerously on our way to work, late and distracted from traffic patterns, is that ability which makes us brilliant artists, musicians, and writers. We can ignore the bits of data we don’t need, like ads and digestive juices, and focus on the things that are important to us at the moment, like the sound of our children’s voices through a closed door. And we can change that focus, like refocusing a camera lens, to now pay attention to the noisy computer fan across the room, the birds singing outside, and the slightly more distant sound of a heavy truck on the road.
The flexibility of the human mind is by no means limitless, but it is precisely what we have, and need, and can use to create.