Trained Attention & Discovering the Silent Stories

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Our attention is often so trained that we miss the most interesting stories around us.

Traveling has the tendency to alert your mind to habits you didn’t know you had. When you’re thrown into environments you’ve never been in, you can’t default to past behaviors, and you suddenly become aware of the commonly subconscious decision trees you go through. A recent trip to Thailand illuminated a number of interesting ideas that I’ll write about over the next few days. The most interesting and pervasive habit that I noticed was what I call “trained attention.”

Trained Attention
I was having dinner at a traditional dance hall in Bangkok. The meal had just ended, and the collective focus of the room had just shifted from a multitude of individual conversations to the spotlighted Khon dancers on stage. After a few minutes, their repetitive movements and lack of speech weren’t quite engaging me. I suppose there was some mythical story behind it all that I wasn’t familiar with, but this was little consolation. I felt compelled to feign interest in the name of “being cultural”, but knew I’d just fall asleep. So I started looking around the room… and found a whole series of far more interesting stories.

The nervous young waiter who stumbled from table to table in the dim light, trying to politely maneuver his way around each guest to collect their plates, like some kind of benign pickpocket. The little Australian kids who were enjoying constructing tiny buildings out of their food more than eating it. The intricate woodwork of the tables that depicted local flora and fauna. The whole notion of a room full of white people gathering to watch a cultural performance likely only preserved because of their willingness to experience “authentic” culture.

Yet every face was trained on stage. It’s not that everyone was interested in the performance. Many were drifting off and a good chunk of the rest were merely staring in a daze, their eyes not really following the action. They just couldn’t look away.

There were a million little stories woven into the faces of their fellow tourists, actions of the restaurant staff, structure of the building… the entire space was permeated with stories. Yet everyone was focusing on the same one - the dance.

You might say, “Well, of course! They paid to see a dance!” But, as I said, many people there weren’t interested in the dance. They were entranced but clearly not engaged. Each person could likely be much happier looking at a thousand other things in the room, exploring one of the many other stories in the space around them… but they don’t. What’s going on here?

Attention is societally trained. Over the course of your life, you learn what is “of interest” and what you “should look at” in a given environment. Your eyes instinctually dart toward the “proper focus” of the room and are reluctant to stray.

Of course, in some environments, like a museum or national park, your eyes are more likely than to stray than others, but there is still a trained, somewhat narrow space of focus. For example, while I was at Bangkok’s National Musuem (a cultural and historical introduction to Thailand and monument to their legally-enforced love for their king), I stumbled into a courtyard framing a flat, pristine pond, graced by illy pads and a slew of insects. Many people walked through; none stopped. Were we at Bangkok’s National Gardens and Insect Sanctuary, I bet every single one of those people would have stopped to examine the scenery. Take that same exact space, place it in a different context, and bam! Suddenly, it’s interesting.

Discovering the Silent Stories
This idea might seem obvious to you, but probably only in hindsight. Once you’re aware of this, however, and you force yourself to look elsewhere, you’ll notice how truly confined your realm of focus has been… and your world opens up. You’ll find the interesting stories on your neighbor’s front porches, the worn edges of dentist office waiting room chairs (evidence of how nerve-wracking the idea of an oral check-up can be for some people), and the never-ending determination of the ants conveying that peanut up your driveway. Thomas Friedman once said, “It’s easy to focus on the noise, but the real story is in the silence.” The world is full of interesting stories just waiting to be read; they’re just not always presented in the tidy formats we’re used to.