Now You See It

Cathy N. Davidson starts Now You See It, a book on the science of attention, with a research study. Participants were asked to count passes between basketball players on a video. Afterwards, they were asked how many passes they counted, and how many saw the gorilla. “What gorilla?!” most responded. Turns out a woman in a gorilla costume had walked past the basketball players, but, with their attention focused on one thing — counting passes — most missed the great ape in the room.

If we pay attention differently, Davidson argues, we will find the gorilla, and we will be more prepared for the 21st century, which requires multitasking and problem solving. She discusses how education, the workplace, and individuals need to change, profiling those who are shifting their focus to the future. “Because we’re in a transitional moment, most of us aren’t aware of how structurally different our life has become because of the Internet.”

Davidson asks important, pressing questions — do we need our children to succeed in standardized tests when the workplace now values collaboration and innovation? And her answers are unconventional and smart — why not build our curricula around games, which better motivate kids and reward creativity?

But Davidson is surprisingly credulous: all of the educators, bosses, and architects she profiles are Great! Fantastic! One wishes this scholar brought her old-school critical thinking skills to probe deeper and raise more complicating questions. Her definition of attention is awfully rubbery, extending to the mental states of those who build environmentally green LEED hotels — a builder in North Carolina is praised because he does not simply “pay attention” to profits, but also focuses on sustainability, or the future. A chapter on an injury Davidson sustained to her arm diverts into a discussion of lazy physical therapy patients whose negativism diverted her attention from her daily rehab activities.

It is ironic, I realize, to claim this book on focus lacks focus. Still, readers who pay attention to Davidson’s main point — we need to rethink how we think — will see the gorilla in this book full of basketball passes.