The Hierarchy of Attention
The brain is divided into two hemispheres. “The division of the human brain,” Iain McGilchrist writes in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, “[is] the result of the need to bring to bear two incompatible types of attention on the world at the same time.” The right hemisphere is responsible for a “global” or “broad” mode of attention. The left hemisphere is responsible for a “local” or “focussed” mode of attention. In the hierarchy of attention, the right hemisphere is predominant. “Global attention,” McGilchrist writes, “courtesy of the right hemisphere, comes first, not just in time, but takes precedence in our sense of what it is we are attending to; it therefore guides the left hemisphere’s local attention, rather than the other way about.” To illustrate, in the images below, we normally see the H then the E’s and the 4 then the 8’s.
The right (global) → left (local) progression of attention will be the theme of this email…
Look at the Tape
In 2004, the New York Giants lost to the Arizona Cardinals 17-14. Giants quarterback Kurt Warner was sacked 6 times. The New York sports media attacked the offensive line’s terrible play, their inability to protect their quarterback. Even the players themselves said things like, “We didn’t protect Kurt, and that put us in a bad position.” After the loss, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was asked if was going to make any adjustments to his offensive line. “I’ll think about all those things when I look at the tape,” Coughlin said. That night, Coughlin stayed up late reviewing the game tape with a focussed mode of attention: he watched with a stopwatch. On 30 of the 37 pass plays, Warner held the ball for 3.8 seconds or more. (The median time to throw among NFL quarterbacks is around 2.7-3 seconds). Coughlin didn’t make any adjustments to his offensive line but the next day, he benched Warner and named rookie Eli Manning the starting quarterback of the New York Giants.
The Ear and Toenail School
The great connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art Bernard Berenson made a fortune on his ability to authenticate paintings. In the late 19th, early 20th century, no one knew what was a Michelangelo or a Raphael or a Leonardo Da Vinci painting. To figure out who did what, Berenson borrowed a technique from a Swiss anatomy teacher named Giovanni Morelli. Berenson’s biographer says it became known as the “ear and toenail school.” Berenson found that the surest way to classify paintings was to look where the painter thought you wouldn’t look. To borrow from McGilchrist, Berenson looked locally, not globally. Take a Madonna—painters, Berenson realized, give more time and attention to painting Mary’s face, for instance, than Jesus’ toenails. So Berenson paid no attention to Mary’s face. He studied the seemingly insignificant details—that’s where the painter was thinking the least and so where his idiosyncrasies were expressed the most. That’s where a master’s mastery was really on display.
Get to the Inside
When Robert Greene is asked how he defines mastery, he says, “it’s getting to the inside.” When you start learning to play an instrument, for instance, you’re on the outside. You don’t see the E’s in the illustration above. You don’t know the inner workings of the instrument. You don’t know how the parts of the instrument work together. You don’t know how to manipulate the instrument to make pleasant sounds. But if you stick with the instrument—as you practice and practice and practice, Robert says, “you worm your way to the inside of it.” Your knowledge of the instrument is progressing from the right to the left hemisphere, McGilchrist would say. “You feel the thing come alive. The [instrument] is no longer a physical object, it’s in you. You’ve internalized it. You no longer have to think of the keys; the keys are in your head. That is mastery.”
The Paradox of Defects and Disorders
In March 1986, the neurologist Oliver Sacks received a letter from a Mr. I. Two months earlier, Mr. I was knocked unconscious in a car accident. When he regained consciousness, Mr. I saw the world as it looks in black and white movies. Mr. I could not make color—not with his eyes, not in his mind’s eye, not in memory, not when dreaming. Before the accident, Mr. I, a successful painter, could identify—by the name and number listed in the Pantone hue chart he long referenced when buying paint—the green of a billiards table or the yellow of a mustard. Now, he couldn’t make stop or go of a traffic light. Mr. I’s artistic sensibilities, his creative expression, his identity—his life—hinged on his unique ability to perceive color. When he lost that ability, Mr. I slipped into an “almost suicidal depression.” Until he had an experience he’d later credit for saving his life. He was driving one morning and over the highway, the sun was rising. For the first time since the accident, Mr. I realized he had a new unique ability. “Had anyone,” he thought, “ever seen a sunrise in this way before?” This exciting thought was followed by another, Had anyone ever seen anything the way Mr. I could? He saw textures and patterns that are typically embedded, and therefore invisible, in color. He saw shades, shapes, and silhouettes with a precision no one else has. With it no longer cluttered by color, “my vision became that of an eagle—I can see a worm wriggling a block away. The sharpness of focus is incredible…I can read license plates at night from four blocks away.” Mr. I went to his studio and painted his first black-and-white painting, Nuclear Sunrise, which ushered in what became the most productive and celebrated phase of his artistic career. “Defects, disorders, diseases, in this sense,” Sacks writes in An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, “can play a paradoxical role, by bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen, or even be imaginable, in their absence.”
See Through The Illusion To The Reality
In Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Michael Lewis tells the story of how Billy Beane—the general manager of one of the poorest teams in professional sports—built one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball by assembling a team of undervalued and overlooked players. Beane applied a local or focussed mode of attention in the market for baseball players. As Lewis writes, “The human mind plays tricks on itself when it relies exclusively on what it sees, and every trick it plays is a financial opportunity for someone who sees through the illusion to the reality.”