…do you see what you’re looking at?…

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us” by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. The premise of the book is based on an experiment that illustrated our human tendency to overlook the unexpected.

Part of the conclusion early in the book is that we are all dealing with a limited “pool” of attention. No matter how well we know something, no matter how determined we are, there is only so much that we can ADEQUATELY concentrate on at one time. Though there is a popular notion that the better we prepare  for emergencies by going over scenarios and studying the way things work, the more likely we are to react to the unexpected. But this is not what they have found through their research. They state, adamantly, that the  issue is in the nature of the unexpected. We will often not see what we are not expecting to see. They argue that all of the specific training and “walk through’s” may help to get people better at doing what they know to do, but it is unlikely to help them see unexpected things. This quote caught my attention:

How is it possible that spending more time with the world in view actually reduces our ability to see what is right in front of us? The answer, it seems, stems from our mistaken beliefs about how attention works.

Chabris and Simons pursue the idea that we do not pay attention better by keeping our eyes open longer. They argue that paying attention has more to do with resource allocation than physical positioning.

In one of the illustrations they use they talk about the shift in cell phone use while driving. There has been an uproar about how dangerous holding a cell phone and trying to drive can be. The solution was to create “hands-free” devices so you could keep both hands on the wheel and not fiddle with a phone.  But research through testing is pretty clear that the ability to notice unexpected things is virtually the same whether someone is holding a phone or using a “hands-free” device. The issue is not mechanics it is the amount of inner resources we devote to the task at hand. They offer this:

The problem isn’t with our eyes or our hands. We can drive just fine with one hand on the wheel, and we can look  at the road while holding a phone. Indeed, the acts of holding a phone and turning a steering wheel place little demand on our cognitive capacities.

The problem is not with limitations on motor control, but with limitations on attentional resources and awareness. In fact, there are few if any differences between the distracting affects of handheld phones and hands-free phones. Both distract in the same way, and to the same extent. Driving car and having a conversation on a cell phone, despite being well practiced and seemingly effortless tasks, both draw upon the mind’s limited stock of attention resources. They require multi-tasking, and despite what you may have heard or may think, the more attention-demanding tasks your brain does, the worse it does each one.

Here’s my point. I’m afraid that we (maybe me more than most of you) are missing much. I fear that we are missing moments and opportunities because they are unexpected. How many chances to comfort, show compassion to, or laugh with a co-worker have we missed because we had fifteen things on our mind? How many open doors have there been to show tangible love to our spouse or children or friends that we opted out of so we could check email, finish something on television, or hurry off to another appointment we foolishly squeezed into our already strangled schedule?

The frightening thing to me isn’t that we may have just missed these things, but that we don’t even know we’ve missed them. Perhaps even more troubling than that is that for some of us these significant moments are still unexpected to us. God, in His mercy and love, builds these kinds of chances into our lives. Never should we see a friend or loved one laughing or weeping and believe that they were meant to do that by themselves. These are moments that we are to share, to engage, and to grow through.

We look at a lot in our everyday lives. We are the most informed generation of people to ever walk this planet. But despite all of this, I wonder if we are ever really seeing what we spend so much time looking at.

There is a Biblical idea that doesn’t get talked about as much as it probably should that deals with this issue: discernment. Asking God for discernment is more than just hoping to get a “feeling” about a certain person, it could be as simple as having our eyes opened to the things that we are missing. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul offers a phrase that should probably become a daily prayer for us all:

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
Ephesians 1:16-18

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