Sometimes the most important differences between us are the least visible. That’s almost always the case when it comes to perception, and how our individual perceptual stylesshape priorities, approach and personalities.
Take just a moment to try this thought experiment:
Imagine you’re standing on the edge of a cliff gazing out at a forested valley below you. There’s much to look at, but what do you see? Are you focused on the vista and the breadth of the landscape before you, or are your eyes more attracted to details, like wildlife, trees, and points of interest? And how do you feel? Are you mesmerized by your vantage point, awed by the grandeur and beauty of the moment? Or are you more conscious of your footing, the time of day, and whether you have enough water for the hike back to your vehicle?
Although we might intellectually recognize the benefits of both perspectives, most of us will mentally drift toward the vista and dreaminess of the moment, or be inclined to focus on detail and the presence of risk. In other words, we will find ourselves drawn to the “shape” of the moment, or the scene’s particulars. Not only is it nearly impossible to perceive both at once, our perceptual biases are like magnets, pulling us toward a relatively consistent way of appraising and feeling the world around us.
These brain-based, perceptual biases develop early in life, determining how we learn and what deserves our attention. Yet when people disagree about priorities, the role of perceptual differences is rarely given a second thought. Instead, we mistakenly assume that we are seeing a situation just as everyone else does, and that our disagreement stems from divergent interpretations of the same observation.
And so the problems begin: “How can you say that?” “How can you think that?” “Didn’t you see what just happened?”
Hmmm. Let me see if I can think of a living example. Okay, how about the routine conflicts that encumber families and classrooms? Conflicts about where attention should be directed, what is most important, quantity and quality of communication, and consideration of others. These sorts of conflicts offend our righteousness, and their emotional residue often causes us to become confused about what caused them.
In such situations, we make the mistake that human beings have made for as long as human history has been recorded – we personalize the non- personal because we forget about (or suppress) the effect of differing perspectives.
Individual Differences with Big Consequences
In the last issue of this newsletter I discussed the massive influence of tone and tempo in sustaining the ecology of attention. Now we need to turn our attention to a perceptual phenomenon that shapes a child’s organization and planning skills (Pillars V and VI).
If you’ve attended one of my talks, you know how crucial I believe organization and planning are to school success. And if you’re the parent of a middle school student, you may have first-hand knowledge of how important organization and planning are to capability. Schools and families are united in their desire to increase capability, but when it comes to working with children themselves, we may find ourselves at an impasse due to classic differences of perspective.
For example, focusing on deadlines for university applications is a detail perspective that doesn’t always jive well with the “big picture” perspective of an adolescent who may be thinking “what am I getting myself into?” Consequently, rather than using our interaction to help this person work through his or her apprehension about committing to four more years of education, we inadvertently increase anxiety by focusing on things like deadlines, major area of study, and career goals.
*If and when you find yourself in these situations, please try to avoid moralizing about the conflict.
Perceptual bias is a complex individual difference that is inherited rather than chosen. Not only does it reflect the idiosyncrasies of our minds, it is also affected by gender. For example, males seem to be attracted to the “contours” of a situation, while females often excel at retention of detail. Perceptual bias appears to reflect a notable exception to the left- hemisphere dominance implicit in so many other aspects of male psychology.
Gender-based perceptual differences are evident early in life, on different levels. For example, female babies are significantly better than males at recognizing facial details and the sound of their mother’s voice. In contrast, many two year-old boys can quickly identify a range of trucks simply by the sound they make as they roar by. The evolutionary foundations of these difference are complex enough to warrant a separate article.
Here, I want to emphasize that perceptual differences help to explain the dichotomy between boys and girls with respect to organizational skills. Among many boys, the prevailing perceptual tendency is “out of sight, out of mind.” By contrast, among many girls there is intense immersion in detail, sometimes causing them to be caught in the vortex of perfectionism.
Either perceptual style, taken too far, will lead to problems accurately assessing a task or situation. Do you think these gender differences play a role in family and teacher-student relationships as well? I certainly do.
Divergent Scopes of Focus
In the same way that gender-based communication differences color relationships, perceptual differences about priorities can feel personal, as reflected in the angrily uttered phrase “that’s not what I’m talking about!” Rather than reflecting a difference of opinion, this sort of conflict reflects divergent scopes of focus. We are vulnerable to misperception because human beings continually forget that their individual map of reality is not a universal map shared by all of humankind.
(News media reinforce this false assumption by reliably deciding for us what is most deserving of our attention. Does anyone else feel absurdly well informed about Tiger Woods? Would any agree that this is the most important news story of 2009?)
Even when we take into account that others may see things differently, our subconscious resists the complexity of divergence. Our minds generally prefer order to chaos (13 and 14 year olds being a notable exception), making it stressful and fatiguing to assimilate multiple perspectives, each one owning a small share of the truth or whole of a situation, problem, or task.
In this way, executive function is at the core of human interaction, orchestrating the interplay of attention, flexibility, and perceptual organization – and their contribution to relationships, as well as school work habits.
For most of the past century we’ve simply assumed that good students will adjust their scope of focus – the way one might adjust a zoom lens – in the interest of optimal performance for the work at hand. But the sheer cacophony of environmental distraction has made it increasingly difficult for students to accomplish this adjustment without direction and coaching.
Add to this equation that the great majority of children and adolescents we are trying to teach have been exposed to massive amounts of electronica which has, in effect, conditioned them to enjoy beingpleasurably mesmerized.
Not only are games fun and intensely stimulating, they induce a trance-like state. And although games do require attention to detail, they enable this attention via high doses of unrelenting stimulation and feedback.
Have you glanced at children’s books or school textbooks lately (if interested, pay special attention to p. 139, 140, 142)? They seem to be trying to ignite an equivalent level of stimulation. For example, information is often organized into blocks and bytes of information with colored backgrounds and eclectic typography. It’s hard to detect a coherent narrative because in most cases there isn’t one! Book publishers have recognized that the perceptual orientation of most kids is to “bits and pieces,” rather than the linear unfolding of events over time.
I believe most of us would be astonished if we could walk through children’s minds to see how they experience time and history. Rather than a sequential chronology emphasizing cause and effect, I’d bet that most young people’s construction of history is a pastiche of images based on themes such as identity, conflict, and personal relevance. Our task, then, is to decide whether we want to engage that neurological reality or somehow try to change it.
When Harvard University’s eminent evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson suggests “In the future, education will be more like games,” he is forecasting a time when our collective recognition of the superiority of games in commanding attention can no longer be ignored. Although I’m not eager for that day, I wonder if it has already arrived.
Keeping it Real
If you’re getting the sense that problems with inattention to detail are more prevalent than neglect of the “big picture,” you’re right. That helps to explain why the learning differences of boys are so intensely scrutinized. However, note that girls who have interests and leisure activities similar to boys often have the same perceptual bias as boys, and benefit from the same types of executive skills coaching that boys do.
The fact that so many of us have adopted an obsessive approach to life (i.e., BlackBerry, Twitter, digital organizers, closet organizers, scrapbooking our memories, etc.) reflects the unspoken but prevailing belief that success and happiness reside in managing life’s details; how to do things, when to do things, deadlines, and keeping things in order.
At the very same time that these demands have evolved, the leisure activities of kids have evolved to command their full attention via huge doses of overstimulation. It’s not so much that young people have lost the ability to pay attention so much as that the prerequisite for attention has skyrocketed.
We can’t teach attention to detail the same way we teach algebra or how to drive. But we can reorient minds to detail when we put young people in situations where they have a chance to A) detox from electronica, and, B) are required to make decisions that have important consequences.
Reshaping the scope of someone’s focus requires some type of timeout from business as usual. Although we don’t have to go on a fulltime vacation to achieve a timeout, we do need to alter the tempo of life, allowing boredom to infiltrate minds that have become expert at eradicating boredom. (Those who follow this newsletter know about my contention that boredom is a reassuring presence in the lives of youth. It reminds us that young minds still have space for reflection, deliberation, and planning.)
It’s also quite helpful to incorporate physical involvement. For example, kindergarten students will learn how to organize a backpack better if given a chance to demonstrate the task. Tactile involvement facilitates muscle memory and increases the chance that new learning will be consolidated into long-term memory.
The same can be said of middle school students learning to organize a locker, or high school students learning how to drive. Clearly, practice is a more efficient path to becoming a better driver than merely watching a driver’s education video.
E-reality is so compelling because it provides young people with a facsimile of independence, accomplishment and mastery (you can battle evil, build a city, outwit a foe, or become a race car driver, soldier, etc.) But the falsehood here is that these roles which cater to our children’s desire for difficulty, danger, creativity, and honor – take place in a cybersphere that is inherently regressive, because the “other” is always programmed, predictable, and ultimately not there.
We foster growth and development when we help children and adolescents to step outside of the subjective, egocentric reality that is the essence of childhood toward a more objective relationship with the world around them. When we talk of maturity, I think we mean the shift from a subjective to a more objective understanding of oneself and the world. Making that shift requires us to zoom in or zoom out in an effort to complement whatever perspective we come by naturally.
I’m not advocating that we fast-forward past childhood to promote maturity before its time. However, whether our primary role is as the leader of a school, classroom, or family, we are in essence orchestrating the minds and focal points of others. In our capacity as “maestros” we have an opportunity to explore how perception winds its way through every aspect of human activity.
Like the major 20th century paradigms of emotional intelligence and multiple intelligences, the power of executive function can only be known and felt fully when we make it explicit. We have to talk about its role in our lives from day to day, hour to hour. Those conversations are the bridge from subjectivity to objectivity – the stepping stones of capability.
A recent article in The Atlantic by David Dobbs summarizes some astounding and highly relevant research being conducted at Leiden University in The Netherlands. In an attempt to understand the genetic differences of children with externalizing disorders (tantrums, oppositionality, aggression, etc.) child development researchers began videotaping these children in their homes as they interacted with various family members. Parents of these children tend to perceive little benefit in parent-child time such as reading stories together. However, when parents watch videotape of themselves and the “problem” child engaged in such activities they are often surprised to see how such activities do seem to be reinforcing and helpful to these children.The essence of this research program is that children who are genetically vulnerable to externalizing disorders are the same individuals who are capable of extraordinary achievement. The argument is that their temperament predisposes them to a kind of personal intensity which might be shaped for better or worse. Dobbs refers to these children as orchid kids because their development is more fragile (contextually dependent) than a child who is more like a dandelion – relatively hardy and resilient despite context.Dobbs notes that the “orchid hypothesis” helps to explain why evolution has not eliminated genes that appear, at first glance, to be maladaptive. It is because these gene variants also hold the potential for the success of humankind. Overall, the research seems consistent with current ideas in psychology which suggest that one’s destiny has less to do with nature or nurture than it does with the subtle ways in which one’s nature is nurtured. The study also emphasizes the extraordinary value of videotape evidence in assessing what is and is not working. It’s anxiety provoking to think of being videotaped while we are parenting, teaching or coaching. But how much longer can we afford to ignore such an expeditious path to understanding?
Ask Dr. Cox
|Q: Your website, books, and articles have helped tremendously. Do you have any articles or suggestions on how to help an 11-year-old boy who can’t keep his hands to himself? We plead, remind, warn, and to no avail. It’s as if he doesn’t know he’s doing it. Good student, but definitely struggles with Executive Control (we purchased No Mind Left Behind – – fantastic).
Hope M., ConnecticutDear Hope,
Your dilemma is of course a common one, especially for parents of boys. It seems the best strategy is to give boys something that is appropriate to play with – even during class, church, or related activities. All physical manifestations of hyperactivity are ways of feeding one’s prefrontal cortex the stimulation it is craving. Many boys’ schools have discovered it makes sense to “feed” that need rather than try to contain it.For example, some schools now have chairs that feature heavy duty rubber bands on the bottom against which students can push as a means of absorbing some of that extra energy. Other schools now feature desks at which boys stand rather than sit.
With respect to coaching/counseling better self- awareness in your son, the best strategy is to work out a private non-verbal signal you can send your son when he starts to lose self-control. Then later, reinforce his attention to those signals with lavish praise, and perhaps an important type of privilege. Boys seem to respond well to an elevation in status – it helps them to align their personal needs with those of the adults in their life.
It’s a challenging problem, and I wish you the best. Thanks so much for your kind words about my book.
Q My son is 8 years old. He is a very bright and has become a very social boy. He was able to read the alphabet and knew his numbers up to a 100 by 2. I never thought he would have any problems in school, but he seems to be having a problem finishing his work on time or paying attention when his teacher is talking in a group setting. Do you have any suggestions for how I could help him focus in class more.
Mary M, Ontario Canada
Generally, this doesn’t mean your son will receive personalized instruction, but it does imply that inattention is a disorder that exists between people rather than within one individual. The eight year-old boys of 2010 are quite different than the eight year- olds of a generation or two ago. If we want to reach these children – and I think we can all agree that we do – our ways of relating to them will have to evolve. The first step is relocating inattention from being a form of individual pathology to a social condition affected by relationship dynamics.
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