Attention Please, This Island Earth

One day a Stone Age tribe in Papua, New Guinea, greeted a charter pilot with bananas for his airplane and a desire to know what sex it was.

Excerpts from “An Alchemy of Mind”

Attention, Please

One day a Stone Age tribe in Papua, New Guinea, greeted a charter pilot with bananas for his airplane and a desire to know what sex it was. The plane’s wheels were the first wheels they’d ever seen, and the huffing, twirling sky beast had their urgent attention. We humans respond to far less-startling sights. Any novelty is riveting. Heed change, life demands, especially an erratic or peculiar change, because it’s elemental to survival. Notice anything new. Something will matter.

Learn something or of someone new, and you discover an avalanche of details. But soon the brain switches to a kind of shorthand. Once the brain perceives something, it’s primed to recognize it faster the next time, and even faster after that, until it needn’t look at it carefully again. Then, as Hegel says, “The known, just because it is known, is the unknown.” Knowing people better, you notice them less. What we call boredom is a form of mental abbreviation, a kind of waking slumber. Until things change. Or unless we choose to revive some of the sharp sensations we felt earlier but lost when their startling shine began to dull. Piggybacking on a child’s discoveries or being enthralled by an artist’s informed innocence, we pay fresh attention to what’s grown stale, scrape some of the rust and lichen off the brain, and find the world renewed.

Some years ago, I taught a class of writing students whose work was surprisingly jaded and featureless. Where was the texture of life, I wondered, the feel of being alive on this particular planet? Didn’t it strike them as astonishing that they shared the planet with goldfinches and heli-arc welders and dung beetles and blood brothers and shiitake mushrooms? Where was their fascination with the world pressing indelibly on what they wrote? Most of the students weren’t even 25; how could life already have bored them?

One afternoon I suggested we begin class at the large, open window by enjoying the phenomena visible at that moment, which included lens-shaped clouds signaling high winds aloft; slate shingles on the library tower overlapping like pigeon feathers; magnolia buds burgeoning in fuzzy-coated hulls that looked like fledglings almost ready for flight; half a dozen dog, squirrel and bird dramas; and many human pantomimes, as small groups of students coalesced and drifted apart. Everyone had to choose one sensory event that seemed eloquent. For a few minutes, we stood quietly and paid attention.

I wondered if I could reacquaint them with a cunning we inherited from our ancestors: We can seize a phenomenon with mental pincers and stop the world in its spin, if only briefly. Look patiently, affectionately, at anything, gather six or eight perceptions, and it will never look the same again. When we read Frederico García Lorca’s “A thousand glass tambourines / were wounding the dawn,” we know he once sat and watched a crystal sunrise jingling with color as splinters of light reddened the horizon.

We can’t enchant the world, which makes its own magic, but we can enchant ourselves by paying deep attention. My life had been changing. I’d been near death several times, and the simple details of being had become precious. But I also relished life’s sensory festival and the depot where nature and human nature meet. Everything that happens to us—from choosing the day’s shoes to warfare—shines at that crossroads.

In “Roderick Hudson,” Henry James wrote, “True happiness, we are told, consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out—you must stay out; and to stay out, you must have some absorbing errand.” An absorbing errand as simple as becoming aware of each breath. All forms of meditation are simply ways of paying close attention. Entice the brain to pay attention, and the newsy, noisy self drains away below the thought horizon like a molten sun at dusk. One can lose one’s self while listening to a mockingbird’s stolen medley or staring at a stapler’s tiny fangs. Not all of the self; the unconscious goes about its chores, runs the blood factory, conducts sub-rosa board meetings of the psyche, and protects its fragile marshes, where flocks of feeling, thought, behavior and belief all roost.

We don’t regard just breaths, objects and nature, of course. We were emotional beasts long before we were thoughtful ones. A palette of primary emotions guided our distant ancestors in most situations, and they still do. It’s a productive, if sloppy, process. The brain attends to a feeling, is distracted by events, ruminates on other things, associates, follows a tangent, returns to the first with additional insight from its travels, perhaps putting it in a wider perspective, perhaps reevaluating it, then moves on, repeating the process in a slowly opening fan of thought. The brain isn’t tidy or linear enough to corral all of its ideas about something. The brain notices, feels, learns, moves on, notices more, learns more, feels more, refines its picture based on what it has learned, moves on, endlessly.

What matters is change, the shifting strata of clouds or society. As Emerson says in “Self-Reliance,” one of his loveliest essays, power stops in quiet moments. It thrives on the change “from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.” At great cost, we pay attention, scouting for change. Change leads to actions as bold as a dash from a burning barn, as calculated as the reappraisal of status. It always rouses the brain from rest or distracts it from other business. Everything was safe a moment ago, as proven by the fact that nothing bad happened, but if something changes, however small, my safety must be reassessed. Life becomes a lost archipelago, islands of safety, most barely conscious, all vanishing behind us as we focus on a newly seen sliver of coral sand within reach.

We share this instinct with other animals, which is why it’s wise not to make eye contact with an aggressive dog you’re biking past. When it notices you’ve noticed it, that you’re paying attention, you become a greater threat, just as the dog seemed a greater threat when it noticed you and started barking. Or you could stop, leap from your bike, which you then use as a barricade, and bark at the dog in a glowering, alpha-male tirade of “No! Gohome! Bad dog!” The dog wouldn’t feel rebuked or ashamed, of course, but it might defer to your louder threat.

No time is more alive than the intimate now, where truths are eternal. How long is a now? Now is everything the mind and senses can cram into about one-tenth of a second. In that tiny lagoon, any news arriving from the outskirts and inskirts of the body feels like a single moment, a right now. Any novelty can distract an animal from whatever it’s doing. Chewing and digesting stop. Instinctively it turns toward the culprit and becomes rigidly aware. It loses sight of everything else for about half a second, in what’s known as an attention blink. Even slugs do it. After a garden talk the other evening, in which I confessed to liking many things about slugs (for example, their yen to mate at the end of slime gallows), a man shared with me a curious slug story of his own. He’d been doing construction work when a tractor overturned, trapping him under it. While he waited for help, he noticed a small movement nearby and, turning his head, saw a slug standing up like a tiny giraffe, raptly watching him.

This orienting reflex alerts an animal, cramming its senses with new information, while blocking previous plans or activities. Many things can trigger the orienting reflex—surprise, novelty, sudden change, conflict, uncertainty, increased complexity or simplicity. “Be prepared” is its Boy Scout motto. An emergency may be looming. An instance of this used to happen regularly in the Falkland Islands, home to penguins and the RAF airbase, Mount Pleasant. Crews discovered that whenever they flew over a penguin colony, the resident penguins would all look up, turning their heads to keep the plane in sight. It was irresistible: The pilots soon began flying out to sea, making a tight turn, then flying above the penguins, whose bills pointed up more steeply as the jets flew overhead, until suddenly they would topple in unison.

Novelty excites by nudging us off balance and weakening our stranglehold on habit. An urgent need arises to improvise new skills, learn new rules and customs. This is especially true of mild novelty, when things change only enough to be noticeable. Complete novelty can seem absurd, something to ignore. But partial novelty makes sense, up to a point, and yet requires a bright response, so it must be taken seriously. Our lidless curiosity, as well as our passion for mystery, exploration and adventure spring from this basic reflex, the body’s instinctive call to novelty or change. Once an animal becomes curious, it grows alert, and that arousal doesn’t quit until it explores the sensory puzzle and can assure itself that all is well, nothing much has changed, no fresh action is required. That repeated pattern of arousal, tension, fear and suspense, followed by a feeling of safety and calm, provides a special kind of pleasure shared by animals the world over. That we enjoy such tidy escapades enough to excite or scare ourselves on purpose hints at what connoisseurs of pleasure and pain we’ve become. Rapture always begins with being rapt.

A herd of primates has gathered at a watering hole to drink and socialize. One female sitting in a group of several others notices her mate flirting with a receptive female a few yards away. Dividing her attention, she switches back and forth, from her circle to her mate, able to pay attention to only one conversation at a time. His face says he’s altogether too interested in the female draping herself around him in provocative ways, at which, with jealousy, she listens hard and glowers and is almost ready to bound over and stake her claim, but for the moment, she keeps an eye on the pair while half-heartedly grooming a neighbor in her own group.

This is called a cocktail party, and it’s almost always a scene of divided attentions, especially among couples.

There are many towpaths of attention, along which the mules of worry plod, and they can change with age. Young children seem infinitely distractable, with attention spans short as a drawbridge, because the reticular formation, a brain part needed for paying attention (and also for filtering out lots of unnecessary data), doesn’t finish developing until puberty. A lover pays attention to the beloved with shared life and limbs, soulful passion, passionate soul. That usually rallies one’s full, doting, if inaccurate, attention. Inaccurate is okay among lovers, where it’s sometimes best to blur the details a little. As W.H. Auden writes in “I Am Not a Camera”:

lovers, approaching to kiss,

instinctively shut their eyes before their faces

can be reduced to

anatomical data.

With advancing age, splitting one’s attention becomes harder, as does sifting through warring stimuli. Our filters begin to falter, and more sensory noise seeps in, which we find distracting and confusing. A prime example of this is noisy-restaurant syndrome, when ambient conversations drown out people at one’s own table. But other attention skills can take over. I remember entomologist E.O. Wilson explaining that, when a fishing accident blinded him in one eye, he sadly abandoned his plans of studying big animals. But, as he began to focus differently, paying loving attention to the close and small, he developed his famous passion for ants. What we pay attention to helps define us. With what does a man choose to spend the irreplaceable hours of his life? For Wilson it’s ants. For another it might be the entrails of pocket watches.

Worrisome for people who talk on cell phones in heavy traffic, an MRI study of multitasking (the polite word for attention binge-ing), reveals that paying attention to two things at once doesn’t double the brain’s activity but lowers it, short-changing both. Try pulling an extra wagon uphill. When important things clamor for attention, the brain savors the adages “One thing at a time” and “Divide and conquer,” which is probably why brains devised them in the first place. And forget about learning two things warring for attention. A focus precise as a single coffee bean works best to store memory. Or noting how coffee beans are shaped like tiny vulvas. But I digress. Ignore that. Ignoring something doesn’t mean it won’t register, since subliminal images wing in silently and roost in shadows.

Somewhere I left a bowl of Reliance seedless grapes, whose taut, red skins burst open with a melon-flavored gush, and I’m hungry for them. But I was mentally composing this paragraph as I removed grapes from the refrigerator, dangled them into a bowl, washed them under the faucet, and carried them. That’s the last I remember of their travels. I’m not sure where I unthinkingly left the bowl. Is it still in the kitchen? Did I set it down on a bookshelf when I paused to read a book about absent-mindedness?

This Island Earth

I was reading this morning about the discovery of a new species of gecko, no larger than a peso, the tiniest reptile on Earth. Found in a sinkhole and a cave in a balding region of the Jaragua National Park, on the remote Caribbean island of Beata, off the southwestern coast of the Dominican Republic, Sphaerodactylus ariasae could curl up on the head of a dime and leave room for an aspirin and a deforester’s heart. At 1.6 millimeters (about three-quarters of an inch), it’s not only the tiniest lizard, but, according to evolutionary biologist Blair Hedges, who discovered it, “the smallest of all 23,000 species of reptiles, birds and mammals.” A female lays but one fragüe egg at a time, a minute naïf easily crushed by paws and shoe heels alike, in a rain forest more endangered than the Amazon.

Hedges and his colleague Richard Thomas have found only eight of these geckos and are delighted but not shocked by their size. The men were searching for tiny, overlooked reptiles with limited ranges, because the smallest versions of life tend to inhabit islands. On an island’s detached world, over a vast sprawl of time, animals may fill ecological niches snared by others on the mainland. Sphaerodactylus ariasae (named in honor of Yvonne Arias, an avid conservationist in the Dominican Republic) is tiny enough, for instance, to compete with spiders elsewhere. The Caribbean is home to many such endangered species and probably many undiscovered ones that will vanish before they’re witnessed or named. How that saddens me, to think of an animal surviving the rip-roaring saga of life on Earth, minting unique features and gifts, only to vanish without name or record because of human folly. I’m not sure why witnessing a life form and celebrating its unique marvel matters so much to me, but it does. Let’s just say it occupies an emotional niche others may fill with prayer. Absorbing Earth’s phenomena with the full frenzy of human relish and insight is our destiny.

Biologists had carefully explored the island of Beata, and yet Sphaerodactylus ariasae lay hidden for hundreds of years. Could an even smaller reptile exist on Earth? Probably not. There are size limits imposed by gravity and basic biology. But we should always expect the unexpected on remote islands. A century ago Darwin wrote about the effects of isolation and inbreeding and how easily island populations diverge from the mainstream and evolve their own genetic dialect. Hence kangaroos only in Australia (though marsupials abound elsewhere) and hummingbirds only in North and South America (which is why American columbines, unlike their European cousins, evolved spurs).

When we become a space-faring species, leaving our home planet to voyage to other worlds, the same fate will befall us. Many people won’t survive the trips, leaving open niches for stronger, more specialized or more extreme people to fill. Islands become unique gene pools where uniquely compelled creatures evolve. Multigenerational spaceships, as well as colonies on other planets, if not refreshed by outsiders’ genes, will function as islands. We may become the bizarre aliens depicted in sci-fi dramas.

Then, although many of Homo sapiens’ relatives died out in the past, more will evolve elsewhere, given time’s elasticity and the exuberance of human curiosity. With our restless yen to explore, will our outposts blossom until they’re common as pond scum in the cosmic night? I doubt it. But we may become strangers with different sensory talents, develop lizardy skin, evolve into that alien “Other” we fear. New habitats will produce new essentials, scarcities, politics and values. In smaller social groups, different dynamics emerge. That’s what happened in our past on this island Earth, and our brains reflect that evolution.

Over 500 million years, a span of time too vast to imagine in detail, our brains were gradually molded by environmental pressures and breeding successes while also succumbing to random genetic mutations. As brains grew, women’s pelvises and leg bones widened (hence the characteristic hip-swivel). But the skull can only expand so much and still pass through the birth canal. Even after the brain folded in, under and around itself, it still needed to add important skills. The only solution was to drop some abilities to make room for more important ones. No doubt, fascinating gifts were lost. Based on what other animals evolved, we might have had sophisticated navigational systems that relied on magnetism or echolocation (like bats or whales). Or a complex sense of smell that made a simple stroll the equivalent of reading a gossip column (like dogs). We might have shared the praying mantis’s skill at high-pitched ultrasonics or the elephant’s at low, rumbling infrasonics. Like the duck-billed platypus, we might once have been able to detect electrical signals from the muscles of small fish. We might have enjoyed the vibratory sense that’s so highly developed in spiders, fish, bees and other animals. But of them all, the best survival trick was language, one worth sacrificing large areas of trunk space for, areas that might once have housed feats of empathy that would put ESP to shame. Indeed, it is possible that people unusually blessed with ESP are simply ones for whom those areas haven’t completely atrophied. What the brain really needed was space without volume. So it took a radical leap, something unparalleled in the history of life on Earth. It began storing information and memories outside of itself on stone, papyrus, paper, computer chips and film. This astonishing feat is such a familiar a part of our lives that we don’t think much about it.

But it was an amazing and rather strange solution to what was essentially a packing problem: Store your essentials elsewhere and avoid cluttering up the cave. Equally amazing was the determination and skill to extend our senses beyond their natural limits, by devising everything from the long eyes of television to the cupped ears of radio telescopes. Forget about being too big for our boots—we became too big for our skulls. Once we imagined gods with supernatural powers; it was only a matter of time before we aped them. On fabricated wings, we learned to fly. With weapons, we hurled lightning bolts. Using medicines, we healed. Our ancient ancestors would think us gods.

“Are you out of your mind?!” we sometimes demand. The answer is yes, we are all out ofour minds; we left long ago when our brain needed more room to do its dance. Or rather, out of our brain. A born remodeler, it made as many additions as building codes allowed, then designed two kinds of external storage bins. Information could be put into things like books, which felt good in the hand, and also onto invisible things, like airwaves and ethernets.

Common sense tells us that if life exists elsewhere in the universe, it will be far more technologically advanced than we. But our evolution has been deliriously quirky, resulting in beings with bizarre traits and personalities, including, for example, the idea of a personality. I wonder how many other planetarians might feel the need to share and document their personal existence in such elaborate ways. We think of a human being as a distinct, definable creature, and its life complex. But we may once have been very different animals, with different minds and concerns and mental habits. We are who and what we are only after many trade-offs. It’s sobering to imagine what was traded.

About the Author

Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman is the author of 20 works of poetry and nonfiction, including, most recently, “An Alchemy of Mind” and “Origami Bridges: Poems of Psychoanalysis and Fire.”

View Essays