Saturday, November 17, 2007

We all have tunnel vision

Supposedly people can hold about seven "items" in their mind at any one time. I was never sure what that meant -- what qualifies as an "item"? I recently realized that it means our brains have roughly seven "registers", similar to the registers on a microprocessor. These registers don't store much information, they really just hold pointers to something in longer term memory.

Here's the important realization: There's a million important things going on in the world and in our lives, but we're really only aware of seven of them. This means that we all have a very narrow and limited understanding of the world and our own lives. The seven things on our mind all seem very important, while everything else is just kind of forgotten.

We must be very careful about what gets loaded into those seven registers. I like to read reddit occasionally, but I've found that it can be a little dangerous. Some days it is filled with bad news -- my seven registers get filled with scary and depressing things, and it feels like the world is crumbling.

On the other hand, I can go for a walk outside and after a little while I begin to notice how nice the trees are, the various smells of nature, the construction progress on the house down the street, and other pleasant (for me) things, and the world seems like a really nice place.

This seven register limitation also makes people very subject to manipulation. If you can control what is getting loaded into their attention, you can largely control what they think and how they feel. For example, if people keep talking about Iran and how scary they are and debating what to do about them, then pretty soon Iran will seem like the biggest, scariest problem in the world, and no solution will seem too extreme. The truth is that there are probably 100 more important problems, but it won't seem that way because all seven registers are loaded with the same topic. The subject of the debate is more important than the content.

At any one time, a million things are going wrong, the world is falling apart. At any one time, a million things are going right, the world just keeps getting better. Those are both true statements, but one will feel much more true depending one which seven things are loaded into your attention now.

The same thing can happen inside of a company. We can easily become obsessed with one issue or threat, and it ends up taking all of our attention and energy even though it's not the most important problem. And because it seems like the only problem, our response is often completely irrational. I have some amusing Google anecdotes, but I'm almost out of time for this post, so they will have to wait...

How do we deal with this? I'm not certain, but the first step is to simply be aware of it. Take a break. Go for a walk. Try to clear out your attention. Maintain balance. Keep four good things in mind at all times (make a list). We shouldn't ignore the bad things, but we mustn't allow them to overwhelm us, because that's what will happen if the bad completely pushes out the good.

27 minutes.

Update: To be clear, the actual value "seven" is not important -- it's just an idea that many people are familiar with. The point is that our attention has a very limited capacity, and therefore we are always missing out on the bigger picture.