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Diversity Change Minds: Should we pay attention to what's important?

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

Writing for TechUK, this is the first of a three-part series exploring cognitive diversity, and examines the urgent need to embrace a broader spectrum of human traits and capabilities to solve societal challenges.

All of us are living through an attention crisis - today’s technologies are by-design distracting, systems promote short-term thinking, and our environments are engineering a-form-of-blindness.  Bound, these forces create a sense of the world speeding up and closing in on us. The result is a fragmented mind, and whilst some people tolerate this state, the effects are amplified in those with neurological differences. The decline of our mental wellbeing is a natural response to our surroundings, and what does this reveal about our future?

Discovering cognitive diversity

Our brain allows us to think and bring ideas into the living world in the form of systems, organisations, institutions, and tools, and these loopback shaping us, whilst also reinforcing our brain's structure and understanding of reality.

A normal brain is a myth but neurologically diverse people - such as those with conditions such as Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ASD, ADHD - will navigate life, with alternative thinking patterns, perceptions, and behaviours.

Formed of two hemispheres and about 100 billion neurons, our brain is the most complex thing in the universe and that’s the reason why neuroscience is thought of as the last frontier of science. The brain is the author of our reality and with so much left to learn, why do we believe we already have the answers?

Attending to our world

Many factors enabled homo sapiens dominance, including the ability to make tools and form close-knit communities.  Our cognitive capacity coupled with natural human variation made us resilient, adaptable and creative. Differences in neurological genes exist today because there was an evolutionary reason.

We interact with our environment through attention and this is the fundamental resource which shapes our understanding of the world, but each of our brain's hemispheres has a very different take.

The mode of the right hemisphere is one of vigilance, which is both broad and sustained - akin to being on the lookout for predators.  Whilst the left attention mode is narrow and fixed, which also allows us to grasp things - a seeking prey mindset. The two hemispheres work together on many cognitive processes, but with attention these two distinctive forms are incompatible with one another.

Our brains evolved over millions of years in a very different environment - nature.  In this context, there’s another way of framing these two states - the right embraces discovery, new experiences, and possibility, whilst the left requires familiarity, certainty, and control.

The complex and fragmented modern world forces us to rapidly pivot between the two states of attention, but do we value one take over the other, and what role does this attentional bias play in the mounting crises playing out in society?

The modern world

“Sit still and pay attention” is what we say to the younger generation. With a lack of both fixed and narrow focus so prominent today, would we be better off looking at the causes of their inattention?

These include a lack of interest, different information processing styles, digital distractions, environmental stimulus, lack of natural light, poor sleep, inadequate nutrition, and many more.

Our engineered environments (and tools) are impacting the way our brain is evolving to interpret the world - we do not know what the long-term consequences of this will be.

With 83% of UK residents living in urban areas, it disconnects us from the natural environment where our senses developed. As we spend more time living in towns and working indoors we are witnessing a rise of myopia (short-sightedness) to epidemic proportions (predicted to be 2.58bn of the global population by 2020 - WHO).

Moving indoors has coincided with the rise of screentime  - TV, computers, smartphones and now wearables - which has resulted in a shrinking visual perspective.

Swapping a distant horizon for the proximity of walls also reduces the space to ponder and reflect, and as our devices draw our attention downwards and inward we no longer gaze upwards, and with it awe and wonder.

Permanent distraction is the outcome of paying for the internet with our eyeballs. This always-on and fragmented existence is also robbing us of our unique capacity to empathise with one another.  Without empathy, we would not be able to form close-knit communities, and it’s something the neurologically diverse need in abundance.

Reframing difference

A one size fits all approaches to living, learning, working and consuming have had their day.  Considering these worrying trends - insecure work, widening skills gaps, stagnating economy, increasing inequality, mental health crisis, climate change - do we need to reassess the stories and assumptions that underpinned this era?

Infinite growth was an illusion, but this concept also bred complacency where stability and progress appeared to be assured.  Our society is built on the premise that tomorrow will be better than today, but systemic rigidity and inertia is making this concept less plausible. Against an uncertain backdrop with finite resources, is doubling down on control, conformity and bureaucracy the way to go?  Structure and stability is important, but we also need to create an environment where innovation can flourish.

Imagination, critical thought, problem-solving, and cooperation are vital components for an optimistic future.  This requires us to remodel how we learn and work, and in this context we will can reframe our perception of neurologically diverse traits such as those displayed by people with ADHD - high levels of energy, tolerance of risk, scepticism and mind-wandering.

This embrace of curiosity and the subsequent seeking of new experiences will help reconnect us with our primary attention mode. At a fundamental level, this shift will change the way we attend to the world - moving away from a sole reliance on our fixed, narrow and isolated perspective, and towards one which is global, contextualised and integrated.

The truth is, both forms of attention play vital roles, and given their finite nature, we must empower people to put them to much better use.

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