Nature-deficit disorder and the effects of selective attention

e13-iconRichard Louv writes: Not long ago, from a vantage point on a high bluff above a shoreline, Carol Birrell watched a group of high school students as they hiked through a park that was bordered on one side by a bay of the blue Pacific and on the other by a subtropical ecosystem.

​Birrell, who teaches nature education at the Centre for Education Research, University of Western Sydney, described the scene: “All had their heads lowered and backs bent with eyes focused on their feet like blinkered horses.” The scene also reminded her of how children walk along fixated on their cell phone screens.

Not more than 100 meters from the hikers, in the bay, a dolphin was slowly circled by three other dolphins. They were splashing loudly. And then it happened.

“A tiny vapor spout joining the group of larger spouts. A dolphin had given birth!”

​The students never saw it. They had walked right past this once-in-a lifetime event without looking up.

​Surely many other people on such an outing would have turned and looked. But in an increasingly distracting, virtual environment, many of us spend as much or more time blocking out our senses than using and growing them.

​“What are all of us missing out on when we rush through the bush, rush through life?” Birrell wonders.

​At least these students made it to the sea.

​In San Diego, where I live, Oceans Discovery Institute, a nature education organization, conducted an informal study of local inner-city children and found that approximately 90 percent of these children did not know how to swim, 95 percent had never been in a boat, and 34 percent had never been to the Pacific Ocean – less than 20 minutes away.

Among the similarities between Americans and Australians is a shared reputation for being an outdoors-oriented people. But Australians (who live in the world’s most urbanized nation), like Americans, are experiencing what I’ve called nature-deficit disorder. That’s not a medical diagnosis, but a metaphor. [Continue reading…]

The blinkered awareness that Louv writes about extends much more widely than our relationship with nature.

A dramatic example which drew widespread concern occurred last year in San Francisco when dozens of train passengers, whose attention extended no wider than the screens of their phones, failed to notice a gunman brandishing his weapon multiple times. No one looked up, that is, until he randomly shot a passenger in the back, killing him.

While technology physically reinforces this type of selective attention, it is also becoming more entrenched psychologically and culturally as we construct personal worlds populated by the people, ideas, styles, forms, and networks of association, with which we experience affinity.

More and more we live in worlds of our own making and as we do so we are losing touch with the outside world — a world which constantly presents itself but which we have multiple and multiplying means to ignore.

The awareness which nature requires is one with a 360-degree horizon. It is one in which cognitive preoccupations must not rise to a level where they block sensory awareness. It rests on an intuitive understanding that we cannot sustainably exist separated from everything around us.

To the extent that a sense of separation is becoming endemic in human experience, it means we are not only losing touch with nature but also losing touch with what it means to be alive.

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One thought on “Nature-deficit disorder and the effects of selective attention

  1. Christopher Hoare

    This may be getting worse but it’s not new. Some years ago in Glacier National Park when I was on a hike I pointed out a number of goats and a black bear on the other side of the valley to several parties of city folk, and even with coaching their brains could not process the images of moving white spots into the goats they were shown. One couldn’t even see goats through binoculars at about a mile. The bear was invisible to them among the bushes.

    The modern urban resident no longer lives in the real world.

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