Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Agricultural & Industrial Boredom

Growing up, I remember being told that agrarian farmers in the United States around the time of the depression had a very small number of stimuli in their daily lives. I don’t know why I remember it being around the time of the Great Depression or limited to just farmers in the United States, but I had a teacher at one point who compared the number of stimuli in the lives of kids in the 1990s and early 2000s (kids like me) to farmers of the early 1900s. This was in a pre-smartphone age, but I still had a Gameboy, watched too much TV, and even in Reno, NV had plenty of billboards competing for my attention as I was driven to and from sports practices. A farmer of the 1900s had a tractor, some farm equipment, rows of corn, and blue skies with a few clouds here and there. By the time I had played a few minutes of Gameboy, watched a cartoon before school, and ridden the bus, I had experienced more stimuli competing for my attention than a farmer would have experienced their whole life – so my teacher suggested.
The implications of the lack of stimuli for early farmers was that their lives were boring. I had electronic games, interesting TV shows, and thousands of distractions every day to keep my mind occupied. But early farmers had very little to keep their mind engaged throughout the day. This idea is echoed by Yuval Noah Harari in is book Sapiens. He writes, “the forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do.” This seems to have been true about early human agriculturalists and industrialists, and is in many ways still true today.
Ancient hunter-gatherers had a lot of interesting things to do each day. They would move around, travel about the landscape looking for different edible foods, try to stalk an animal to potentially kill for dinner, and look for resources and materials that could be useful for some sort of shelter. Their days were like our treasured weekend hiking and hunting trips, and for many of them, they were likely out with a small group of trusted tribesmen, not off by themselves.
Early farmers had a lot of work to do, but it was routine and dull compared to exploring the land looking for good food. In the end, farming seems to have been able to provide more calories for more people, making it pay off for society as a whole, but the individual farmers had less interesting lives than the foragers. Industry is similar. Humans within industry and factories are viewed as essentially biological machines, and they often have to do the same repetitive tasks for hours on end in industrialized economies. Certainly being a hunter-gatherer who goes on hikes all day and then hangs out with kids, plays games, tell stories, and gossips after a day out exploring would have been much more interesting and enjoyable than waking up early, making the same daily commute, and working the same tedious job 5 or 7 days a week.
Visual Versus Olfactory

Visual Versus Olfactory

I like to remind myself that I don’t experience the world around me the same way that my dog experiences the world. One of the biggest differences for us is that as a human I primarily experience the world by picking up on visual cues, whereas my dog primarily experiences the world through olfactory cues. My smelling ability isn’t very good, but my vision is pretty great. My dog’s vision isn’t very good, but her smelling is phenomenal. “Humans are better equipped for sight than for smell,” writes Mary Roach in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, “We process visual input ten times faster than olfactory.”
While we can smell, hear, and sense pressure changes on our skin, it is primarily our eyesight that helps us perceive and move about our world. We gain more information from looking at something than we do from smelling, tasting, and even feeling that same thing. That is why so much of our art is visual, why we paint our homes and cars, and why movies and videogames are able to keep our attention so well. Our brains pick up on and process visual stimuli much quicker than other stimuli.
In the human brain, a huge amount of space is dedicated to visual processing. Much more of our brains matter is dedicated to visual processing than olfactory processing, as Roach’s quote above indicates. This is why our brains are so much quicker at decoding and deciphering visual stimuli. In other animals, such as my dog, the part of the brain dedicated to visual processing is not as large relative to other brain regions. My dog has more brain space dedicated to olfactory processing than visual processing, relative to my brain, and thus perceives the world acting on different primary stimuli.
In the book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich shares research which suggests that certain visual activities, like reading, change the structure of the brain. In the case of reading, the brain space dedicated to processing visual symbols grows as one reads more and the brain tends to give up space related to facial recognition. We get better at reading quickly, but worse at remembering faces.  In Gulp, Roach explains that this kind of process is likely taking place very early on in childhood development. She quotes a scientist who she interviewed that explains that parents of infants go out of their way to label and identify objects that can be visually observed, but parents do not go out of their way to label sounds, smells, or other stimuli. We can spend hours identifying and labeling the tiny differences that we can observe in everything from different species of bugs to 1000 piece puzzles, but we don’t often spend a lot of time differentiating between all the aromas in the smell of coffee, all the different flavors in a slice of chocolate cake, or all the different sounds in an orchestra. In these instances, we take all the different components and experience them as one, unless we train to identify all the different components.
Our visual processing is truly impressive, but it is worth recognizing how much we rely on what we can see, and why. The world is a lot bigger than just what our minds can process from the visual information that we take in. Remembering how much of our brain is dedicated to visual processing can hep us better contextualize our experiences of the world and recognize when we are being overly biased toward visual information. Malcolm Gladwell’s final podcast of his most recent season, all about the power and potential of dogs’ olfactory processing, is a great reminder of why we shouldn’t be too biased toward what we can see.
Stimulus Response Compatibility

Stimulus Response Compatibility

Have you ever had someone give you a list of words written in different colored ink and asked you to ignore the word as written and instead say the color of the ink that the word is written in? It isn’t too difficult when you see random words, but it becomes much different when you see the names of colors written in different colors, such as green written in red ink or the other way around. The difficulty with reading the color and not the word in those situations stems from poor stimulus response compatibility. The brain receives a signal in the writing of the word, and has to overcome that signal to say a different color.

 

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein use this as an example in their book Nudge. They also demonstrate stimulus response compatibility using an example of a door with round wooden handles in a classroom that Thaler once taught in. The handles sent a signal to student and anyone else exiting the room that indicated they were intended to be pulled in order for the door to be opened. However, the doors needed to be pushed open. Describing the confusing doors and the poor stimulus response compatibility, the authors write, “you want the signal you receive (the stimulus) to be consistent with the desired action. When there are inconsistencies, performance suffers and people blunder.”

 

Stimulus response compatibility is crucial in terms of website design, road construction, slide presentations, video games, and any other setting where cues are used to indicate a desired behavior. People need to understand where to click to add an item to a shopping cart, how to scroll through a website, and how to close out of any pop-ups. Drivers need explicit cues for when it is safe to drive through an intersection, and inexplicit cues can help drivers understand when they need to slow down. Visual, audio, and other stimuli can drive predictable responses in people, and they can be used as nudges to help encourage or discourage certain behaviors. Understanding the stimulus you are providing and whether it is compatible with the behaviors you want people to exhibit is crucial.

 

Most of us probably want to develop good stimulus response compatibility, but we should also note that it can be used to frustrate people and prevent certain behaviors or goal attainment. If you have ever tried to unsubscribe from an annoying email list or newsletter, you may have experienced the challenges of intentionally poor stimulus response compatibility. Instead of having a clear link at the end of the email to unsubscribe, the link might be a dull gray color. The link might take you to a page with unclear directions on what buttons you needed to select to unsubscribe from all future emails. You may have seen a green button prominently placed that re-subscribed you instead of unsubscribed you from the emails, thwarting your plan to declutter your inbox.

 

It isn’t quite the case that these nudges are methods of mind control, but they do influence our behavior and can shape how we behave, what we learn, and real outcomes in our lives. If we are choice architects, we should recognize what behaviors we are trying to encourage, and think about the subtle cues and stimuli we can present to encourage people to make decisions that are in the best interest of the individual making the choice – as measured and determined by them, not us. Nudges are powerful, especially when a good stimulus response compatibility is in place. Importantly, nudges are not the kinds of roadblocks and obstacles that I discussed in the example of trying to unsubscribe from an email list.
Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

Stimuli, Attention, and What We Notice

“Wherever you direct your gaze, you will meet with something that might stand out from the rest, if the context in which you read it were not equally notable,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic.

 

Quite a while back I listened to a podcast interview with the founder of a music streaming service called Focus At Will. The company is different from other streaming services such as Spotify or Pandora in that they don’t provide stations that have your favorite songs from top artists. Instead, they have stations with altered songs and selected tunes that they believe will help you stay on focus. The idea is that our brains are easily distracted by the human voice, by instruments that mimic the human voice, and by lots of changes in our background. Each time we hear a voice, we are distracted for a fraction of second as our brain figures out whether we need to pay attention to that voice or not. And when the sound in the background changes suddenly, like when a song ends, when a car honks its horn, or when a branch snaps, our brains perk up and focus on our surroundings for a second to figure out if we are in danger. Eliminate these background noises and provide a consistent noise, the company argues, and people will be able to focus.

 

Seneca’s quote from above reminded me of Focus At Will and the theories behind their streaming. In particular, one of their stations really aligns with the ideas that Seneca lays out in the quote, but from an audio rather than visual perspective. Focus At Will has a station designed for people with ADHD. Based on neurological studies, they argue that people with ADHD have brains that are too sensitive to background noises. For most of us, when a colleague sneezes from two offices over, the sound is detected by our ears and transmitted to our brain which subconsciously decides the noise was unimportant. Consequentially we don’t even notice the noise because it gets stuck with the unconscious brain, never elevated to the level of conscious awareness. For an individual with ADHD, however, their brain is more sensitive to a sneeze from down the hall, and they consciously recognize that noise and are distracted as they think through whether they need to respond to the stimuli or not. This happens with more than just sneezes, and can be hugely distracting for the individual as they are constantly working through stimuli that are easily ignored and unnoticed for most of us.

 

The solution that most of us would jump to would be to put an individual with ADHD in a completely noise and stimuli reduced environment. The solution of Focus at Will, in line with Seneca’s quote, is to raise the context of other noises to be equally as notable as the disruptions. The streaming service has a station that can be almost overwhelming to individuals without ADHD. There is a flurry of sound (in a musical way – not just random noise) that is somewhere in the neighborhood of heavy metal, demolition derbies, or construction sites. The solution is to raise the level of noise and distraction so that everything is operating at a high distraction level, so that no notable sound stand out.

 

Personally, I listen to stations like the Chilled Cow Lofi Hip Hop Radio Station when I need to focus on important work. But the idea of what stands-out, what we focus on, what we notice among a sea of stimuli is fascinating. Our brains can be overwhelmed by stimuli, and at the same time, an abundance of stimuli can also bring our attention and focus into a single point, drowning out other stimuli. This is just one more example of how reality isn’t. Our brains construct and create the reality we experience, and how we see the world around us is context dependent, with the level of stimuli playing a role in what we observe and experience.