Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Giving my Two Senses worth

Last week I had an eye appointment for a regular exam, and I'd forgotten that they dilate one's eyes periodically at these things. So I was somewhat unexpectedly left without the ability to focus on anything, stumbling around wearing dark glasses, during an afternoon I'd allocated for a variety of work tasks.

I was left with a new appreciation for the problems of those with sight problems -- not just for those completely without sight, but those with cataracts and other conditions that similarly prevent clear focus. It's no new observation, I'm sure, that it's difficult to get anything done without eyesight or that so much of our inputs are visual -- reading, computer screens, TV. And I even felt at the time that it must be comical to see my trying to pick out a CD and put it in the correct way (unsuccessfully) or trying to do housework and not being able to quite see what was dusty and what wasn't, and finally just slumping back to listen to the radio on the couch in my dark glasses, simply because I knew it would 'wear off' in a couple of hours.

What I felt anew during this oddly-forced interregnum of visual deprivation was how much multitasking is built into my routine. I'm sure I'm not alone here; it has to be one of the hallmarks of the social evolution in the last thirty years that it's rare to have just one thing going on at a time, just one thing you're concentrating on, with no inputs or mental threads coasting to other problems. Working on my kayak and listening to NPR; typing my blog on one screen and having the world series playing on another; reading a novel while having an intermittent conversation with my frau and rubbing the dog's belly at the same time.

Rather than bemoan my own lack of ability to "concentrate" on one thing, in reflecting on this while I lay semi-blinded for a few hours, it seemed all the more remarkable to me how well adapted we are to get more than one thing done at once. But like most adaptations to a particular diet, removing one item makes one feel starved - at least for a bit - even if there's plenty else to eat.

It sends a few chills down my spine thinking of the infirmities of old age -- declined eyesight, hearing, physical dexterity -- interfering with the life of the mind, simply because it's hard for me to imagine toning down the multithreading and telling my poor brain to just do the one thing at a time it's capable of doing. The senses and threads within the inputs of those senses reinforce one another. I'm happy to be able to simultaneously think a little bit about what groceries I need to get, what Kate Chopin's life must've been like, whether my dog needs to go out, while listening to Market Place and reading a newspaper.

At times one needs great concentration on the task at hand. At other times, it seems like a waste of valuable neuron time not to let the gray goo wander all over the place. But I am reminded that much of that ability is tied to the peripherals -- the eyes in particular, the ears as well, and one's ability to manipulate the immediate environment. Keeping these in good repair is ever more vital. Understanding how infirmities affect others, equally so.

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