Thursday, September 30, 2010


What do I unsee? What do I unhear? Those were the questions I had in my mind when I woke up this morning. I finished reading the 2010 Hugo Winning (tie) novel The City & The City by China Mieville last night. As I slept, the world Mievelle created was playing with my subconscious. The theme Mievelle centered his book around was now taking on a life beyond the pages. Good Science Fiction can do that.

In The City and The City two different cities in two different countries exist side by side. A street may have one side in one city and the other side in the other city. A building may have one area that belongs in one city and another area in the other city. Intersections may be “cross hatched,” and belong in both cities, creating a challenge to drivers. This isn’t the result of multiple dimensions or space time fluctuations. This is the result of cultural training. People are taught to “unsee” people from the other city. There are cues in dress, posture, etc. People are also taught to “unheard” any sounds that come from the other city.

The first hundred or so pages, I confess, were slow reading for me. Even though I had read reviews, I still couldn’t get into the book. But once I did, the setting came alive for me. I was as involved in the story as I would be reading any other mystery. (In our library, the book is categorized as a mystery novel.)

This phenomenon of unseeing is actually quite common. Our senses take in a great deal of information, and we can only pay attention to a fraction of it. Inattentional blindness is the term given to this phenomenon of ignoring what is in front of us. In a famous study, participants were asked to count how many times actors wearing a specific color passed a ball. While the other actors were bouncing the ball, a woman in a gorilla costume walked through them. Half the participants never “saw” the gorilla. Historically, legend has it that the Indians did not see the European ships at first because their consciousness did not yet accept the ships' existence. Similarly, a fun article that appeared earlier this month discussed luck. Many people do not “see” opportunities.  But people can be taught to see; they can learn to be lucky. 

Unseeing and unhearing can be applied to so many areas of our lives. So as I go about my day I begin forming the questions. What do I unsee? Who do I unsee? What do I unhear? Who do I unhear?

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