Thursday, December 29, 2011

Attention and the Leonardo Exhibition

I sometimes wish that the brain had several parallel attentional systems, with the possibility of switching each one on and off at will. I recognize the many difficulties of a nervous systems so arranged, not least of which is the problem that a switched-off attentional system will no longer be capable of signaling danger. But there would also be advantages, and one advantage would have been handy when I attended the Leonardo Exhibition at the National Gallery in London several weeks ago.

It was a dreadful experience, made all the more dreadful by the presence of so many masterpieces which would one could just not contemplate at leisure. Apparently, the Gallery had restricted entry to 185 at a time , instead of the 250 at any one time that they stuff in at such exhibitions. That may relate to the numbers entering; it has nothing to do with the numbers leaving. There must have been at least 600 in the room when I was there, describing paintings to their friends in a variety of languages, gesticulating and pointing to various features and, in general, distracting attention from the paintings and drawings themselves. To all those who do not wish to have such an unpleasant experience but learn about the paintings, I would recommend buying the catalogue instead, and forgetting about the exhibition. Of course, photographs never compare with the real thing, but at least you will be able to view the paintings without the endless distraction imposed by an attentional system that is simply not able, for good biological reasons, to handle many distractions.

I readily admit that I may be more sensitive than others to crowds. In addition to invading one’s peri-personal space with their handbags, etc, they also invade one’s auditory space incessantly. I deplore the endless messages now broadcast in Underground stations, many of which are pointless (“stand behind the yellow lines”; “no flash photography on the Underground”; “please contribute to our charity” and, most useless of all, “there is a good service on all lines this morning” (which, however, is more often than not followed by the announcement: “except for the following – the Circle, District, Piccadilly and City lines”, rendering the first part not only useless but also inaccurate). I hate announcements on planes, and in fact on a recent flight to Japan, I asked the steward if he could shut off the endless announcements on the intercom system (he did). Wherever I go, I am plagued by someone sitting next to me chattering on their mobile ‘phones. But such disagreeable experiences become doubly more so when one goes to a gallery to enjoy oneself and be instructed. So, I think that my days of visiting block-buster exhibitions are now over, unless of course I come across so much money that I can hire the entire exhibition for myself – an unlikely eventuality. Or, even more unlikely, if I could come up with a re-wiring of the nervous system such that a distracting input can be completely shut off.