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Tuesday, August 30, 2016

the human geography of attention

The term allergy was invented in 1906. In Mark Jackson’s Allergy: history of a modern malady, it is noted that the man who invented the term, Clemens von Pirque recognized there was something counterintuitive in a disease that seemed to orginate in the immunity to disease. On the  other hand, in 1906, the wonders of the human immune system were not well known.
There was some resistance to this linguistic newcomer – I’m tempted to say that the term allergy was treated as an allergen. Jackson’s book is about how the disease – or condition – took off in the 20th century.  That is, the prevalance rate for allergies climbed throughout the century. Other diseases – tuberculosis and polio – did not – they, famously, declined. And they declined not just because cures were found for them, but also because – at least in the case of tuberculosis – there was a concerted public health effort to alter the environments that favored tuberculosis. It is always worth remembering that the greatest medicine broadcast in the twentieth century was public sewers. Rene Dubos, in a famous study, showed that tuberculosis was declining precipitantly before the advent of drugs to treat it. He also made a strong case for the idea that tuberculosis skyrocket in the 19th century due to the environmental changes brought about by industrialization. Or perhaps I should say: changes in human geography.  Similarly, it is rare tht one hears of someone dying of stomach cancer nowadays, even though, worldwide, it is the fifth most common cause of death by a malignancy. In the US, it used to be a bigger killer than lung cancer. Epidemiologists have shown that the decline can be directly linked – some say up to 50 percent - to the refrigerator. In those regions of the world where food is still preserved by using salt, stomach cancer is relatively common. Even in the refrigerated countries, incidence are climbing again, due to obesity.
It is interesting to compare the discovery and investigation of allergies as “industrial” conditions with the discovery of attention deficit disorder, or ADHD. Our attention landscape has not been mapped very well.  I like some attempts: for instance, Jonathan Crary’s excellent book about the attention crisis in the 19th century, Suspensions of Perception. But there’s no systematic mapping of the changes wrought by, say, literacy. Literacy is often treated as an unmitigated good. How can anybody be against literacy? But the question is not whether literacy is good of bad, the question is whether the increase in literacy and the creation of human landscapes that incorporate literacy on a large scale has created a psychological neurological response among a certain portion of the population that feeds into ADHD. The landscape changes have been rapid and recent. A relatively short time ago – in 1900 – in the US, for instance, half the population was rural. In 1910, only 35 percent of 17 year olds were in high school – the majority of kids stopped their education at the 8th grade level. Education and literacy are, among other things, experiments. It wouldn’t surprise me if an attention landscape that favored one form of perceptual interaction  would produce attention casualties when the landscape shifted. It would also, of course, privilege certain individuals that the previous attention landscape handicapped. To quote from Jackson’ book about allergies: “As Ludwik Fleck insisted in 1927, diseases should not be regarded as stable natural
entities but as ‘ideal fictitious pictures . . . round which both the individual and the variable morbid phenomena are grouped, without, however, ever corresponding completely to them’.

If the attention required by literacy is qualitatively different, so, too, is the attention required for driving a car. In fact, it would be interesting to me to see if attention micor-environments don’t conflict with each other. Is it possible that the attention required for going at 60 miles per hour, judging other cars, stopping, starting, the whole range of attention tasks required by the automobile, is in conflict with the attention required for looking at equations being put up on a blackboard and taking a written test?

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