Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

‘Omdenken’, the Dutch art of flip-thinking, starts with observation: seeing things the way they are. Facing the facts. Unfortunately this can be quite difficult. There are all kinds of reasons we can’t see or (as in the following example) hear what’s there.

One of the most important reasons is tunnel vision. We’re so focused on a certain idea or goal, that we don’t perceive anything that lies beyond that idea. Just like the best time to catch a cat is when he’s tensely focusing on a mouse: in the instant the cat is ready to pounce on his prey, he isn’t paying any attention to anything that is happening outside his narrow field of view.

The following story is a nice example of tunnel vision. It’s also a great example of the fact that children are hardly bothered by tunnel vision, especially compared to adults. This lets them be more open and unprejudiced in their view of the world.

In a Washington, D.C. subway station a man sat playing the violin. It was a cold January morning. He played 6 different pieces by Bach, in about 45 minutes. It was during rush hour, so more than a thousand people passed him on their way to work.

After three minutes a middle-aged man stopped near the violinist. He listened for a few seconds but left quickly and hurried along to his next appointment.

A minute later the violinist received his first dollar. A woman tossed the money into the open violin case and kept on walking. A few more minutes later a man stopped and leaned against the wall to listen to the music, but soon enough he glanced at his watch and walked off again. He’d probably just realised that this short pause had already made him late for work.

The person that paid the most attention to the violinist was a three-year-old boy. His mother tried to pull him along, but he wanted to stop and listen. The mother roughly pushed him forward and the boy reluctantly started walking again while looking back at the violinist for as long as he could. Other children did the same. All parents, without exception, shushed their kids and hurried them along.

During the 45 minutes that the violinist played, only 6 people stopped to listen for a while. About 20 people gave him some money, but kept walking without breaking their stride. He ‘earned’ 32 dollars. When he finished playing, and the subway station grew quiet once more, it was as if nobody noticed. Nobody applauded him or acknowledged presence.

What nobody knew, was that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most complicated pieces ever composed on a violin worth no less than 3 and a half million dollars.

Two days before his anonymous performance in the subway station Joshua Bell played in a sold-out Boston Symphony Hall, where the average ticket price had been over a hundred dollars.

This is a true story. The experiment involving Joshua Bell, playing anonymously in a subway station, was organised by the Washington Post. It was a social experiment about peoples’ perception, taste in music, and priorities. The question was: are we capable of seeing beauty at an unusual time and place? Do we stop to enjoy it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected surrounding?

Based on this experience, one of the possible conclusions might be: if we can’t make time to stop and listen to one of the world’s best musicians, playing one of the world’s greatest works of music, how many other things escape our attention all the time?

The story also shows us that whether we judge something to be good, nice, or special, depends a lot on the circumstances and on social pressure. The fact that a good violinist is playing in a famous concert hall, that he plays on an wildly expensive instrument, that you paid a lot of money for your ticket: that context makes you appreciate something, perhaps even more than the actual subject (the music itself). Like a sweater that is suddenly nicer when a small crocodile is sewn on the left breast.

Berthold GunsterTunnel Vision