Take a look at the pink circles. If you’re like most people, the circle on the right probably looks bigger, but they are actually the same size.
People of the Himba tribe are not so easily fooled by optical illusions like this. The Himba can be found in the small town of Opuwo, Namibia in small numbers. They’re easy to pick out, with the distinctive red paint that they spread on their skin and hair. They’re few and far between in town because they mostly live a life untouched by modern times. The younger generations are being drawn to the charms of contemporary society and this town is giving them a taste.
Jules Davidoff is studying these semi-nomadic herders at this pivotal point in their history. It turns out that the brains of people in pre-modern cultures like the Himba perceive things differently than people in modern cultures.
People of the Himba tribe are more focused on small details than they are on the larger context. People in modern cultures see more of the context and less of the details. This makes the Himba tribe less easily fooled by optical illusions. They are so focused on the smaller details that their brains don’t misinterpret what their eyes see. And this doesn’t just apply to visual focus. People in the Himba tribe are also less easily distracted – their mental focus is stronger.
Davidoff found that Himba people who went to Opuwo, even for a short trip were more susceptible to optical illusions and their focus decreased.
The reason for this is unclear but most researchers agree that the modern world presents us with a lot of stimuli that grab our attention. This is something that the technology industry knows all too well. They spend millions looking for ways to keep our attention on their online sites and apps. Some say this is damaging our focus and possibly our IQ.
Justin Rosenstein is an unlikely ally in a backlash against the tech assault on our attention. He is the creator of Facebook’s notorious “Like” button. He was worried about the Internet’s toll on his attention so he is backing off. He tweaked his laptop to block certain addictive websites and he even set up parental controls on his phone that limit his access.
Just a small dose of modern society has been shown to impact the people of the Himba tribe dramatically. For many of us who live within the modern world full time, our perception is no longer what it was. But people like Rosenstein believe we’re not too far gone and it’s not too late to start safeguarding our attention.