The invisible tchotchke

There's a yard I see periodically that is both well-landscaped and also absolutely filled with stuff: Tchotchkes, baubles, and knick-knacks but also random other items of interesting appearance such as bird cages, dolls, or colorful tiles. While it could look terrible, the owner has arranged them and worked them all in with the plants and the overall effect is quite pleasing, although I'm sure there's at least one angry neighbor.

What I found surprising on my first encounter was that the objects seemed to have some sort of mystical power to avoid individual visual inspection. When describing this yard to someone a few days ago, I found myself unable to recall any one of the objects in particular, and had to fall back on the generic "tchotchkes". The next time I went past, instead of allowing my eyes to drift over the whole collection, I tried to focus on any one object, and found that I could not! It was rather disconcerting.

I had originally chalked this up to the distracting nature of the entire yard, but I think there's more to it than that. The third time, I introspected while attempting to examine a single object, and found that when my eyes wandered, it was in service of discovering the context of the object. This makes sense! We understand our visual world contextually, and I believe Hofstadter & co. are correct in their top-down + bottom-up Fluid Concepts model—there is an interplay between forming expectations based on observations and fitting observations to expectations. We understand an object (faster) by what is around it: A fork on the kitchen counter amid some dirty dishes is easier to recognize at a glance than, say, a fork in the road. But the objects in this yard are not only completely removed from their original context, they are placed into a distracting one, and even worse, a field of other contextless objects! And so my eyes wander out to the next object over, and the next, and then distraction takes hold.

As I was writing this, I think I have found one other situation where this effect takes place: A very messy room or desk, full of odds and ends. I find that when I set myself to the task of cleaning a mess like that, I freeze up. I had thought that perhaps it was due to the energy required to make a hundred small decisions (that had already been deferred for their non-triviality—there's a selection effect at play here) but now I wonder if perhaps I am also having difficulty focusing on any object long enough to tackle it. Certainly this would interfere with my ability to "pick the low-hanging fruit". If true, I might be able to develop some strategies for cleaning my desk, such as picking an object randomly and considering it outside of the desk's context.

I'm curious to hear if others have experienced this phenomenon as well. I'm also curious whether it correlates to any degree with attentional issues (e.g. I have ADHD) or visual processing issues. Or perhaps this is just an idiosyncratic trait, but if there's anything I've learned about the internet, it's that there's usually a "me too!" out there somewhere.


Responses: 2 so far

  1. Beth says:

    Stumbled onto your blog from a comment on my brother's blog. I have fraternal twin daughters, and I think that one of them has the same problem. She might have some adhd. (I haven't been in a hurry to pathologize her.) When they clean their room, the other twin jumps in and gets it done, but the first twin just gets frustrated and distracted. I would be interested in experimenting with some different tactics too. My most recent idea is to grab a box and have her put anything that doesn't belong in that room (that context) into the box for later sorting. We've only tried this once so far, but it seems promising. You might also check out the theory behind the "5S" methodology.

    "Dirty, cluttered, or damaged surfaces attract the eye, which spends a fraction of a second trying to pull useful information from them every time we glance past. Old equipment hides the new equipment from the eye and forces people to ask which to use" Ward, Allen (March 2014). Lean Product and Process Development (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Lean Enterprise Institute. p. 215. ISBN 978-1-934109-43-4.

  2. Tim McCormack says:

    Yes, I think that's a great strategy. Another one that might work is "grab *any* one item and do something with it, repeat", which sidesteps part of the distraction. My parents got me to do that as a kid. I also recall the approach "Find all the books then put them away as a group, repeat with each class of item." If you're looking for one type of thing it can be easier to ignore everything else.

    On a discussion of this post elsewhere, someone suggested trying out going into "unfiltered vision", which from context sounds similar to what I know as wide-angle vision. I tried it out, and was much more able to focus on a single object (which is curious because I associate wide-angle vision with *defocusing*.)