Wednesday, August 17, 2011

the present

After having seen Joshua Bell last week, I was reminded why I was totally crushing on him in 2001.  But that's not what this is about.  That's just the prologue.  It just explains why I've been reading a lot of stuff on the interwebs about him.  And I came across something I have to share.

In 2007 the Washington Post did a study.  The study consisted of taking Joshua Bell, one of the world's greatest violinists, had him play some amazing (and amazingly difficult) classical music in a Washington DC Metro stop at rush hour.  They dressed him up in normal street clothes, put a baseball cap on him, threw a few dollars and change into his violin case, and waited to see who would notice.

This is what happened:

At first, the Washington Post was worried about crowd control.  In a city as sophisticated as DC, they thought, someone would surely notice him.  Flashbulbs would go off.  Things would escalate.  The National Guard would arrive.  There would be teargas.

Over 11000 people passed right by him in the 45 minutes he played. One person recognized him.  She wasn't a violinist, and she didn't know classical music that well, but she had been at a previous concert of his.

The Washington Post interviewed people afterwards about whether they noticed him, whether they stopped, and why.  The article is a fascinating study in psychology.  The Post wrote down names and numbers of people who were willing to talk with them about "their commute" for an article.  Later on, when reporters called the commuters, they asked whether anything interesting had happened that morning.  One man said that he had seen a superb violinist, but he hadn't recognized Joshua Bell, even though he was a fan.

The reporters told the commuters what had actually happened, and why they were actually being interviewed, and most of them were disappointed that they hadn't realized just who they were walking past.

One man remembers all the lottery numbers he played that day, but he can't remember that he was 4 feet away from a virtuoso.  One guy took no notice of him at all because he had earbuds in, listening to his ipod.  

"For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.

The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was "Just Like Heaven," by the British rock band The Cure. It's a terrific song, actually. The meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point: It's about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can't express the depth of his feeling for her until she's gone. It's about failing to see the beauty of what's plainly in front of your eyes."

I'm fascinated by this experiment.  Not just because of all the normal lessons (ie, pay attention to what's going on around you because you never know what you're going to see) but all the subtle stuff.  The preparation that went into the experiment, and the things that were going on in the heads of the people who stopped (and didn't stop).

When I was younger, I used to annoy my dad by asking him why he bought what he did.  He got a new toothbrush, and I was fascinated by what it was that made him decide on the one he finally got.  I mean, if you look in the toothbrush aisle, there are, like, at least 50 you can choose from.  I wanted to know what it was about the one he chose that made it the one.  Was it the price?  The color?  The bristles?  What?!  He never would answer me.  He'd just say, "I liked it."  Yes, but *why*?

This article starts probing that part of people's brains to find out why they did or didn't stop and listen.  Why they did or didn't give money.  It's blowing my mind.

If I saw Joshua Bell play in a metro station, I'd totally faint.  I'm going to have to keep a lookout now that I know he's prone to such antics.  But I wonder what else I could miss because I'm so busy watching out for Joshua Bell.  I could miss something equally amazing.  Oh man, it's too late to be thinking about all this.  It's making my head spin.

The lesson, I guess, is that you pay attention to what's in front of you, because that's all there is, really, to pay attention to.

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