Awareness as a Choice

I was recently watching a minor league baseball game. A commentator noted that one of the young players showed a great situational awareness–the player was able to quickly assess a situation and determine what action to take. Another commentator asked if that was something that is natural or something that can be taught. The first commentator wasn’t sure.

Though this particular issue dealt with baseball, it has much broader implications. Awareness is a learned skill–all skills must be learned.

Awareness is our fundamental cognitive choice. We choose whether to be mentally engaged with our surroundings, or to be passive bystanders. The choice we make determines our level of awareness. And it is a choice that we face every waking moment.

The choices that we habitually make gradually become automatized. If an individual consistently chooses to be mentally active, he “naturally” becomes more aware. But he wasn’t born that way; he taught himself that skill. In contrast, the individual who routinely chooses to disengage his mind will be less aware of his surroundings and events that he witnesses. But he wasn’t born that way either; he also taught himself that “skill.”

Sherlock Holmes makes this point in A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes asks Dr. Watson how many stairs lead up to their apartment. Though he has traversed those stairs thousand of times, Watson does not know. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear,” Holmes says.

We automatically see, but we do not automatically observe. Our eyes automatically provide us with sensory data, but it is our choice to be aware of that data or not.

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