Thursday 29 February 2024
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Our Ancient Attraction to Focus


The Focused Tribe

The Himba people of northwestern Namibia are semi-nomadic sheep and cattle herders that have largely avoided contact with modern cultures. Their villages consist of wooden huts organized around a sacred fire that connects them to their ancestors. Their living spaces are devoid of western artifacts.

It was against this backdrop that not too long ago a researcher named Jules Davidoff, from Goldsmith’s University in London, gained permission from a Himba tribal chief to bring in a team ladened with electronic equipment to conduct psychological experiments.

As detailed in a 2011 paper appearing in the journal PLOS ONE (also reported on by a recent BBC article), the results were surprising.

The Himba people, it turns out, literally see the world differently than westerners. But perhaps more important to our discussion here is their “striking” ability to resist distraction and to focus. As summarized in the BBC article: “they appeared to be the most focused of any groups previously studied [by Davidoff’s team].”

At the risk of drawing too broad a conclusion from narrow findings, these results might help explain an observation that I emphasized in Chapter 3 of Deep Work: human beings seem wired to find great satisfaction in concentrating intensely.

We can label ourselves “digital natives,” and extol the virtues of hyper-connectivity, but as the Himba people demonstrate, our affinity for deep concentration is ancient, and its attraction is something we cannot easily discard. Evolution shaped a mind optimized to concentrate, and our recent embrace of distraction is an exception to our past.

I think this observation is something we should keep in mind when reflecting on how best to build a meaningful life in an increasingly distracted world.

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