Study Hacks Blog Decoding Patterns of Success

Our Ancient Attraction to Focus

March 25th, 2017 · 19 comments

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.

(Photo of Himba village by Tee La Rosa; citation hat tip to Michael V.)

19 thoughts on “Our Ancient Attraction to Focus

  1. Jowhar says:

    I just read the whole original article. Feels great to know that our capacity to focus is much greater than what we think it is. Its also kinda depressing realizing that we live in a society that constantly decreases our ability to focus.

    1. Misha says:

      Isn’t that awesome that this super-productive state of mind is also very natural to us?! As to the distractions of the modern society – well, to rephrase Dr. Randy Pausch, “they are there to distract *other* people” 😉

  2. Tim says:

    Hi Cal,

    I know this is off-topic, but I figured this’d be the best place to reach you.

    For a high-school student, is the study tips from “How to be a high-school superstar” be sufficient, of would it be a good idea to apply “How to be a straight-A-student” as well of your grades could use some work.

    – Tim

    1. Nico says:

      Hi Tim

      I think I can answer that question for you, though on some of it might be off the mark since I don’t know you.

      If you have applied the advice from “How to be a high-school superstar” and made the skills your own. If you then, and only then, feel like you would benefit from reading “How to be a straight-A-student”, do so.

      I know that the feeling of reading and learning study techniques feel purposeful, but they aren’t useful until you practice them. The feeling of planning for great success feels great. That is why many people look for that feeling. What makes it worse is that ambitious plans will give you a greater feeling. The problem is that those ambitious plans are often beyond where you are right now. So be moderate in what you set yourself up to do. Start with the one book and wait at least a year. When you’re done, you’ll know enough so you can make that choice on your own.

      – Nico

      1. Tim says:

        Holly shit that was dead on, thanks for the great advice

      2. José says:

        One of the concepts of Cal’s book about Straight A stundents is that people that I – don’t speak English as mother tongue- has some difficult to understand the Quis-and-Recall process.

        In a simple way , what is Quiz And Recall? How to do it? Can you give me one example?

        1. Tim Greven says:

          Quiz and Recall is:

          You get a question (preferably one that asks you to explain something) and then without peeking to any notes, give the answer out loud in full sentences. If you can’t explain it out loud, you don’t understand it.

    2. Karan says:

      Hey Tim, I know your question is for Cal but I wanted to give you some advice since I read “How to be a straight-A-student”. The book is really good in helping you develop a system for college. College is a different landscape where you need to modify your study systems to be prepared for the challenges ahead.

      I am re-reading it right now because I have some big papers coming up (15-20 pages for example) and want to do well on it. I would go ahead and buy the book and read it intensely over the summer. You probably know he has another book on college as well.The other book is called “How to win at college” gives great overall scope on how to be successful at college while his A-student book analyzes your workload on a micro level.

      Both are easy reads and you should check out if you can. Preferably how to win at college and then how to be a straight A student would be the best order to read them in. That’s just my opinion. I hope my advice is helpful.

      1. Frank says:

        Hi Tim,

        I read “How to be a Straight A Student” a few years ago, while looking for some good advice for my college students. I was happy to see that my advice didn’t conflict with Cal’s book, but it was great to have someone else giving advice. Now, you can find reference to “How to be a Straight A Student” in all of my undergraduate syllabi. I wish that I had read it as an undergraduate . . .

        Good luck and work hard. It’s worth it.

  3. Bragadeesh says:

    Good to know. Developing the positive habit of doing deliberate practice for just 2 hours a day has shown a lot of improvement in my day to day life! Thanks again for another post.

  4. kim says:

    Although I haven’t read the article yet, I would think their ability to focus is largely connected to a somewhat closed gene pool considering focus is part of a neurological process.

  5. Perhaps we will think twice before we bring “civilization” to the next “uncivilized” tribe that we find? One can dream!

  6. Evaldas says:

    Interesting study, though if you look at hunter & gatherer societies in the past wouldn’t didn’t they need to be aware of a lot of different things at the same time? Meaning from which plants you can eat, to what sound you heard a moment ago? As that would be essential to survival if you miss-interpret some input wrongly. You could still say that it’s focus driven, but focusing on more than 1 thing at once.

  7. Hector says:

    Hey Cal,
    Just wondering what your go-to pens and pencils are for working?
    On a side note, you offer such poignant insight on how to remain focused and productive. Thank you for posting.

  8. In my opinion as a student, it’s seem like good point of view and i have learned much more of your post.

  9. am re-reading it right now because I have some big papers coming up (15-20 pages for example) and want to do well on it. I would go ahead and buy the book and read it intensely over the summer. You probably know he has another book on college as well.The other book is called “How to win at college” gives great overall scope on how to be successful at college while his A-student book analyzes your workload on a micro level.

  10. Paul says:

    But what have the highly focused Himba produced? Not sure what the link is to the Deep Work theory. Great satisfaction?

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