RESOLVE TO WATCH WORLD AROUND YOU
Pay attention! No, literally. Marc Salem insists we need to pay more attention to the world around us, and this is my New Year’s resolution challenge to you.
“We’re taught about reading, writing and arithmetic, but we’re never taught about nonverbal communication,” said Salem, a “mentalist” who immediately picked up on my skeptical nonverbal communication.
Salem is a New York college professor who visited Northwest Indiana last week for his eccentric “Mind Over Munster” shows at the Theatre at the Center. He used his psychological techniques, quick wit and a sharp eye to “break the lock” on the brains of his audience members.
I attended one of the shows and watched the entire audience leave the venue mesmerized by his 90-minute performance, asking the same question: “How did he do that?”
Salem engages his viewers in a series of interactive exercises, such as when he asked a randomly picked audience member to pick one of two newspapers he offered. He then asked the man to choose a section of that chosen newspaper. And then to choose a specific page.
Salem took the page and repeatedly ripped it in half, asking the man to pick which half to continue with until there was only a shred of newsprint left.
The man read it aloud and Salem walked over to a table on stage. On it was a piece of paper with words written by Salem before the exercise began. His predicted words matched up perfectly with the words on the newspaper remnant. Again, how did Salem do that? I have no idea.
“I’m just warming up,” he told the audience.
Salem has been featured on “The O’Reilly Factor,” “60 Minutes” and “Court TV,” where he serves as a consultant. He also was director of research for “Sesame Street” for 10 years before baffling audiences from Broadway to London and beyond.
“We all love to hear about ourselves so that’s what I give them. I talk about their thoughts, their lives,” said Salem, who also was on my radio show.
He routinely confounded me with his insights of what I was thinking. For instance, he asked my co-host and me to each pick a number between one and nine. While pondering our choices, he wrote his guesses on paper.
We chose three and eight, the same numbers he wrote down. How’d he do that? Not by supernatural mumbo-jumbo or witchcraft, but by paying attention to my every word, movement and nonverbal cue.
Such attention to the details of human behavior is a lost art.
“As a society, we’re overstimulated,” he said. “Our senses are bombarded by an unbelievable amount of stimuli so rapid in motion that it would have given us a headache 20 years ago. Who can focus these days?”
Plato once said that as soon as we learn how to chronicle our thoughts, the sooner our minds will get lazier. His prophetic words ring true in the digital age, where electronic devices now serve as our memory.
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian philosopher of communication theory, advanced this concept by asserting that all modern media will become an extension of our minds. His theories are now the bedrock for advertising and marketing strategies.
“It’s the tyranny of the visual,” Salem said. “We’re created to lis- ten to the world, more than to see it. Because of this, we’re missing three-quarters of it.”
We’re gradually losing our primal skills to pay attention. Such skills are becoming instinct. Why? We’re too impatient, too dependent on devices, too much in a hurry for instant gratification.
We get agitated when having to wait a few seconds for a new web page. We surf through TV channels like a teenager on a sugar high. We have the attention span of 2-year-old child. Collectively, we have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Too many school systems foster this hurry up and wait, one-sizefits-all, core curriculum mentality to pump out cookie-cutter kids (and careers) instead of parlaying kids’ individual strengths to earn a living.
For another exercise, Salem asked me to randomly choose a book. I chose one on pharmaceuticals. He fanned through its pages.
“Say stop at any point,” he told me.
I stopped him at page 153, where I picked the first word on the page: naturopathy.
He asked me to stare at his forehead while he rattled off the alphabet.
“Don’t say anything, just keep looking at me,” he said. “OK, the first letter of your word is N.” He rattled off more letters. “The next letter is A,” he said. He rattled off more. “The next one is T,” he said. How did he know? He focused on how I reacted to the letters he said aloud. Either I blinked or smiled or twitched each time he said it.
Simply put, he paid attention to the gestalt of my mind and behavior. (Listen to my “Casual Fridays” radio show interview with Salem at lakeshorepublicmedia.org.)
“Everything I do can be done by any 10-year-old,” he said, “with 20 years of practice.”
There’s the catch. It takes practice. It takes focus. It takes paying attention to things we normally ignore, are oblivious to, or take for granted. It’s all about flexing our brain’s “muscle memory” and rewiring our increasingly lazy minds.
Regardless of your New Year’s resolution, this should be added to it. Start by taking a new route to work, eating dessert before a meal, and taking a shower with your eyes closed, he suggested.
“We have a novelty gene in us, but we’re not using it,” Salem said.
On New Year’s Day, let’s start using it again.