The Principle of Joint Attention

“… it would seem that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet…”-BPS Research Digest, Why Do Children Hide by Covering Their Eyes?

When I read this quote, I found it to be unintentionally poetic. If the eyes do not meet, if two people are not aware of each other, do both of them fully exist?

The baby is wrong, of course, I do not disappear when her eyes are covered. On the other hand, there are parts of me that do not exist except in relation to others. When an experience is not mutually known to be shared, there is something less real about it.

In my first novel, Angel, the character Paul, a former minister working as a tour guide, observes: “People take photographs so they will not feel lonely. They take them for the absent friends they wish were there to share the view. There are few things more melancholy than looking out on a truly sublime landscape and realizing you are experiencing it all alone.”

We live in an interesting age. It has been estimated that in the medieval world the average person saw one hundred other people in the course of a lifetime. Even letter writing was a rarity reserved for the elite until the Victorian era.

So until quite recently nearly all interactions were personal, involving joint attention. Now the average American watches five hours of TV per day. When we’re not doing that (and sometimes when we are) we spend about 23 hours a week online and texting. Psychological studies show that we have a terrible time discerning reality from what we see on TV. Our brains interpret what we see and hear as actually being in the world because for most of human history this was true. Where else could an image be generated except in the real world?  We are all hanging out with celebrities on a daily basis, at least somewhere in the uncritical emotional part of our minds. And they don’t know us, or care about us, at all. That can become quite isolating.

If I see the rock star but he doesn’t see me, do I really exist?

In my new novel, Identity Theft, the main character Candi has an online flirtation with a person she believes to be her favorite rock star. Initially this makes her uneasy. Wanting to meet a famous person is generally considered to be immature. Women are supposed to grow out of their fan-girl stage when they leave high school. But wanting to know the people who intrigue us, and wanting to be respected by those we admire, is a natural impulse. Candi’s co-worker, Lydia, reassures her by saying, “Just because something makes you feel vulnerable doesn’t mean it’s a character flaw. When you appreciate someone you want them to appreciate you, too. I mean what if you didn’t? I think you’d be a psychopath.”

It is an inevitable part of growing up, a bittersweet one (or perhaps just bitter), to realize and eventually accept that the people who hold your interest will not generally be the same ones who are interested in you.

Yet we retain a bit of our infant selves, expecting and longing for joint attention. We want to know and be known, to love and be loved, to lock eyes and be in the same moment together.

In lieu of that we buy autographed photos on ebay.

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