Nestled in a grassy valley of north-western Namibia, Opuwo may seem like a crumbling relic of colonial history. With a population of just 12,000, the town is so small that it would take less than a minute to drive from the road sign on one side of town to the shanty villages on other. Along the way, you would see a hotchpotch collection of administrative offices, a couple of schools, a hospital and a handful of supermarkets and petrol stations.
For many of the people living in the surrounding valley, however, this small town is also the first taste of modern life. The capital of the Kunene region, Opuwo lies in the heartland of the Himba people, a semi-nomadic people who spend their days herding cattle. Long after many of the world’s other indigenous populations had begun to migrate to cities, the Himba had mostly avoided contact with modern culture, quietly continuing their traditional life. But that is slowly changing, with younger generations feeling the draw of Opuwo, where they will encounter cars, brick buildings, and writing for the first time.
How does the human mind cope with all those novelties and new sensations? By studying people like the Himba, at the start of their journey into modernity, scientists are now hoping to understand the ways that modern life may have altered all of our minds. The results so far are fascinating, documenting a striking change in our visual focus and attention. The Himba people, it seems, don’t see the world like the rest of us.
As Davidoff points out, urban environments are naturally more cluttered than the Kunene valley, with more objects vying for our attention. Just think about crossing the road, as your eyes dart from the traffic lights to the oncoming cars and the fellow pedestrians making their way towards you. Our attention needs to be more diffuse.
Then there’s the stress of urban life, compared to the relative tranquillity of life in the kraal. As Crandall described in The Place of Stunted Ironwood Trees: “Though a stranger might at first hear only silence, the beat of a distant drum, the bicker of chatting voices, the grinding stones, the bleating and lowing of livestock, the rushing of wind, the chirping of birds, the clicking of insects, the stamping of feet, and the clapping of hands form a constant and familiar stream of sounds.” The hustle and bustle of a town, in contrast, may put you on high-alert, and this stress primes your visual system to cast its net wider, as it is on the lookout for threat.
These are just hypotheses, however – and it is interesting to put it in the context of other research exploring non-Western cultures. The psychologist Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan, for instance, has strong evidence that our vision can be influenced by our social lives: people who live in more interdependent, collectivist societies like Japan and China tend to focus more on the context of a social situation – and they also tend to pay more attention to the backgrounds of pictures; they are more ‘holistic’ and less ‘analytical’.
“If you are paying attention to the social world, you incidentally pay attention to the physical world too, so you end up noticing things that wouldn’t be noticed by someone with an analytical mindset,” says Nisbett.