Why change is so hard to notice

How do we know what is changing in our world if we can’t see things moving? It’s a distressing situation for people with Akinetospia, a condition where you can’t process moving objects.

One example is a 60-year old man who was struck on the head by a pole. Afterwards he couldn’t tell that his dog was running. The dog would appear in one place and then another… as if by magic. Like watching frames of a movie with whole sections missing. When another patient poured tea, “The fluid would appear frozen, like a glacier.” She didn’t know when to stop pouring because the level of the tea never moved.

On days when we’re down let’s remember how lucky we are. We can still see the world fully. Imagine the rising and falling of the waves in just two places, up or down. Trees blowing in the wind, just left or right. A waving friend… who seems to be doing nothing at all.

But in some ways we all have a bit of Akinetospia. We rush around missing the signs that things are shifting, too distracted to see incremental change. We realise we’ve put on weight only when we try on new clothes. We notice our leg pain only when we go running.

This is understandable as our eyes do the same. They only see detail when we’re looking directly at an object. It’s because the centre of our retina has the most sensitive cells.

So imagine you’re working late at night. It’s dark. The only light is from your laptop and you’re concentrating, tapping away. Out of the corner of your eye you see something move. Just a blur. You whip your head round. A black spider is cantering across the room.

That’s our peripheral vision working and it’s only sensitive to gross movement. We can’t see any detail from the side. So, we’re hard wired to swivel our heads and lock our eyes onto the object. Now we can check we’re not in danger.

Our peripheral vision is weak compared to other animals. But it’s nothing when we compare it to how we look at our lives. We simply can’t make out any detail, can’t work out what is going wrong. That’s unless of course, it’s right in front of our eyes. And how often do we truly gaze at our deepest challenges? “No thanks,” we say, “I think I’ll just focus on the day-to-day.”

Many of my Spoon-by-Spooners are the same. Anupa’s mum was diagnosed with cancer so her “full attention was with my parents all the time. I wasn’t paying attention to my body. I thought I was coping.” But later she was diagnosed with arthritis, probably due to the stress she was going through.

Claire was getting constant pressure at work. First she had several bouts of shingles on her face. “About six months later I had a massive problem with my sinuses. I was denying it was there. I was in pain but working through it.” She was taking conference calls in bed whilst feeling like “death warmed up.” She didn’t equate any of this to work-based stress. “My body wasn’t managing to fight. There were all sorts of physical signs that I wasn’t spotting.”

Bill was preoccupied with work, “I moved to Barcelona to change jobs and to learn a language, learn new things, meet people.” He’s in danger of not doing any of that. “I’ve been meaning to go salsa dancing. I’ve not done it for six months.”

Annette felt like a hamster in a wheel, just mindlessly working all the time. “Then I had a traumatic experience. I just glided into it without realising, until I was right in the deep. And then it was too late because I was so unwell.” She went on to have a nervous breakdown.

So how do we get better at noticing when things aren’t going so well? Tracey knows she could have done more. “When I look back on it I can see the warning signs were flashing up. I chose to ignore them.” What might she have done a bit differently? Perhaps she could have stopped for a while and spent more time noticing.

Matt finds talking to other people helps. “I’ve always been a verbal processor. So saying it all out loud helps me frame it in a way. I notice things that I didn’t realise I felt.”

I brought together the youngest interviewee Anne, who was 28, and William, who was the oldest, for an additional conversation, to see what they could share with each other. At 68, William is in a new phase of his career where he has more flexibility to do what he wants. He’d still like others to keep him on the right road though. “I suppose you get to a time of your life where you worry that in the future you might get into a bit of a rut. Maybe I won’t notice it in myself, whereas others would.” He said he was happy for any “honest feedback.” So Anne and I took him at his word….

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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