Cathy Davidson studies our brain – scholarly book review

The tasks of a scholarly book review was extremely daunting. Concepts and Practices in a Digital Age, delivered through CSU, challenged us to delve academically into a book and examine the the writings of the author to produce a critical assessment. The learning path taken in completing this task has been immense and, although the outcome has its faults and lacks some academic finesse, I am pleased that have taken the journey.      

Scholarly Book Review of  

Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn

by Cathy Davidson 

Davidson, C. N. (2011). Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn. New York, NY: Viking.      

In the book, Now you see it: How Technology and Brain Science will transform Schools and Business for the 21st century, Cathy Davidson (2011) explores the possibilities of the educational and workplace world of the future. Using an array of collected research findings, personal anecdotes and active research, she pieces together an argument for the refocus on the structure of the current education system to take advantage of the human brain plasticity and attention direction.

                Dr. Davidson currently holds the two distinguish positions of the Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and the Hope John Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University in North Carolina, USA. She is also due to move to a new position where she will hold an academic appointment in the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, in the English Ph.D program. After  graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and English in 1970, Davidson went on to complete an M.A., Ph.D in English and complete postdoctoral studies in linguistics and literacy theory. During the period of 1998 to 2006, Davidson served as Duke Universities Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, during which time she helped develop over seventy collaborative programs particularly in the area of Information Science. She initially drew intense criticism for her role in the introduction of ‘iPods’ into the Duke’s academic program in 2004, which went on to provide the grounding for iTunesU and podcasting conferences. Cathy Davidson has written or edited over 20 books and  is now a frequent speaker and consultant on institutional change.

                The book, Now you see it, has been written with the educator, particularly an educator of Information Literacy, in mind. However the scope of the book can include anyone with an interest in brain science, the impact of technologies  in education and the workplace, and the future of education in the 21st century. Davidson’s style also allows for the general interest reader or those looking for intellectual enlightenment. The broad nature of the book with spirited stories, research examples and an extensive section of notes with references allows the book to be a source of extended research as well as light reading.

                The central key point of Davidson’s book is the phenomenon of attention-blindness and how distraction can be cultivated to enhance the learning experience. Davidson uses the research of Simons and Chabris (1999) and their gorilla experiment to draw attention to the way directed distraction can lead to many people failing to see what is later an obvious intrusion into a scene. Their research found that there is evidence of cognitive forms of blindness and this ‘inattentional’ blindness reduces the likelihood of noticing an unexpected object whilst focussing on a task (1999).  Davidson then emphasises that with collaborative working the concept of attention-blindness, which dominates our everyday lives, can be used to harness a more holistic view of a situation. With teams of differing individuals an education or workplace issue can worked through as each person is able to focus on what draws their attention, and so identifying something that may have been overlooked by others.

                It is through this key point, Davidson draws on extensive research and scientific studies ranging from the work of de Waal (2009) and Edelman (2006), through to studies on autistic children to highlight the process of brain development, learning by young children and brain plasticity. Edelman’s work identifies pattern recognition within the brain sensory systems and how these recognitions can short cut conscious awareness in certain situations, while de Waal sought to understand teaching and learning through the concept of mirror neurons. These understandings are then  woven into the constraints of the twentieth century education system, with is linear structures and age compliant progressions. Davidson works hard to draw on the point of the limitations of an education system established for the industrial age to emphasise the outcomes of her  active research in educational centres that have embraced technology and the connectedness of the internet network. 

                Within the text of Davidson’s research there is an indication that attention-blindness is overcome by the cognitive multitasking abilities of the human brain. Rather than viewing information provided by the networked internet as isolated facts, it is suggested that the brain is able to draw from several sources to gain a more holistic view of the knowledge sought. This, coupled with group collaborative activities such as crowd-sourcing,  is the approach Davidson feels should be the emphasis of education reforms and teaching pedagogy changes. There are those, such as Rosen, that challenge the idea that the brain is built for multitasking. Rosen strongly argues that multitasking is a poor long term strategy for learning (Rosen, 2008, p. 105) and references several studies to support her claim, but Davidson presents the assumption that the brain is built for multitasking and uses it as a basis for the required reforms for a 21st century school. Davidson presents  several examples of how these reforms can look in the future classroom.

                It is here that gaps develop in the flow of Davidson’s argument for a restructuring of the education system through the acceptance of the information-rich connections of the internet and the extensive use of connected, collaborative learning classrooms.  With her position at Duke University, Davidson is privileged to engage with schools at the higher end of the digital divide that exist between education systems across the world.  Her forward thinking examples seem inconsistent with the realities of attitudes that exist in schools.  American writer Nicholas Carr has published two noted books arguing the detrimental effects of the internet on the brain and the coherence of society. He expresses this view which he feels is commonly held by an extensive number of people, many of whom hold key positions within the current education system (Carr 2013). 

                The strength in Davidson’s book is the discussions centred on the transformations occurring in the modern workplace. As industry embraces the global connectedness of  the internet, progressive companies are implementing changes from a less building centred work environment to transient workers connecting through the cloud. Davidson’s extensive research into the works of innovators such as Aza Raskin and technology company, IBM, highlights the ideal of removing the limitations of the workplace. Through the skills of collaborations, attention, multitasking and network connectedness, Davidson demonstrates achievable principles that worksites could embrace. Here it’s the decision maker that greatly benefits from the change, with workers collaborating with their strengths so benefiting the team in a flexible and decentralised workplace.

                There are a range of books that address issues in similar context to Davidson, but none seem to take the reader from the simplest understandings of the brain through to detailed examples of real life applications of the book’s concepts. A few authors attempt to analyse the effect of the internet on the brain, such as Rheingold who supports Davidson’s thinking through his work on ‘mind amplification’ (2013). He argues that through good design of digital media and web applications, there can be a leverage of human ability to think, communicate and cooperate. On the other hand, authors such as Carr (2013) and Bauerlein (2008) use research to suggest that the internet is not advantageous to education, work or human intellectual development.

                Davidson’s overarching thesis is to discover the best way to learn using education and workplace psychology, cognitive sciences and innovative technologies. She endeavours to prove that the current approaches to learning and working were established for the early stages of the industrial age and that a new kind of learning, that embraces technology, is needed to develop critically thinking students who will become the future global workers.  Now you see it, is a book designed to look closely at the science of attention and the implications of attention blindness on the current thinking for education and workplace systems, and the necessary changes as society moves deeper into the 21st century. As a global system of interconnected computer networks, the internet is able to provide a rich source of connections that enables the distracted brain to progress through information with organic flow, rather than like the compartmentalised chunks encouraged by the current education system. Davidson makes a courageous effort to link the learning abilities of the brain and the potential of the internet, to argue for reforms in the approaches to education in the 21st century. The book’s logical flow and progression makes for easy reading and also provides a starting point for educational reform debate. Her book, Now you see it, is a passionate plea for changes in how society should be educating our children and structuring the workplace. It is worthwhile read for anyone.


Bauerlein, M. (2008). The dumbest generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don’t trust anyone under 30). Penguin.

Carr, N. (2013). The shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. Atlantic Books Ltd.

Davidson, C. N. (2011). Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn. New York, NY: Viking.

de Waal, F. (2009). Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved: How Morality Evolved. Princeton University Press.

Edelman, G. M. (2006). Second nature: Brain science and human knowledge. Yale University Press.

Rheingold, H. (2013). Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter?. Ted Conferences.

Rosen, C. (2008). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis, 20(Spring), 105-110.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception-London, 28(9), 1059-1074.


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