What are you paying attention to? Your experience of life is made up of all the things to which you pay attention. That may seem obvious enough, but it has profound implications.
For example, if you spend a fair bit of time dwelling on slights and disappointments from your past, that affects how you experience the world: it's a world of slights and disappointments.
People vary enormously in what they pay attention to. One person walking down the street may be looking at buildings, another lost in thought about the next appointment and yet another glorying in the sensation of air on the skin. Listening to a speaker, one audience member will attend to the words, another to the speaker's tone of voice and yet another to the speaker's appearance.
Two people in the same room may be attending to entirely different facets of the world - one to the footy on the tele, the other to the empty beer bottles on the floor - with consequences for communication and maintaining the relationship.
Winifred Gallagher has written an engaging account of the implications of attention, especially in light of recent research. Her book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life is an opportunity to reflect on one's own patterns of attention.
She covers attention in relation to everyday life, work, relationships, creativity, attention disorders, motivation, health and the meaning of life. She makes the topics appealing with a mixture of comments from researchers, descriptions of intriguing research findings, and personal anecdotes.
For example, in a chapter titled "focus interruptus", Gallagher discusses memory champions (who develop incredible capacities to focus their attention), attentional styles, multitasking, ADHD, and mental workout software.
Some people may have a genetic advantage in ability to focus, but a lot depends on practice. Meditation is a technique for focusing attention and has benefits for other aspects of one's life.
In the university, being able to focus is extraordinarily important. As a teacher, it's valuable to be aware of the subject matter - that's taken for granted - and to pick up cues from students about whether they are grasping the material and what sorts of interventions are helpful. Researchers need to develop the capacity to concentrate on a topic and to notice details as well as broad patterns in order to make a contribution to a field.
In everyday interactions, focus is also important. If you're talking to a colleague over the phone, you can lose touch with the thread of the conversation if you're thinking of what you need to do later in the day, glancing at your emails or mulling over an unrelated annoyance.
Gallagher's overview points to the value of focusing for productivity and, more importantly, quality of life. Taking control of your attention is not easy - it takes practice. The rewards are great.
6 August 2009
I thank Narelle Campbell, Colin Salter and Frances Steel for helpful comments on a draft.
Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life (New York: Penguin, 2009).
"Research increasingly shows that just as regular physical exercise can transform the proverbial 110-pound weakling into an athlete, focusing workouts can make you more focused, engaged with life, and perhaps even kinder. 'My strong intuition is that attentional training is very much like the sports and musical kinds,' says [Richard] Davidson. 'It's not something you can just do for a couple of weeks or years, then enjoy lifelong benefits. To maintain an optimum level of any complex skill takes work, and like great athletes and virtuosos, great meditators continue to drill intensively." (p. 73)
"Locker-room pep talks and bonuses notwithstanding, extrinsic focusing on trouncing the competition or monetary reward can actually decrease your intrinsic motivation to pursue a goal. In one study, for example, college students who were paid to do a puzzle were significantly less motivated than those who worked for free. In another experiment, individuals were asked to work on puzzles side by side. Those told to beat their opponents stopped playing after the researchers left the room; those who were simply asked to complete the puzzle continued to work." (p. 178)
"Where your immediate as well as lifelong objectives are concerned, focus forges the connection between your goals and your personal resources. Despite our cultural fixation on innate giftedness, the old-fashioned quality of grit may be a better predictor of real-world performance. Attention's mechanics ensure that when you lock on your objective, you enhance that aspiration and suppress things that compete with it, which helps you to stay focused. That rapt dynamic works to your advantage if your goal is positive and productive but, as in addiction, can be deadly if it isn't." (p. 188)
"The best strategy for savoring is learning to pay rapt attention to carefully chosen top-down targets. To practice this skill, [Fred] Bryant suggests taking a 'daily vacation': spending twenty to thirty minutes focusing on something you enjoy or suspect you might but have never done. Then, at the end of the day, you revisit and relish that pleasurable interlude and plan the next sojourn. After seven days, he says, 'most people say, "What a great week! I wish I could do that all of the time!" Well, why not?'" (p. 217)
Brian's comments to colleagues
Brian Martin's publications
Brian Martin's website