May 23, 2023
Attention is vital to a rich life. It helps us savor the textures and flavors of the food we eat. It enables us to really listen to, and engage with, our fellow human beings without distractions. And of course, to carry out various cognitive tasks in everyday life and at work. What we pay attention to, to a high degree, affects how we perceive and enjoy our life; and will, from a young age, most likely alter the trajectory of our life. So, how often do you reflect on where you spent your attention during the day?
The nature of attention
The word attention stems from the Latin word attendere, which can be translated literally to mean “stretching toward” something. It is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on certain things while ignoring others. In The Principles of Psychology, William James (often dubbed the United States’ father of psychology) devotes a chapter on attention wherein he states:
"Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects of trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawals from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German." (William James, 1890, The Principles of Psychology, Chapter 11, Attention)
Attention is highly interrelated with working memory, the cognitive system that can be said to store the objects of attention (Knudsen, 2007). Visual attention is often likened to a spotlight that is directed towards intended targets at the expense of everything else, which falls into the periphery. Working memory and attention are crucial for accomplishing daily tasks and staying focused on long-term goals.
The economics of attention
You can also view attention through the lens of economic theory, and the attention economics approach. There, attention is seen as a finite cognitive resource that is consumed by the information we attend to or concentrate on. A mind that jumps between several sources of information or stimuli will be either fragmented or overloaded and surely limited in its ability to concentrate deeply on any one task. Many people pride themselves on their ability to multitask, not aware that this concept - originally meant to describe computers capable of conducting several tasks at the same time - is not really applicable to human beings. Rather than processing multiple thoughts in parallel, the process in humans is more akin to rapid but costly switching between thoughts and tasks that degrade the overall performance of whatever tasks you try to carry out simultaneously.
The opposite of the rapid switching between tasks that encompass the attempt to multitask, and distracted, often fragmented, thought is the state of flow. This high-concentration state anchors you in the moment, your sense of time disappears and your attention expands–you BECOME the task you are doing. This particular state is often seen in artists, craftsmen, and athletes. Humans seem to thrive in this challenging - and most often goal-directed - high-concentration state. It is in this state of mind that we feel the most fulfilled, content, and happy, it seems, rather than on the couch watching Netflix or endlessly scrolling our social media feeds.
The balancing act of attention in the modern world
Most of us are interacting with technology for a large chunk of each day, both for leisure and work. This fact makes user-interface design a double-edged sword that at best can harness our attention and at worst create a divided and distracted mind. A well-designed interface can help you keep on track by minimizing extraneous distractors and presenting information that is relevant to your task at hand. On the other hand, a deviously designed - or just plain bad - interface can sap your attention in ways that might not always be apparent, and for reasons that are not entirely transparent to you as the user.
It seems that maintaining attention can be challenging for everyone, and we most likely have been getting collectively worse at using this faculty these last decades. The devices, and media we use daily vie for our attention in unprecedented ways. Does this new technological landscape stretch our attention far too thin to let us focus on the things we want in life? Has our spotlight to a greater degree than we realize been hijacked by forces not always clear to us?
Since attention is a limited resource, you need to save this valuable asset for things that matter to you, the things in life that you want to focus on with as much attentional bandwidth as you can muster. This is important, as what we pay attention to greatly impacts our lives, both short and long-term. Attention enables us to feel alive, and the lack thereof might distract us from the important things (the author of this post can look back and wonder where that kid, that could read for hours on end, went..).