V. Attention

The idea of attention was mentioned in the previous chapter, as the difference between the conscious and subconscious mind is a delay in the awareness of thought and sensation (whereas the unconscious mind experiences neither thought nor sensation). So it is worthwhile to devote some time to the consideration of attention itself.

Attention refers to the ability of the mind to apply itself to certain stimuli. Again, we are constantly perceiving many things, are aware of a small subset of what we perceive, and are attentive to an even smaller subset of the things of which we are aware. Concentration is a matter of prolonged attention to something, but attention can be fleeting as well - we can be attentive for a fraction of a second before we direct our mind elsewhere.

For example, when we are conversing with a person at a party, we are attentive to the conversation we are having with them. We are aware that other conversations are occurring among other people, as the sound of their voices is within our perception, but we choose not to pay attention to what they are saying because our mind is focused on our conversational partner.

What is troublesome about attention is that it is not always voluntary. We have some capacity to focus our attention on certain things in an environment in which there is a great deal of sensory stimulation, but other things in that environment often distract us, coming to our attention even when we wish to be paying attention to something else.

In the party example, we may mean to be listening to a conversation partner, but if another party's conversation is loud enough, or if we hear something interesting (such as the mention of our name), we find that attention shifts from the conversation we wish to hear to one which we did not wish to hear, but could not help noticing.

The ability to focus the mind on one thing is common considered to be a matter of willpower - but our minds are programmed to give attention to certain things. We cannot concentrate on reading a book if there are loud noises or flashing lights in the environment, as sound and motion are interpreted as potential threats and are automatically given priority by our minds in a way we cannot overcome, any more than we can prevent a limb from twitching if it is struck in a nerve center.

Training the Attention

A great deal of interest has been shown in developing methods to "train" the attention so that we may focus our minds on those things that are in fact most important, or that we consider to be important, and avoid distraction by less important things.

However, the attention is instinctively drawn to certain things: pain, danger, and threat. This is a survival instinct that we cannot overcome - and in rare instances where a person ignores something that presents a threat typically have tragic consequences. So in gaining control of attention, it is important not to violate or subordinate the survival mechanism of attention.

It is generally accepted that attention is critical to human intelligence: if we are unable to focus the mind on any specific thing, our perception and awareness remains superficial - and so the first step in developing intelligence is training the attention to remain fixed on things long enough to gain thorough knowledge. The second step is in training the attention to give this level of concentration to things that actually merit it.

Atkinson suggests that the way to train attention is to focus it on trivial things - which is, in effect, to meditate. Withdraw to an environment in which there are few distractions and place attention on a very simple object. Keep attention firmly upon it and return to it as soon as you can if anything distracts you. Train the senses, particularly vision and hearing, to inspect it - finding new details or qualities or ruminating on those that are previously observed.

Meditation is a form of practice for the mind, and as with any activity that is practiced, performance will improve so that attention can be prolonged and focused on significant details, even those that seem minute or unimportant to the untrained mind.

Once the ability to concentrate is sufficiently developed, it can focus on specific things. It is impossible for the mind to have deep knowledge of many things, and it suffices with shallow knowledge of a great many - but shallow knowledge does not allow a man to accomplish much of importance. Those who achieve great things are often focused on a few specific fields of inquiry and develop deep knowledge of them.

But in the early stages of practice, the subject matter is of little importance - one may meditate on a simple object, or a sound, or a mental concept of very little importance. The point is not to develop deep understanding, but merely the ability to concentrate.

The drawback to focusing attention is, as has been suggested, that it requires the mind to ignore other things while focusing on the object of attention. To listen to one voice among many is to ignore all others, which become a sort of background noise that is perceived but not interpreted or remembered.

This underscores the importance of learning to pay attention to the right things. But what is "right" or "wrong" to give attention is determined by our objectives and interests, which are entirely personal choices. In some instances there is a functional benefit in paying attention to a given thing, and when there are multiple things that could be given attention it is a choice that is in the nature of economics: investing our attention where it will have the greatest return.