Paying attention

Today I attended an event – a “public conversation” – in which two very accomplished individuals, one a neuroscientist and the other a performance artist, discussed the twin subjects of attention and memory. The neuroscientist brought insights about what happens inside our brain – insights that come from experimental research results – while the artist’s insights were more intuitive and experiential. They ended up agreeing on quite a few points.

At one point the scientist observed that conscious multitasking is a myth. You cannot actual do several tasks well at once, if each task requires conscious attention. When you think you are talking on the phone while reading email, your brain is actually just switching rapidly between these tasks – while doing neither one well. You may fool yourself into believing that you are more efficient this way, but in fact quite the reverse is true.

The artist described focusing attention as central to her work. An audience is only taken to an interesting place if you can derail its pat expectations – she called this “the wisdom of the jump cut”. You need to wake the audience up, surprise it, jolt it out of the mindset that things are merely playing out as expected according to some pre-scripted version of reality.

The neuroscientist and performance artist used very different language, yet I felt that both were converging on a common theme: That the quality of our lives is highly dependent on our ability to pay attention – to bring an uncluttered sense of presence to the experiences we have in life. Whether through study, practice, zen meditation, breathing exercises or other means, the ability to focus on what really matters to us without becoming distracted or scattered is perhaps our most valuable asset.

This ability to focus is what allows us to strengthen the neural pathways that lead to learning and mastery of skills, and enables us to override whatever momentary impulses may pull us away from our deeper goals

Isn’t it odd then, I find myself thinking, that our modern culture is built around constant distractions. Television, magazines, billboards, radio and internet – so many things vie for our attention, pulling our focus this way and that. We are a nation of Harrison Bergerons from Vonnegut’s cautionary pen, forced to listen to non-stop clatter, lest our unfettered minds break out and do something dangerous.

Could our culture ever evolve to a place where truly centered focus and attention are prized and encouraged? Or is that asking too much?

One Response to “Paying attention”

  1. Ray Ferrer says:

    I believe that there will be those of us that are lost in all this noise while some of us will evolve the ability to become ultra processors of large amounts of varied information. Will gain the ability to distinguish between… wait… what was your question???

Leave a Reply