Posts Tagged ‘Rapt: Attention and the Focused LIfe’

Meaning: Attending to What Matters Most

August 23, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of the last chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. The author writes, “Not coincidentally, the disciplines that direct your attention to something large and awe-inspiring, whether called God or universe, consciousness or commonweal, also focus on the improvement of your self and your world and on the appreciation of life. Indeed, philosophy, religions, and psychology advance many of the same kinds of behavior that account for much of our species’ success. At the very least, focusing on values such as altruism and forgiveness that stir positive emotions expands your attentional range, whether trained on your own possibilities or others’ needs, which benefits not only you but also the community.

The following is taken from the AFTERWORD: …”I’ve come to feel that paying rapt attention is life, at least at its best.”


“Some of what I’ve learned about attention has very practical applications. Aware of our limited focusing capacity, I take pains to ensure that electronic media and machines aren’t in charge of mine. When I need to learn and remember certain information, do difficult work, or acquire a new skill, I shield myself from such distraction for at least ninety minutes at a stretch. If I tense up over a big decision, I remember the fortune-cookie rule: nothing is as important as I think it is when I’m focusing on it.

Confronted with a seemingly dull chore—say, the laundry—I recall James experiment with the dot on the piece of paper and do it a little differently. (One day last summer, when I decided to hang the clothes on the line outdoors instead of just sticking them in the dryer, I saw a double rainbow). When I can’t fathom something that a dear one has just said or done, I try to remember that he or she focuses on a different world, and ask for some illumination.”

Motivation: Eyes on the Prize

August 21, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. When you decide to lose weight we experience an interaction between attention and motivation. The term motivation comes from the Latin movere, meaning “to move.” Depending on our motivation, we may decide to wolf down a piece of pie or stick to a new low-carb diet. Once we choose our goal, our focus narrows, so that the pie a la mode or fitting into our jeans again dominates our mental landscape. Addiction is the most dramatic example when the motivation to get high restricts attention to the point that the drug seems like the most important thing in the world.

A Northwester University neuroscientist, Marsel Mesulam scanned the brains of research participants while they looked at images of tools and edibles after they had fasted for eight hours. Later, after feasting on their favorite goodies until full, they went back under the scanner to inspect the pictures again. When the twists of scans were compared, it was clear that the amygdala, a brain structure one of whose functions include gauging whether something is desirable or not, reacted more strongly to the images of foods when the subjects were hungry, but not to those of the tools. So depending on your motivation, a certain part of your brain can respond to the same visual experience in vastly different ways.

Obesity epidemics provide stunning illustrations of what can happen when motivation and attention become disconnected from daily behavior in general and each other in particular. Reasonable people would say that their nutritional goal is to stay healthy and eat right, many simply don’t focus on their food and how much they actually consume. In Mindless Eating, Cornell marketing and nutritional scientist Brian Lansink offers numerous examples of how this lack of focusing helps pile on the pounds. As if still motivated by childhood’s Clean Plate Award, moviegoers will gobble 53% more nasty, stale popcorn if it’s presented in a big bucket than they would if given a small one. A third of diners can’t remember how much bread they just ate. People who stack up their chicken-wing bones at the table will eat 28% fewer han those who clear the evidence away. We’ll snack on many more M&Ms if they’re arrayed in ten colors rather than seven. We consume 35% more food when dining with a friend—and 50% more with a big group—than when alone. Considering these statistics, it’s not surprising that simply by paying attention to your food and eating it slowly, you can cut 67 calories from each dinner and seven pounds in a year.

To reinforce the link between motivation and attention Gail Posner suggests “mindful eating.” Mindful eating involves focusing on our food—on its smell, taste, and feel—which lets your brain know that you will soon feel full and satisfied. The toughest dieting problem is the overeating that’s motivated by using food to fill an emotional hole caused by frustration, anger, or sadness. To focus on what’s really driving your desire to eat, Posner suggests placing your hands where you’re hungry. If you put them on your head, she says that your upset about something; on your mouth, you just want to taste something; on your stomach, you’re actually running on empty.
Duckworth’s important research on grit and motivation is discussed. But since there are at least a half dozen posts on this topic, it will not be discussed further here. Go to the search block at to find these posts.

According to William James the idea of cultivating willpower is “the art of replacing one habit for another.” The author adds, “Through most of history, gluttony, concupiscence, drunkenness and sloth were regarded as vices rather than sicknesses, and replacing them with temperance, chastity, sobriety, and enterprise required an act of the will.

Creativity: An Eye for Detail

August 18, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. The founder of American psychology William James provides this simple experiment on how to improve your ability to pay attention. First, make a dot on a piece of paper or a wall, then try to stay focused on it. In short order, your mind will wander. Next, start asking yourself questions about the dot: its size, shape, color, and so on. Make associations with it: its existential pathos, perhaps, or the dot as yang to the paper’s yin. Once you’re engaged in such elaboration, you’ll find that you can focus on the negligible mark for quite a while. Observing that this ability to attend to and develop even the humblest subject is a cornerstone of creativity, James says. “This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows.”

On the more immediate level, creativity also involves focusing on you target that turns a spark of inspiration into a burst of fireworks. In a fortuitous circular dynamic, whenever you engage in a creative activity, you boost your level of positive emotion, which in turn literally widens your attentional range, giving you more material to work with. James says, the generative mind is “full of copious and original associations,” so that attending to the germ of an idea soon leads to “all sorts of fascinating consequences.”

The Johns Hopkins Hospital ear, nose, and throat specialist Charles Lamb is also an amateur jazz saxophonist. He asked six pianists to play a keyboard while undergoing fMRI scanning. When they improvised on their own, which is keystone of all kinds of creativity, the musicians’ brains went into a “dissociated frontal activity state, a.k.a.”being in the zone.” Neurological activity associated with self-monitoring and inhibition decreased, which increased their ability to process new stimuli and ideas. When they played a standard tune, however, the musicians brains didn’t respond in this way. Lamb suspects that other forms of improvisation, even conversation, involve the same type of brain activity as playing jazz, and plans to investigate the possibility with subjects who aren’t artists.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that the term mindfulness wouldn’t be necessary if most people didn’t have an impoverished, static understanding of what “paying attention” means. She has asked children and instructors in very different kinds of schools a simple by telling question: “What does it mean when a teacher asks students to pay attention, focus, concentrate on something?” Invariably, the answer is something like “To hold that thing still.” In other words, most people think of attention as a kind of mental camera that you keep regally, narrowly focused on a particular subject or object. This realization led Langer to two important conclusions: “When students have trouble paying attention, they’re doing what their teachers say they should do. The problem is it’s the wrong instruction.”

In contrast to this fixed, tunnel-vision mode of focusing, the creative, mindful attention described in James’s dot exercise is an active probing exploration of a target that becomes more interesting as you search for new facets to consider. Mindful attention helps you work more efficiently and creatively, and also makes life more fun.

The tyranny of evaluation can be a major road block on the intertwined paths of mindful attention and creativity. Instead of focusing on the creative activity you can get sandbagged by the fears that the result might not be perfect or appreciated. Flaws and mistakes are neither bad nor good, but “just things you do.” Because it also focuses on assessment rather than experience, praise is as bad as blame.

The concluding sentence in this chapter is, “When you pay rapt attention, your spirits lift, expanding your cognitive range and creative potential, and perhaps even poising you for that personal renaissance.

Decisions: Focusing Illusions

August 17, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Nobel Winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman is among the developers of “bounded rationality”. To choices concerning quality of life, we are reasonable-enough beings but sometimes liable to focus on the wrong things. Our thinking gets befuddled not so much by our emotions as by our “cognitive illusions,’ or mistaken intuitions, and other flawed, fragmented mental constructs.

Kahneman makes a distinction between two concepts of self. There is our hands-on “experiencing self,” which concentrates on just plain being in the here and now, is absorbed in whatever is going on and how you feel about it without doing much analysis. However, our evaluative “remembering self,” looks back on an experience, focuses on its emotional high points and outcomes, then formulates thoughts about it, not always accurately. Much research shows that memory is biased and unpredictable—more like a patchwork quilt than the seamless tapestry of reality we likely imagine. We don’t so much recall something that happened as reconstruct a facsimile of it. This mental artifact is likely to be either more positive or negative in tone than was the actual event.

The differences in how our experiencing and remembering selves pay attention to may account for seeing paradoxes in our lives. For example, most subjects say that having children is one of life’s greatest satisfactions. But subjects’ diaries show that actual roll-up-your-sleeves parenting was among women’s least enjoyable activities. This apparent contradiction and others likely are explained by the divergent focuses of a person’s two selves. The experiencing self of a tired woman who’s contemplating the wreckage of her slovenly adolescent’s room might well give mothering a poor rating at the moment. However, if parenthood comes up later at a party, her remembering self zeroes in its emotional highs and long term results—that sweet poem on Mother’s Day, the soccer trophy, the college diploma.—rather than on momentary vexations like dirty socks and old pizza crusts. It’s just as well for their progeny that when adults make choices about how to live, they pay more attention to the remembering self’s judgmental voice than to the experiencing self’s “whispers, which say more about their own daily satisfactions.

In a much cited example of the focusing illusion, Kahneman asked some people if they would be happier if they lived in California. Most people thought so because of the climate. Californians assume they’re happier than people who live elsewhere. However, when Kahneman actually measured their well-being, Michiganders and others are just as contented as Californians. The reason is that 99% of the stuff of life, relationships, work, home, recreation, is the same no matter where you are, and once you settle in a place, no matter how salubrious, you don’t think about its climate very much. However, when prompted to evaluate it, the weather immediately looms large, simply because you’re paying attention to it. The illusion inclines you to accentuate the difference between Place A and Place B, making it seem to matter much more than it really does, which is marginal.

Because our remembering self pays attention to our thoughts about our life, rather than to the life itself, it can be difficult to evaluate the quality of our own experience accurately . Social psychologist Norman Schwartz asked one group of subjects, “How much pleasure do you get from your car? Not surprisingly, there was a significant correlation between an autos value and its owner’s perceived enjoyment, so that the remembering selves of BMW and Lexus drivers were more satisfied than those of people who drove Escorts and Camry’s. Then Schwarz probed the immediate reality of the experiencing self by asking another group of subjects a different question: ”How much pleasure did you get from using your car today?” The correlation between the owners’ satisfaction and their cars’ worth vanished. What determined their answers was not the quality or price of their vehicles but of their actual commute that day: whether it was marked by good or bad weather, traffic conditions, or even personal ruminations— in short the experiencing self’s quotidian ups and downs.

The focusing illusion predicts that we’ll exaggerate the importance of a thing just by thinking it about it, as when we ponder a big purchase. Kahneman says, There’s probably much less focusing illusion with pleasures like fresh flowers or a glass of wine.” Because it gives you more fun and bang for you buck, spending five hundred dollars a year on bouquets or Burgundy is a better investment in your well-being than upgrading a major appliance.

Based on recent research on well-being, Kahneman says, “I can imagine a future in which, just as many of us exercise physically, we’ll also exercise mentally for twenty or thirty minutes a day. That’s the kind of world ‘positive psychology’ is looking for. Whether its principles work or not in the long run, I don’t know. All the data aren’t in yet. But it’s clear that getting people to pay attention is a good thing. There’s no question about that.”

As to the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over our experience and well-being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lamai and positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

Productivity: Work Zone

August 16, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. A hallmark of the focused life is blurring the distinction between work and play. We can do this by actively choosing endeavors that demand our total focus and skillfully use attention to make even inevitable rote chores more engaging.

To the founder of American psychology, William James, rapt attention required a target that offers just the right combination of novelty and familiarity. Imagine that after a long, grey winter, your bleary eye lights on the red breast of the year’s first robin. Then, your attentional system kicks in with a memory to add meaning to the new feathered stimulus: robins come in the spiring, which has always been your favorite season. Suddenly, you’re not just glancing at some humdrum bird but focused on a winged Mercury come to herald good times.

Like a robin in July, writes James, “the absolutely old is insipid.” Similarly, because you’d had no associations with some drab little bird you’ve never seen before, “the absolutely new makes no appeal.” It’s the convergence of the robin’s unexpected appearance and its cognitive and affective resonance that makes its debut the stuff of poetry.

Claremont psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has developed and expanded upon the concept of flow. He says this state of optimal human experience kicks in when we’re completely focused on doing something that’s both enjoyable and challenging enough to be just manageable. Either attention or motivation—the drive that impels toward a goal—can jump-start flow, but both of these major psychological processes must converge to sustain it.

Occasionally and, unfortunately, sometimes frequently the most productive person is hard-pressed to concentrate on the job, much less enjoy it. For example consider draining a flooded driveway doesn’t sound interesting, but it can be made fun if you try to make the water go here or there. Csikszentmihalyi says with some thought, effort, and attention you can make even an apparently routine job, such as assembling toasters or packaging tools, much more satisfying. He says the trick is to turn the work into a kind of a game, in which you focus closely on each aspect—screwing widget A to widget B or the positions of your tools and materials—“and try to figure out how to make it better. That way, you turn a routine activity into an engaging one.”

Psychologist Gilbert Brim, a strong advocate of just-manageable difficulty, high achievers can avoid burnout, depression, and perhaps even self-destructiveness by focusing on a new vocation or avocation along with their business as usual. Baruch Spinoza’s day job was making spectacles, and William Blake was a printer by trade, used their free time to advance philosophy and the arts.

For some reason, inexplicable to HM, “working hard” is an honorific phrase. If the answer to the question, “are you working hard?, is yes, the reply is almost always , ‘good!’ But hard work is not in and of itself good. It might be stupid and nonproductive. The query should be, “Are you working smart?” To the extent possible, work should be productive and fulfilling. The main distinction between work and leisure, is that one is paid for working.

Keep in mind, the following paragraph from this chapter. “IN THE SHORT term, whether it’s writing an epic or building a birdhouse, choosing work and play that call for fast focus and all of your skill, provides satisfying, productive experience. Whenever you squander attention on something that doesn’t put your brain through its paces and stimulate change, your mind stagnates a little and life feels dull.”

Relationships: Attending to Different Worlds

August 15, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Much research shows that simply paying attention to someone else, which is the essence of bonding, is highly beneficial for both parties. Having social ties is the single best predictor of a longer healthier, more satisfying life.

The author writes, “At the very least, paying attention to someone else confers the big psychological benefits of structuring your experience and distracting you from the self-referential rumination that so often takes a negative cast.” Research by psychologist Joanne Wood indicates that if you want to feel better about who you are, you should concentrate on someone of lower status. But if you’re trying to motivate yourself, you should focus on a person who outranks you. A message we don’t often hear from the therapy and psychopharmacological industries is that paying attention to the other guy often helps us more than the other guy.

MacArthur ‘genius award” winner and director of UCLA’s Center On Everyday Life of Families, Elinor Ochs has researched how children are socialized and learn languages in parts of the developing world as well as in white middle-class America. She defines attention as “a focus on a point of orientation that can be at once perceptual, conceptual, and social,” and identifies two broad cultural variations in the way it affects family relationships.

In it-takes-a-village societies such as Somoa, from very early life people are encouraged to direct their attention outward to others. Children are cared for by friends and relatives as well as parents and are actively taught to notice other people and their needs. When they are carried, babies are held outward on the hips or perched so they can peep over the caregiver’s shoulder. Even before they can talk, these tots are primed to attend to what others are doing and feeling. Ochs says, “In their culture, the priority is to be relational and person-oriented.”

In contrast to this outward, other-directed focus that prevails in much of the world, people in the highly individualistic West are encouraged early on to concentrate on their own needs and desires. Instead of mostly being carried, babies are held at arm’s length in strollers, high chairs, car seats, or other devices; they sleep in their own cribs and even rooms, which would be unthinkable elsewhere. As if to reinforce their highly personalized experience, Western children are encouraged to pay lots of attention to objects. Ochs says, Even little babies have toys, and they’re taught to pay attention to their shapes and colors.” (Despite the claims made of products marketed to hopeful parents, one study showed that rather than creating infant geniuses, focusing babies aged eight to sixteen months on “educational” videos, actually impedes their verbal development; each hour of viewing per day actually impedes their verbal development; each hour of viewing per day correlated with a child’s knowing six to eight fewer words than unwired peers).

By the age of four Samoan children contribute to society helping to care for younger siblings and carrying messages for adults. That tots should work for the commonweal sounds like abuse to most Westerners, who assume that young children either can’t or shouldn’t have to respond to others’ needs.

This same UCLA research team finds that, even when they get together, families often undermine the desired feeling of fellowship by focusing on the wrong things. Mothers tend to pick the subject—“Tell Dad what happened at school”—and fathers provide the judgment: “That’s a very good grade” or “You should have practiced harder.” Fathers almost never focus on their own daily experience, however, and when they do, their narrative style doesn’t encourage feedback. In contrast to the moms’ and kids’ open-ended participatory approach—“How should I deal with this situation?” the men go for “Hers’s how I’m handling it.”

Bradbury, the director of the UCLA family project’s “marriage lab,” is concerned about the implications for adults’ well-being, because “marriage seems like the last bastion of relationships in which people are still committed to attending to one another.” Bradbury continues, “A profound focus on your partner is, was, and always will be the distinguishing characteristic of an intimate bond such as marriage. Nevertheless, I’m continually impressed by the inconsistency of sustained attention in relationships. Partners complain about this all the time, and kids probably would to, if they could. We’ve evolved with the capacity to attend to each other but it’s not exactly dominant in our lives. Imagine a world where it was!”

Nurture: This Is Your Brain on Attention

August 14, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. There have been many healthy memory posts on the research of neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin (Enter “Davidson” into the search box at or go to his website

He uses EEG and fMRI in showing how experience in general and attention in particular affect your brain and behavior. He says this physiological as well as psychological shift sounds dramatic, but shouldn’t be so surprising because your nervous system is built to respond to your experience. He writes, “That’s what learning is. Anything that changes behavior changes the brain.” The mental-fitness regimens that he and colleagues in a half-dozen labs around the world are working with are based on meditation. Various Eastern and Western religions have used it over the past 2,500 years to enhance spiritual practice, but meditation is easily stripped of sectarian overtones to its behavioral essence of deliberate, targeted concentration that invited a calm steady psychophysiological state.

The point of a secular attentional workout is the enhancement of the ability to focus, emotional balance, or both. The author writes in the mindfulness meditation that’s the most widely used form, you sit silently for forty-five minutes and attend to your breath: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably do, you just shift your awareness back to breathing, right here and now, without distraction from the tape loops usually running in your head. Davidson says, “A complete atheist can use these procedures and derive as much benefit from them as an ardent believer.”

The healthy memory blog has many posts on meditation. Enter “relaxation response” in the search block. Benefits can be attained with as little at ten minutes a day meditating. Moreover, epigenetic benefits have been found . You might also want to try entering “loving kindness” into the search block.

Another area of Davidson’s interests is the way in which temperamental features, such as an inclination toward positive or negative emotionality, affect and even drive attention—an interaction that is vitally important to the quality of your experience. Davidson says, “One of life’s challenges is to maintain your focus despite the continual distracting emotional stimuli that can capture it.” Certain lucky individuals are born with an affective temperament that naturally inclines them toward an upbeat proactive focus, but research increasingly shows that others can move in that direction through attentional training.

Davidson says that although many other regions of the brain are also involved, “people who have greater activation in very specific prefrontal regions—not the whole hemisphere—report and display more of a certain positive emotion—not simply ‘happiness’—that’s associated with moving toward you goals and taking an active approach to life. Average subjects who had completed an eight-week meditation course showed significantly increased activity in the left prefrontal regions that are linked to this optimistic, goal-oriented orientation.

Not only how you focus, but also what you focus on can have important neurophysiological and behavioral consequences. Just as one-pointed concentration on a neutral target, such as your breath, particularly strengthens certain of the brain’s attentional systems, meditation on a specific emotion—unconditional love—seems to tune up certain of its affective networks.When monks who are focusing on this feeling of pure compassion are exposed to emotional sounds, brain activity increases in the insula, a region involved in visceral perception and empathy, and in the right temporo-parietal junction, an area implicated in inferring and empathizing with others’s mental states. These data complement research done by Barbara Fredrickson and others showing that concentration on positive emotions improves your affect and expands your focus. Davidson thinks that deliberately focusing on feelings such as compassion, joy, and gratitude may strengthen neurons in the left prefrontal cortex and inhibit disturbing messages from the fear-oriented amygdala.

Training your brain to pay more attention to compassion for others and less to the self’s narcissistic preoccupations would be a giant step toward a better, more enjoyable life. When you aren’t doing anything in particular but are just “at rest” our brain’s default mode kicks in. This baseline mental state often leads to inward-looking, negative rumination that tend to be, as Davidson says, “all about my, me, and mine,” Before long, you find yourself thinking, “I actually don’t feel so great,” or “Maybe the boss doesn’t really like me.” Davidson is investigating whether the brain areas associated with this “self-referencing processing” may be much less active in the monks, whether they’re meditating or not: indeed, he speculates that super advanced practitioners may perceive little of no difference between the two states.

His 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. Davidson says “My strong intuition is that attentional training is very like the sports or musical kinds. 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.”

Nature: Born to Focus

August 13, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.” University of Oregon neuroscientist Michael Posner has developed a three-part model of the brain’s attentional system. He describes alerting, orienting, and executive networks, each with its own neurophysiology and function, as nothing short of “the mechanism through which we have experience and control the sequence of our ideas. Along with University of Oregon psychologist Mary Rothbart, who’s well known for her research on temperament, Posner has been studying how the attentional networks get organized in early life. He finds significant neuropsychological differences among children that share their different ways of focusing and aspects of their identities, from the capacity of learning to the control of thoughts and emotions.

Posner has a computerized Attention Network Test, which is designed to gauge the strength of an individual’s three networks. Biological differences in brains can account for different attentional and temperamental profiles, but nurture as well as nature plays an important role. Rothbart’s research is on cultural differences in executive attention and self-regulation, she finds that the capacity for effortful control is a good thing for both American and Chinese children. In the United States, children who have this ability focus keeping a lid on feelings like anger, fear, and frustration—an important skill in our gregarious society. On the other hand, in China, self-regulating children concentrate on curbing their exuberance and trying not to stand out, which is an equally desirable attribute in their Asian culture. Depending on social or genetic differences, or both, says Posner, “the same behavior of focusing on a dimension of self-control seems to be involved in creating quite different personalities.”

A single individual, biologically based behavioral disposition doesn’t operate in isolation, but in concert with the person’s other qualities and environments. Posner points out that whether the small child’s innate temperament is sunny or stormy, parents will intuitively draw the tot’s attention to smiles, laughter, and hugs, thus reinforcing the desirability of positive emotion.

It is good here to focus how important it is for a child to be loved. Absent this love a child’s emotional and behavioral development is at risk. Other healthy memory posts have elaborated on these risks. Whenever HM reads about some act of violence, his first thought was that this person was an unloved child.

To help children who are not naturally inclined to focus on their schoolwork—or life’s little pleasures—Posner and Rothbart have developed exercises that significantly improve the executive attentional skills of four— and six—year olds. Such training could help the millions of schoolchildren who struggle with attention, mood, and self-control problems.

This chapter concludes: “Nature and nurture have combined forces to find you a characteristic way of focusing that’s part of who you are, but research on the brain’s neuroplasticity, or ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections through life, proves that your identity isn’t written in stone. Posner is speaking of the children he works with, but his observation increasingly seems to apply to people of any age. “Kids have strong genetic make-ups, but you can also shape them through experience.”

Outside In: What You See Is What You Get

August 12, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. There is impressive research that shows that “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life. In a large study of 941 Dutch subjects over ten years, the most upbeat individuals, who agreed with statements such as “often feel that life is full of promise,” were 45% less likely to die during the long experiment than were the most pessimistic.

Research reveals that the cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus confirmed that what happens to us, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to our well-being than how we respond to it. Psychologist Barbara Fredickson says that if you want to get over a bad feeling, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.” This does not mean that when something upsetting happens, we should not immediately try to force ourselves to “be happy.” First, Fredrickson says you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how we honestly feel about what occurred. Then we direct our attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light.

Unfortunately, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

With the exception of these anhedonic individuals, Fredrickson says, “Very few circumstances are one hundred percent bad.” Even in very difficult situations, she finds, it’s often possible to find something to be grateful for, such as others’ loving support, good medical care, or even our own values thoughts, and feelings. Focusing on such a benign emotion isn’t just a “nice thing to do,” but a proven way to expand our view of reality and lift our spirits, thus improving our ability to cope.

William James said wisdom is “the art of knowing what to overlook.” And many elders master this way of focusing. Many studies show that younger adults pay as much or more to negative information than to the positive sort. However, by middle age their focus starts to shift until in old age, they’re likely to have a strong positive bias in what they both attend to and remember.

Research has shown that older brains attend to and remember emotional stimuli differently from younger ones. In one study, compared to younger people, they remembered twice as many positive images as the negative or neutral sort. Moreover, when the experiment was repeated using fMRI brain scans, the tests showed that in younger adults, the emotional center, the amygdala, reacted to both positive and negative images, but in older adults, only in response to positive cues. The author suggests, “Perhaps because elders use the “smart” prefrontal cortex to dampen activity in the more volatile amygdala, their brains actually encode less negative information, which naturally reduces their recall of it and its impact on their behavior.

The final paragraph to this chapter follows: “WHATEVER YOUR TEMPERAMENT, living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time, which would be both futile and grotesque. Rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grown there. Your ability to function comfortably in a dirty, germy world is just one illustration of your powerful capacity to put mind over matter and control you experience by shifting your focus from counterproductive to adaptive thoughts and feelings. In this regard, one reason why certain cultures venerate the aged for their wisdom is that elders tend to maximize opportunities to attend to the meaningful and serene, and to the possibility that, as E.M. Foster put it in A Room With a View, ”…by the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes—a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

Inside Out: Feelings Frame Focus

August 11, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. One of contemporary psychology’s most important discoveries is the inextricability of thought and emotion.

According to “negativity bias theory” we pay more attention to unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger, and sadness because they’re more powerful than agreeable feelings. A survey of which topics we spend the most time thinking about, problematic relationships and troubled projects are at the the top of the list. We’ll work harder to avoid losing money than we will to gain the same amount. If we hear both something positive and something negative about a stranger, we’ll take the negative view. Even if something good happens, if something bad happens too, we’ll feel dispirited. We’re likelier to notice threats than opportunities or signs that all’s well.

The main advantage of paying attention to unhappy emotions is that it attunes us to a potential threat or loss and pressures us to to avoid or relieve the pain by solving the associated problem. A pessimistic focus is helpful when we’re stuck in a tough, let’s-get-to-the-bottom-of-this situation. Looking at the dark side of things can confer a certain objectivity. According to one school of thought, the depressed person’s bleak focus on life tends to be more realistic than a sanguine person’s upbeat view.

Nevertheless, focusing on negative emotions, especially when they don’t serve their primary purpose of promoting problem-solving, exacts a high cost: we spend a lot of time feeling crummy even if our life is pretty good.

Additional studies show we tend to put a positive spin on neutral situations, focus hard on upsets because they’re relatively rare, and forget unhappy events faster than pleasant ones. From this perspective, barring a profound blow such as losing a loved one or getting fired, whether we get a flat time or a raise, we’ll soon return to feeling pretty good.

If these results sound contradictory, remember that people vary both in dispositions and in their fortunes. The important point is that we have the power to interpret and change our situation. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has conducted research showing that paying attention to positive emotions expands our world, while focusing on negative feeling shrinks it. This is something we can control.

According to cognitive scientist Donald Norman’s conceptual model, the brain has three major parts, which focus on very different things and sometimes conflict. The “reactive” component, which handles the brain’s visceral, automatic functions, concentrates on stuff that elicits biologically determined responses, such as dizzying heights and sweet tastes. The “behaviors,” or routine component, attend to well-learned skills, such as riding a bike or typing. According to Norman, these two “lower” modes of brain functioning handle most of what we do, and mostly without requiring conscious attention.
Norman’s “reflective” element of the conceptual brain is consciousness. Consciousness handles the “higher” functions at the metaphorical tip of the very top of that complicated organ. Since consciousness pays a lot of attention to our thoughts, we tend to identify it with cognition, However, if we try to figure out exactly how to run our business or care for our family, we soon realize that we can’t grasp that process just by thinking about it. Norman writes, “Consciousness also has a qualitative, sensory feel. If I say, ‘I’m afraid,’ it’s not just my mind talking, My stomach also knots up.”

According to Norman’s conceptual model, the brain’s reactive, behavioral, and reflective elements pursue their own agendas, yet they also constantly communicate with each other. When an alarm triggers an argument over whether to roll over or get up and go to the gym, we experience a mild version of the kind of conflict that occurs when two or more of these networks insist that you focus on different things Offering a more complicated example, Norman says, “Take jumping out of an airplane.” On the reactive level, our brain attends to the bottom-up imperative of the earth far, far below and goes, “What the hell are you doing?” In order to proceed, we have to pay top-down attention to messages from its behavior component, where we’ve stored our routine skydiving skills, and to the reflective voice that says, “You’ll be okay, and think of how much you’ll enjoy this experience afterward.”

The chapter concludes as follows: “Thus, the first step toward getting on with your work despite a financial setback or repairing a relationship after a nasty quarrel is to direct—perhaps yank—your attention away from fear or anger toward courage or forgiveness. Thanks to positive emotion’s expansive effect on attention, your immediate reward for that effort is not just a more comfortable, satisfying affective state, but also a bigger, better world-view. Where the long-term benefits are concerned, you’ve come closer to making a habit of the focused life.”

Pay Attention: Your Life Depends on It

August 10, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. One of the two basic ways of focusing that enable us to tune in on what is most interesting in our world: involuntary “bottom-up” attention. This passive process is not driven by us, but by whatever thing in our environment is most salient, or obviously compliant. Thanks to evolution, bottom-up attention has hard-wired us to zoom in on brightly colored flowers, startle at a snake’s hiss, wrinkle our nose at the smell of spoiled meat, and detect and react to things that could threaten or advance our survival.

Bottom-up attention automatically keeps us in touch with what’s going in the world, but this great benefit comes with a cost, particularly for postindustrial folks who live in metropolitan areas and work at desks rather than on the savannah: lots of fruitless, unwelcome distractions. Women want to focus on our book or computer instead of a fly that keeps landing on our arm or an ambulance siren, but evolution has stuck us with attending to these insistent stimuli.

Top-down attention asks, “What do you want to concentrate on?. This active, voluntary form of focusing takes effort, the harder we concentrate, the better we’ll attend, but the longer we persist, the likelier we’ll fade. Top-down processing has advanced our species, particularly by enabling us to choose to pursue difficult goals, such as nurturing the young for extended periods or building and operating cities. When the individual is concerned, this deliberate process is the key to designing our daily experience, because it lets us to decide what to focus on and what to suppress.

Many extraordinary achievers have an ability to pay rapt attention. Psychologist David Lykken observed that these individuals have base stores of “mental energy,” which he defined as the capacity “to focus attention, to shut out distractions, to persist in search of a solution” for a challenging problem over long periods without tiring. One of his exemplars is Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson who helped save Britain from Napoleon. In one diary entry he observed: “I have been 5 nights without sleep (at work) and never felt an inconvenience.”

Another example was the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. After a colleague remarked that he had just ridden in a taxi identified as #1729, which seemed like dull digits, the genius immediately took exception. “No, it’s a very interesting number. It is the smallest number expressive as a sum of two cubes in two different ways.” His peers noted that Ramanujan regarded numbers as “friends” and focused on them all the time.

William James noted that such an extraordinary individual more than likely, “breaks his engagements, leaves his letters unanswered, neglects his family duties incorrigibly, because he is powerless to turn his attention down and back away from those more interesting trains of imagery with which his genius constantly occupies his mind.

Johns Hopkins Neuroscientist Steve Yantis draws an analogy with a control panel that takes the five sensory systems that collaborate with our attentional networks to construct our model of the physical world. Dials can be twiddled as one goes from one activity to another. By turning the volume down on smell or by switching from the touch to the taste circuit, we can tune in the information we want and but out the competing stimuli.

Anne Treisman, now deceased, but the wife of Daniel Kahneman and a distinguished psychologist in her own right distinguished between the narrow attention paid to a particular part of a scene and the broad sort required when we must rapidly take a complex new scene.

Steve Yantis says, “I like the notion that attention is key to awareness, the essence or center of our mental life as we go through time. That makes all kinds of sense. Where attending to ideas and emotions rather than sights and sounds is concerned, he says, “To the degree that you can control what enters your awareness, you have the ability to focus on some things, let other things go, and move on, or your thoughts can control you.”

The chapter concludes, “In short, to enjoy the kind of experience you want rather than enduring the kind that you feel stuck with, you have to take charge of your attention.”