Posts Tagged ‘Srinivasa Ramanujan’

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.”