Monday, August 03, 2009

Rapt by Winifred Gallagher

In Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life the author, Winifred Gallagher, does an excellent job of covering the relevant neurological and psychological knowledge of how attention works. But I was hoping for more "attention" to the "Focused Life" part of the book's subtitle. Still, there is a lot of good stuff in the book.

Gallagher starts by explaining the latest research on how attention works. She notes that attention is regulated in two ways. Top down attention is regulated by your will. The other, bottom up attention, is more reactive. Attention is multiplicitous. You can think of it as a series of "sensory dials" that allow you to "adjust the volume" of sensory information. For example, you can "turn down" visual information while "turning up" aural information, like when you close your eyes in order to listen more closely. Gallagher also stresses that attention generates a mental model of reality, meaning your experience of reality is one step removed from actual reality. She goes on to discuss how emotion influences attention. Our brains are more sensitive to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli, likely due to evolution. This phenomenon is called the negativity bias. On the other hand, there is a positivity offset, the tendency for us to more often remember positive events despite your attending more closely to negative ones. There are also a number of attentional styles along that vary along different axes. First is in what direction attention is focused, outwardly (extroversion) or inwardly (introversion). Second is on what type of events generally receive more attention, positive events or negative events. (This appears to be temperamental and independent of the negativity bias.) Finally, attention can be respondent, rapt attention to sensory experience, or instrumental, goal oriented attention.

After discussing the mechanics of attention, Gallagher goes on to make a number suggestions for improving your life based on knowledge of these mechanics. I was disappointed somewhat by this part of the book. Many of her suggestions are facile. However, there is something to be said having them explicitly suggested. The suggestions that most caught my eye were:

  1. Meditation can improve your ability to control your attention. This is possible due to brain plasticity, the fact that your brain can be physically changed by your experiences and actions.

  2. Pay attention to your family. Gallagher cites statistics that show the woeful inattention with which we treat each other.

  3. To make good decisions, be sure to pay attention to the right things. More specifically, Gallagher cites The Paradox Of Choice by Barry Schwartz and reiterates his suggestion of "satisficing." Satisficing is the difficult art of making a choice that satisfies you without over analysing or searching for the perfect choice.

Ultimately, what I got out of Rapt was the admonishment that controlling your attention can have a positive impact on your life. The Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful metaphor. What you pay attention to nourishes the seeds in your mind. If you pay attention to positive things in your environment, you will nourish the beautiful flowers of your mind. However, if you pay attention to negative things around you, you will nourish the rank weeds of your mind.

If you are interested in cognitive science or the mechanics of attention, you might enjoy reading this book. If, however, you are looking for some practical advice, it still might be worth a read, but is more likely better skimmed.


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