Our brains can’t process all the stimuli to which we are exposed. It selects to be more strongly aware of some stimuli that seem important and to suppresses awareness of others. It is like a spotlight that illuminates every detail of an actor and the scenery immediately next to him, but leaves the rest of the stage in twilight or even completed darkness. This process is attention.
Our experience of life is what we pay attention to. This is the thesis of Winifred Gallagher’s book Rapt. We may not always be happy, be can nearly always be focused and choose to pay attention to what brings us peace, joy, and a sense of meaning in the moment.
We have two types of attention. Gallagher calls the first “bottom up” attention. This is the our instinctive attention to things in our environment that are novel, potentially dangerous, or a potential opportunity.
Top down attention is intentional focus on what we choose. Our intentional focus can be very powerful, drilling into our target while leaving us unaware of things that might otherwise seem obvious. Gallagher recounts a humorous experiment in which subjects were asked to watch for a certain activity on a video. The subjects completely missed a man in a gorilla suit dancing around in the video because their top down attention was so intensely trained on the task they were instructed to pursue.
In the same manner that attention raises or lowers awareness of physical stimuli, it adjusts awareness of our own thoughts and feelings. Bottom up attention tends to focus on the most and least pleasant feelings, our highs and lows. Our top down attention can focus on any thought of feeling we want.
In turn, our thoughts and feelings affect our attention. When we are negative, our focus narrows to take in just a little. Feeling bad make our problem seem like the only thing in the world. Positive thoughts and feeling expands our attention, allowing us to take in more information. It switches us to mental broadband that allows us to be aware of more of our world both inside and out.
Attention is important to every aspect of life. Relationships are inherently paying attention to others. Intimacy in relationships is built on building common, positive experiences from paying attention to the same thing and to each other. Success requires intense, long-term attention to our goals. Fulfillment arises from taking on just-manageable challenges that hold our attention. Creativity involves a calm mindfulness that does not so much capture an idea as allow it to unfold in our awareness. Motivation comes from sorting out the competing voices in our mind and listening to the ones that advocate for our goals.
Our attentional style is shaped both by our genes and our culture. A significant part of what and how we pay attention is learned. Because of this, we can learn new ways of attending and direct our focus in new directions. If we learn to pay attention to positive emotions and opportunities for positive action, we can change our experience of life to have more peace, joy, and fulfillment.
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