Friday, December 12, 2014

The Spotlight of Attention

You're reading an article that claims bad news for your current dietary habits. Beets, which are your favorite food, are supposedly evil. According to the article, beets have been shown to cause heart disease, cancer, and Ebola. Yes, all at once.

Now, we can both predict what will happen to your attention by default.

It will shun any sensations that might indicate rationalization should they begin to arise in the periphery of your attention. It will initiate a sharply focused, moderately directed search for flaws in the study. And it will rapidly withdraw from all sensations indicating evidence in favor of the Evil Beets hypothesis.

There are a many many cognitive processes that contribute to such complicated mental events as "rationalization", and most of those processes are subconscious. What I want to draw your attention to is very simply attention: The allocation of limited processing resources at the level of conscious awareness.

You might not know how or why the rationalization process is happening, or even what it is really. But when you happen to become aware of some sensation that indicates it's going on, that's an opportunity to re-allocate resources, thereby exerting some control at the interface of conscious and unconscious processing.

There are a few things about attention that seem really important to me.

First is direction of attention. I talked about that in the last post, and suggested a quick (<5 minute) exercise to set off the associated sensation.

Second is focus of attention. Direction is where you point the spotlight. Focus is the radius of the beam.

Third is searching. Searching is a sweep of the darkness.

Searching is what happens with your attention if you're prepared to become aware of something. It happens in a sharply focused, highly directed way when you can't find your keys. It happens in a more softly focused, highly directed way when you search for something to write with. And it happens in a softly focused, relatively undirected way when you "keep an eye out" for someone with a hair cut you might like to try in the future.

So why does this matter? I've been illustrating with vision, but these spotlight-like properties characterize attention generally, as far as I can tell.

Go back to the Evil Beets article. By default, your attention's going to do some dangerous things that might make an enemy of the truth—resulting in death by heart disease, cancer, and Ebola.

But suppose you've trained hard and have excellent control over your attention. Then since you can predict it will do these things by default, you can counter. You can direct it toward sensations of rationalization. You can soften the search for flaws. And you can assign equal focus to sensations indicating evidence in favor of the Evil Beets hypothesis.

You'll probably need to do more than that to save yourself. But you could—and should—start by gaining control over your attention. Becoming consciously aware of a problem is usually the first step toward solving it.

Focusing Attention

Here's a quick exercise (<5mins) that sets off the sensation of focusing. Focus can be hard to distinguish from direction. It takes practice to gain precise control of either.

  1. Rest your gaze on the top left corner of your monitor. Pick a tiny little spot. Focus on that point as narrowly as you can, picking out the tiniest pinprick of your visual field and letting all of your attention shine laser-like directly onto it.
  2. Then, without moving your eyes, let your attention soften to include about an inch of space around that spot. Slowly let it soften to include more and more of your visual field.
  3. How much can you soften your focus without changing anything about your vision? Once you're aware of as much space around spot as you can manage—perhaps your whole visual field—hop back and forth between laser focus and a one-foot radius of attention. Take note of the sensation of rapidly changing focus.

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