From the moment we wake up we come across millions of stimuli but only some of them are grasped by our focused attention. The stimuli that we did not direct our attention to becomes an undifferentiated bundle that falls into oblivion.
Scientists continue to debate and experiment in order to pinpoint its exact inner workings. Nevertheless, attention is involved in the selective directedness of our mental lives, which is crucial for all sort of things – from practical to spiritual, for if there was no such directedness towards the world, we would be inert.
According to psychologist and philosopher William James, attention “is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what may seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thoughts…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”
Day to day, we switch our attention from one thing to another: from our thoughts to the car that is passing by, from a memory to the possible future, from listening to the radio and talking on the phone. Sometimes, we even put our attention at places that we don’t want to! The thing is, attention is the gate where we decide what things enter our mind, therefore I think it is worthwhile to take time, and think where we want to direct our mental activities.
The things that are relevant to us will catch our attention, which is for certain. But there is a risk involved in only focusing on things that are relevant, because we can shut ourselves from everything else. We do not see the world as it is, rather we see the world that we are looking for!
One of the most popular takes on attention describes it as some sort of bottleneck. According to this view, attention is the necessary mechanism that allows us to attend to the large amount of sensual input delivered to our mental apparatus.
If we did not have this filter, the sheer volume of information would otherwise “overheat” our mind. Just like a computer, which has a certain amount of processing capabilities, our minds can only manage a certain amount of thoughts or details. There are other theories on attention, for example, the “Feature integration theory.”
According to this theory, attention gives rise to perception, and “binds” parallel channels of stimuli. For example, when we see and grab a cup, there are two different features of the cup that are being delivered to our visual and the tactile senses correspondingly. Attention is what allows us to take the tactile and visual information and merge it into one object; a “cup”.
Different kinds of attention
There are many types of attention, for example, attention can be goal-oriented or stimulus driven. In one, we are attending to a specific thing; in the other we are receptive. The things that “catch” our attention can come from within, or from outside.
Attention and perception are deeply related
Experiments have shown that perception does not necessarily precede attention, rather they are interwoven. We perceive what we direct our attention to, and vice versa. What we think is a crystalline world, reality is but a product of where we direct our attention. In Daniel Simons words, “We see the world not as it is, but rather as it isn’t.”
We are not as attentive as we think we are
Because attention allows us to access only but a tiny fraction of what is going on, we miss out much more than we “capture”. Check out the “monkey business illusion” in the below video –
Even though “weird” things happen around us, sometimes, because we are looking for something else, we fail to recognize them. This is because our mental directedness is very specific. In this sense, perhaps, the things that we miss out aren’t weird, just unsearched for. Our mind is so focused on requirements of mostly social nature, that we cannot really take time to look around and allow the things to speak for themselves.
Think about it, in our daily life, where do we put our attention? Sometimes we are so immersed in our thoughts that we fail to get in touch with what is out there. In this following video, we can see how much we can miss out and fail to recognize the more unusual events.
Attention and free will are intimately linked
It has been long noted by many, that the relationship of volition and attention is an intimate one. We have the power to place our attention in certain specific aspects of experience. For example, take the word: tree. We can put attention to the chirping birds on the tree, but also, to what the word refers.
In the same way, perhaps, we cannot influence the configuration of our surroundings, but we can definitely put attention on whatever aspects we want. Attention is flexible and trainable. Let us put it where it´s worth it.
References and further reading
Attention and intention working miracles with awareness
Perception and Attention
Attention and Intention, Decoded!
Voluntary and involuntary attention
The Role of Attention Attention