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Posts Tagged ‘attention

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work”*…

 

attention

 

From psychology professor (and Inner Magic Circle member) Richard Wiseman, a wonderful video elaboration on the famous Gorilla Experiment (to which Wiseman includes a sly nod), demonstrating just how easily our attempts to pay attention can lead us to miss important dimensions of what’s going on around us…

[TotH to Jack Shalom]

* Mary Oliver

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As we iris out, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was actually signed (by all of the signatories except Matthew Thornton from New Hampshire, who inked it on November 4, 1776).  After the Continental Congress voted to declare independence on July 2, the final language of the document was approved on July 4– to wit our celebration of the date– and it was printed and distributed on July 4–5.

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John Trumbull’s depiction of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Capitol Rotunda

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“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles”*…

 

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Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.

Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing. John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment – let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration.

That was in the late 420s. If John Cassian had seen a smartphone, he’d have forecasted our cognitive crisis in a heartbeat…

And he’d have had helpful hints– “How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we focus on focusing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a small Off-Broadway theater in New York City’s Greenwich Village, that The Fantasticks premiered.  A musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, based on the play The Romancers (Les Romanesques) by Edmond Rostand (who wrote the rather better known Cyrano de Bergerac), it ran for a total of 42 years (until 2002) and 17,162 performances, making it the world’s longest-running musical.

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Original Off-Broadway cast album cover

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“All profound distraction opens certain doors”*…

 

We are used to hearing that attention is good for us, and that bad things happen when we are inattentive. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Rebecca Solnit wrote of a hypercapitalist culture 
that had helped to create a “pandemic attention deficit disorder.” But the culture’s vocabularies for attentiveness are not exactly uncapitalist (we pay or invest attention, spend time, take stock). In The Attention Economy, Thomas Davenport and John Beck sought to counteract “organizational ADD” in corporations, and it seems reasonable to assume that the $100,000 advertising campaign that drew attention to their book was, as it were, “good for business.” This particular economy shows no signs of shrinking; last year MIT Press published The Distracted Mind, in which the coauthors (a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist) offered strategies for changing our behavior so that we might function more successfully “in our personal lives, on the road, in classrooms, and” — last but not least — “in the workplace.” The book concluded with the hope that “a neuro cross-fit training” program might soon be developed to minimize distractions.

People have been in training for attention for some time. “Attend upon the Lord without distraction,” Paul advised in Corinthians. Darwin would later stress the importance of attendances less spiritual and altogether more adaptive. “Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than the power of Attention,” he observed in The Descent of Man, “animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey.” This watchfulness is certainly useful, but it may need to be watched; Darwin adds that “wild animals sometimes become so absorbed when thus engaged, that they may be easily approached.” So perhaps it’s hazardous for me to pay too much attention; as an easily-approached attender, I may myself become prey. And there still appears to be some confusion about what kind of attention is the right kind; computer games have often been seen as lamentable distractions, and as contributing factors to poor attention levels, but that was before researchers began lauding the superior attentional capacity of those who played them.

These complications notwithstanding, distraction has tended to
 get bad press…

Matthew Bevis on the rewards of the tangential, the digressive, and the dreamy: “In Search of Distraction.”

* Julio Cortázar, Around the Day in Eighty Worlds

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As we let our minds wander, we might recall that it was on this date in 1855 that Ivan Tugenev and Leo Tolstoy first met.  Earlier that year, Turgenev had written to Tolstoy, who had already published Childhood and Boyhood, but was at the time fighting at the front in the Crimean War: “Enough! There’s a limit to everything!  You have proved that you are no coward, but your instrument is the pen and not the sabre!”

Tolstoy, who admired Turgenev immensely, took those words to heart.  On this day 162 years ago, he appeared on Turgenev’s doorstep in Saint Petersburg.  The writers embraced each other in Russian style and Tolstoy stayed for a month… the beginning of a tempestuous but loyal friendship that lasted until Turgenev’s death in 1883. [source]

left to right (seated), Goncharov, Turgenev, Druzhinin, Ostrovsky; standing, Tolstoy, Grigorovich (1856)

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Written by LW

November 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

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