I’m going down the rabbit hole of Attention for a bit, which requires me to try out some ideas that I may well have to revise or rescind later on in my digging.
I’ll put my spade in the ground by trying out an obvious and simple metaphor just to define the intellectual territory I’m digging in. (Once the frame of reference for this particular pursuit has been established, I expect a more apt and nuanced way of seeing things to emerge and make the original metaphor obsolete.)
Here we go:
Attention is where the rubber of your self-on-its-journey meets the road of community, culture, and environment. Seen in this way, your attention can be internally directed (by you, acting as conscious and unconscious pilot), or marshaled by outside entities or forces (also conscious or unconscious), or guided by a combination of the two.
Many of us, most of the time, just go wherever the road takes us. We set a few intentions, make a few plans, and then more or less operate on autopilot. If there are aggressive attention grabbers in the road, we’re pretty susceptible. If we’re actually intent on accomplishing things, it makes us busy and frantic attending to urgent demands (what we sometimes call putting out fires) so we can get around to what we really meant to focus on.
If we’re determined to, we can develop a certain automaticity of choices consistent with our desired direction.
There are also hybrids of internal and external direction of attention. Matthew Crawford, in a dense, but readable, brilliant, and terrifically enlightening treatise on this topic, The World Beyond Your Head, calls these “jigs” and “nudges.”
Jigs are external, passive structures that help us stay on track (a door mat, for example, that reminds you to get the mud off your shoes on your way into the house). Nudges are more active, external pokes or reminders (alarms and school bells are good examples) to act on our intentions.
Business gurus have made millions marketing leather-bound planners and other tools for managing our attention and keeping ourselves on the tracks we’ve chosen.
We might call these (self-established) jigs and nudges the thinking person’s autopilot. They keep our attention directed according to particular settings of our choosing, without our having to be constantly and fully conscious of who or what is directing our attention.
If we stop to take an inventory of who and what is directing our attention, though: when, where, how often, and for how long … the report is likely to be quite disturbing.
Looking more closely, the rubber and road metaphor is found wanting, because attention is not simply a mechanism for directing receptivity. Attention is also a foraging, finding, and filtering mechanism … a self-constructive tool.
Attention is an identity-defined and identity-defining function of the human mind that works not just by steering us, but also by recognizing and sorting what we take in.
That’s light years more complex than rubber and road.
We need a better metaphor.