Notes on Attention
This post examines the virtue of attention and its facets like awareness, discernment, mindfulness, presence, focus, and concentration.
It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
What is this virtue?
This virtue has to do with having command over your attention, and using that command skillfully to attend to the right things in the best manner. Different terms associated with varieties of attention are used in a variety of ways by different authors; I’m going to use the following terms to differentiate them:
Mindfulness (presence, being observant) is the ability to consciously perceive the full breadth of what is currently available to your senses.
Awareness (understanding, comprehension) is the ability to contextualize what you are experiencing, including in that context things that are relevant but not currently available to your senses.
Discernment (orientation), in this context, is the ability to direct your attention to specific things in your field of awareness, and to identify the most important or relevant things.
Focus (absorption, concentration) is the ability to narrow the attention so as to apply it in a more detailed and penetrating way for sustained periods of time on some chosen part of your present experience.
There is also a sort of meta-skill (I don’t know a good name for it) that covers the ability to transit in a timely way between these various modes of attention: to be mindful when it’s time to be mindful, to incorporate awareness when awareness is called for, to notice when it’s time to orient yourself toward something in particular, and then to apply your focus where it is needed for as long as it is needed.
The virtue of attention includes all of these skills as components, and you have that virtue if you characteristically practice these skills proficiently.
Some related virtues or skills include savoring (attending to delight), elevation/awe/wonder (attending to the sublime), perspective (a facet of awareness), curiosity and intellectual humility (so you’re not closed to mindfulness), acceptance/surrender (willingness to see reality as it is), vigilance/alertness (discernment of potential dangers in particular), and self control (which helps you maintain focus). Buddhist traditions are especially attuned to the nuances of attention, and have fine-grained terms of their own to describe aspects of it (e.g. mushin, jhāna) that are difficult to map to common English terms.
Narrow focus and broad mindfulness are mutually-exclusive, on opposite ends of a range. Opposed to both of these is “daydreaming” — a state in which you are neither very aware of what’s going on around you, nor focused on anything in particular. In some interpretations, this state of mind is the brain’s “idling” somewhat-lower-energy state that it returns to by default when there are no pressing mental demands. The “default mode network” in the brain is active when you are idly daydreaming or recalling memories: in other words, when your mind is retracing familiar paths rather than taking in new information. However, this mode of thinking may be important for incorporating and retaining previously-acquired information and insights — so maybe rather than thinking of it as a failure of mindfulness and focus, it would be better to think of it as an additional variety of “attention” that is healthy to exercise in moderation.
“Mindfulness is nonconceptual awareness. Another English term for sati is ‘bare attention.’ It is not thinking. It does not get involved with thought or concepts. It does not get hung up on ideas or opinions or memories. It just looks. Mindfulness registers experiences, but it does not compare them. It does not label them or categorize them. It just observes everything as if it was occurring for the first time. It is not analysis that is based on reflection and memory. It is, rather, the direct and immediate experiencing of whatever is happening, without the medium of thought. It comes before thought in the perceptual process.” ―Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English (2011), p. 134
Mindfulness is the attempt to take in as much as possible of your raw immediate experience. “Raw” and “immediate” are exaggerations, as our experience is mediated by our senses, which do a great deal of processing to our perceptions before they become available to consciousness. But the point of the mindful state is to approach as near as we can the raw material of our current experience, as it is before we begin to try to make sense of it all or fit it into our agendas.
If you’ve ever had the experience of, say, looking all over the place for your scissors only to discover that they were right there on the table in front of you the whole time, you’ll know that our preconceptions about what is relevant or true can hide from us what actually is. When you are being mindful, such preconceptions have fallen away so the is shines through.
(There’s unfortunately a lot of ambiguity in how the term “mindfulness” gets used — for example, some examples of what people call “mindfulness meditation” have more to do with what I’m calling “focus.”)
There is a difference of opinion, or maybe a difference of perspective, about the extent to which you really can take in a broad spectrum of sense input simultaneously. Some people describe mindfulness in a way that suggests that you’re really hitting your attention with a firehose of everything all at once: sight, sound, feeling, and so forth. Others (Daniel Ingram for example) say that you really can only attend to a single sensation at a time, so that each individual sensation excludes the others at the moment it is being perceived attentively, and mindfulness of this sort is better understood as attention to a rapid series of specific sense impressions than as a panorama that includes them all.
Sometimes the phrase “beginner’s mind” is used to describe this sort of attention. The idea here is that when you see something for the first time, you don’t know what are the most important, relevant, or atypical aspects of it: Everything is equally novel and seems potentially important. As you become more experienced with some category of things, you come to attend to only the most relevant, tractable, or off-kilter aspects about them. If you can reactivate the “beginner’s mind” you will notice things that you might otherwise ignore.
Three major obstacles to mindfulness of this sort are 1) a rush to reabsorb your raw experience into the familiar and understood by identifying it, categorizing it, telling yourself stories about it, or interpreting it in terms of your agenda, 2) focusing-in on some interesting detail or thought so as to shut out the rest of experience, and 3) slipping into daydreaming and letting your experiences pass by unattended-to.
Another obstacle to mindfulness is that it can be difficult to come up with a good reason to practice it. If you need to focus, or need to be vigilant, there is usually some specific articulable reason (e.g. I need to study for an exam, or I need to watch out for road hazards). Mindfulness is typically more open-ended and not obviously practical. You don’t know ahead of time quite what you’ll find there, and that’s part of the point. This can make it more difficult to justify or to find time to practice.
“He sacrificed to his forefathers as if they were present; he sacrificed to the gods as if the gods were present. The Master said: ‘For me not to be present at a sacrifice is as if I did not sacrifice.’ ” (Analects of Confucius, Ⅲ.ⅻ)
Awareness is like mindfulness in that it has a broad range of attention. It differs in that it interprets what is being perceived through the filter of concepts, categories, interests, agendas, and so forth. It looks at the world not only in terms of what it is, but what it means. It (or sometimes, focus) is usually what people mean by “paying attention.”
The absent-minded professor, or the person who walks into a utility pole while looking at their phone, are examples of people who are lacking in awareness.
Awareness includes an awareness of context, which requires memory skills and also sustained attention. Social awareness is a valuable skill with lots of nuance, and often requires you to empathically model other people, which brings in yet another set of virtues and skills.
If you are aware, you see the big picture, and also are more apt to notice any anomalies — things that don’t seem to fit or that require explanation. Vigilance is a variety of sustained awareness in which you attempt to be constantly alert for particular sorts of anomalies. It is related to “alertness,” though that sometimes has connotations more in line with more general “wakefulness.” People tend to have difficulty maintaining vigilance, and in experimental conditions the ability to notice unusual signals in an otherwise uninteresting background declines quickly.
“If you cut up a large diamond into little bits, it will entirely lose the value it had as a whole; and an army divided up into small bodies of soldiers, loses all its strength. So a great intellect sinks to the level of an ordinary one, as soon as it is interrupted and disturbed, its attention distracted and drawn off from the matter in hand; for its superiority depends upon its power of concentration—of bringing all its strength to bear upon one theme.” ―Arthur Schopenhauer, On Noise (1851)
Discernment is the ability to pick, from the multitude of perceptions in your awareness, those that are most potentially interesting or relevant. It is “to notice” what is notable. Orientation is to train the attention on whatever it is that you have singled out as interesting. Orientation is what you do when, for example, you choose one of many conversations in the room to follow.
You may orient your attention deliberately and consciously, or more reflexively and unconsciously. Stage magicians master the art of manipulating attention reflexes such that their audience orients away from the trickery to notice instead the deceptively salient red herring.
“No man is in any degree fit for either business or conversation, who does not command his attention to the present object, be it what it will. When I see a man absent in mind, I choose to be absent in body; for it is almost impossible for me to stay in the room, as I cannot stand inattention and awkwardness.” ―Lord Chesterfield (Letters to His Son, September 22, 1749)
The aspect of attention I most often hear people complain about lacking is focus or concentration.
Focus can be deliberate and effortful, or it can be automatic and effortless. Something that is inherently fascinating, outrageously shocking, pruriently intriguing, or potentially threatening can cause us to focus on it without us consciously deciding to do so. More ordinary things require us to make a deliberate effort if we want to concentrate on them, and more effort still to sustain that concentration.
The amount of time you can effortfully focus on something before becoming distracted (by something else or by mere boredom) is your “attention span.” Characteristics of the thing or task being focused on, and of your previous experience with it, can change your attention span, as can factors like fatigue, hunger, environmental distractions, whether you are being observed, and stress. (This suggests that things like fitness and tranquility may be helpful to attention.)
People who have extreme difficulty in the ability to focus, or whose difficulty causes problems in particular areas of life (e.g. schooling) may be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for which a variety of treatments are available.
The “flow” state is an elusive Shangri-La in which the activity we feel we ought to be attending to is also one that holds our effortless focus, such that we can devote our sustained effort to the activity itself rather than to maintaining our concentration. “Hyperfocus” happens when something has so captured our attention that we tune out all else, to an extreme level — for example, someone playing a video game who does not notice when someone else in the room calls their name repeatedly or when the pizza deliverer rings the doorbell.
Being able to shift focus gracefully from one thing to another, and to multitask in such a way that you prioritize your focus well between things, are also important parts of the skill of focus.
How can you improve your attention?
“Every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.” ―Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” (1942)
The previous sections of this page establish some of the terminology and concepts we can use to describe facets of attention. There is a lot of interesting scientific research out there about the neural correlates of these facets, the course of their development in children, how to measure them, and how various pathologies interfere with them. I found much less of such research about how a typical person can improve their attention control in general.
You can typically attend to things better when you are in a state of arousal. As Samuel Johnson noted, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Athletes will sometimes use rousing music (or something like a haka) to pump themselves up before an athletic performance in order to sharpen the mind. Amphetamines, which artificially generate arousal, are the go-to drug for treating attention deficits, and also for enhancing vigilance, for example in soldiers in battle. The milder stimulant caffeine is used more casually to aid alertness, and eugeroics (e.g. modafinil/provigil) to improve wakefulness. Folk interventions like “pinching yourself to stay awake” are also in this category.
Psychedelic drugs can heighten and discombobulate the senses to the extent that everything takes on an appearance of unfamiliarity, and a sort of starry-eyed “beginner’s mind” results that can clear out the cobwebs in fascinating ways (“have you ever actually looked at your hand, man?”).
Environmental changes can make it easier to attend effectively to the right things. Removing clutter and other distractions can make attention less difficult, for which the virtues of orderliness and simplicity can help.
User interface designers take pains to make important parts of interfaces more easily discernible with bright colors, blinking lights, arresting sounds, and so forth. On a more potentially sinister note (as highlighted in e.g. The Social Dilemma), media companies that commodify human attention are evolving their platforms in sophisticated and automated ways to make them more captivating.
We can also manipulate the user interface of our own surroundings to make more important things more prominent: For example, store your resistance bands or barbells out where you can see them, or on top of your favorite lounging spot, so as to more easily remind you to do your exercises.
But these things have a gimmicky, stop-gap feel to them. What would be nice would be if we could improve attention in a sustained way, such that we become characteristically skillfully attentive.
There are meditation practices that are designed to improve attention or to expand its capabilities in various ways. There are forms of meditation that exercise mindfulness, others that exercise awareness, others that exercise concentration.
The point of attention-related meditation practices is often not to strengthen attention for its own sake, but so that you can then use attention for the purpose of developing insight into reality or for the purpose of entering into a variety of interesting altered states of consciousness. (Though more recent developments like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction also harness mindfulness meditation for gently therapeutic relaxation.) That said, I know of no other discipline that has put so much effort into mapping out practical interventions that ordinary people can use to strengthen and expand attention, so even if you have no interest in seeing the sights around nirvana, you might want to investigate.
One of the meditation practices I do from time to time is a five-senses scan. For example, I attend for several minutes at a time to the experiences of seeing, then hearing, then tactile feeling, then tasting, then smelling. I sometimes try to imagine when I do this how I would feel if the sense I am attending to had just switched on for the first time: for example, if I’d never tasted anything before and suddenly my mind began to experience taste sensations. What would that be like? How would I distinguish these new sensations from other ones? How would I discern the contours and boundaries of this new sense? This perspective helps me to drop some of my preconceptions about what the sense is — what it means, where it comes from, how it works, what it suggests — and helps me to attend as closely as I can to its uninterpreted original essence.
A skill that is useful for concentration is the ability to notice when you have lost your focus so that you can restore it. If your mind begins to wander off, it typically does so without announcing its intentions first, and in a devil-may-care way that may leave few clues that anything has gone awry. It can be tricky to notice that this has happened so that you can correct for it. This is something for which concentration meditation practices may help. Such practices allow you to catch your mind wandering off again and again, and bring it back to whatever you are trying to focus it on again and again, until the state of wandering becomes more salient and the process of return more automatic.
Active, reflective attention
Active listening and particularly reflective listening (listening to someone speaking with the intention of being able to reconstruct and regenerate what the other person has said) are ways of improving attention to spoken communication.
William James suggested that this sort of approach might have broader application: One form of attention he identified was “the reproduction of the sensation from within.” He recommended that “the habit of reading not merely with the eye, and of listening not merely with the ear, but of articulating to one’s self the words seen or heard, ought to deepen one’s attention to the latter.” And he put this into practice successfully in his own life:
“I can keep my wandering mind a great deal more closely upon a conversation or a lecture if I actively re-echo to myself the words than if I simply hear them; and I find a number of my students who report benefit from voluntarily adopting a similar course.” ―The Principles of Psychology (1890)
A use of this technique in meditation is called “noting” in which as each new perception arises, you also consciously make note of it in an objective way (“seeing… itching… hearing… remembering…”). This is meant to help you keep your focus on whatever is currently present to the mind, as well as to become more aware of your mental activity.
Related to active listening is curiosity or inquisitiveness. The more you want to know, the more eagerly you will listen. This too applies to more than conversation. If you can develop more curiosity about something, you will find it easier to attend to it. William James again:
“Try to attend steadfastly to a dot on the paper or on the wall. You presently find that one or the other of two things has happened: either your field of vision has become blurred, so that you now see nothing distinct at all, or else you have involuntarily ceased to look at the dot in question, and are looking at something else. But, if you ask yourself successive questions about the dot, — how big it is, how far, of what shape, what shade of color, etc.; in other words, if you turn it over, if you think of it in various ways, and along with various kinds of associates, — you can keep your mind on it for a comparatively long time. This is what the genius does, in whose hands a given topic coruscates and grows.” ―The Principles of Psychology (1890)
Some people find that making explicit lists or plans helps them to focus. If you’ve already gone to the trouble to add something to a list as a focal item, you don’t later have to keep reminding yourself that it’s important. If you have already made a list of the things that need doing, you can concentrate on the current thing on the list, not distracted by anxiety about what else you maybe ought to be doing instead.
Short “centering” rituals can help to focus the attention. A friend of mine said he swears by “close eyes, two quick inhales, one long exhale.” In baseball, it’s common to see a batter approach the plate, tap their bat in a particular place, adjust their wristband just so, and go through a routine of such odd tics before settling in to concentrate on the pitch. Athletes will also sometimes use various relaxation techniques (progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, meditation) before a game or performance if stress or anxiety interferes with their ability to focus.
“Attention restoration theory” holds that periodic exposure to nature in an unstressful, undemanding way can restore attention capacity. An attention-restorative environment is one that is inherently fascinating or awe-inspiring, away-from-it-all (from life’s cares in particular), extended in space (you can keep moving through it or scanning along it), and comfortable. (W)
Simply taking breaks to stare out the window and give your mind time to go wandering can help to rejuvenate it for more concentration. Some brief, vigorous exercise can also cause enough arousal to improve attention. Sometimes people get up from what they are doing to take a walk or stretch, or occupy their mind in some more meandering task like journaling. A friend told me:
I only ever fill my water cup at work halfway full, so I’m constantly getting up to get a drink. That allows a mental pause and prevents a physical slump every time I get up to have more water. I don’t get bored as easily and I don’t have computer shoulder slump. When my brain feels stuck my body Pavlovs to go get some water.
If some thought — like a worry or an impending task or something you don’t want to forget — is interrupting your concentration, writing that thought down somewhere where you know you’ll see it when you have time to deal with it can make it easier to put it aside for the purposes of present concentration. Similarly, you can set an alarm to remind you of something so you don’t have to use mental energy to remember it. A friend of mine said she has an alarm to tell her when it’s lunch time: “on a low motivation day it stops me from constantly checking the clock to decide when lunch is, because the alarm tells me.”
Similarly, when I meditate I use a timer that has chimes that go off a few times during the meditation session. I know that one of the chimes will tell me unambiguously when I’ve been on the cushion as long as I intended to be, so I don’t need to be distracted by watching the clock. The occasional other chimes are not so distracting as to interrupt my meditation if I’m “in the zone” but are distracting enough to interrupt my wandering mind if it’s off in the bushes somewhere making mischief.
When I asked friends for their concentration tips, I heard from one person that they concentrate better when “overstimulated with media” — this person likes to keep music and television going, and to always have a social media tab ready to jump to. It may sound paradoxical, but when he figured all this out, he says, his productivity went up. He told me, “It’s like an anxiety relief thing, where the anxiety is, I guess, that I’m going to get bored while I’m waiting two seconds for the work program to load…”
Coming up with artificial rewards (gold stars, treats, checking things off your list) can help improve focus both by giving you something to shoot for and by giving you positive reinforcement for maintaining attention. A friend of mine who is in grad school tells me she repurposed a lapping stopwatch to help her concentrate on her academic reading: “A page is a lap. I’ve timed the approximate wpm that I read for textbooks, and at the beginning of an assigned reading I will write the approximate time needed for me to read it. Then when I read, I set my phone next to me with the stopwatch running.”
As the above-pictured example demonstrates, you can make a dull task more interesting by adding competition, camaraderie, or some arbitrary private goal.
Something that is unfamiliar can be difficult to attend to (once the initial novelty wears off) just because it seems confusing or meaningless. For example, a foreign language just seems like a tangled mess of syllables at first: it’s hard to attend to it because any segment of it seems interchangeable with any other. But as you become more familiar with something, you learn how to pick out what is notable about it. This suggests that becoming more knowledgeable about something may help you to be attentive toward it.
For the particular variety of attention involved in savoring, Fred B. Bryant & Joseph Veroff (Savoring: A New Model of Positive Experience, 2007) recommend these five techniques: 1) sharing your experience verbally with others, 2) deliberately building memories from your experience, 3) congratulating yourself, 4) attending to the details, and 5) attempting absorptive full-attention in what it is you intend to savor.
Being well-rested and unfatigued seems to make a big difference in the ability to maintain attention. This suggests both that you can improve your general attentiveness by attending to the quality and quantity of your sleep, and that it might be worthwhile to consider the schedule on which you do things: moving things that require more attention to the part of the day when you are most “fresh.”
There are apps that are meant to make your various beeping buzzing devices somewhat less distracting by temporarily blocking your access to certain sites (or allowing you access for only a limited time), emitting neutral noises to drown out distracting sounds, and so forth. You can also spend some time adjusting the notifications settings of your various applications, and adding filters to your inbox, so they don’t poke at you so frequently. There are always the blunt-force tactics of closing the laptop, or muting the phone and putting it face-down on the table. My own favorite technique is to “forget” my phone in the other room.
There is some, so far inconclusive, evidence that modest increases in CO2 can impair cognitive performance. It probably wouldn’t hurt to open a window.
With all that is known about the brain networks involved in attention and in mind-wandering, this seems to be something that would be ripe for biofeedback techniques. I was able to find promising examples of studies of biofeedback to treat ADHD in children, but didn’t immediately find examples of adults using biofeedback to improve attention.
Having stronger working memory helps you keep your goal in mind as you tick off the tasks that help you accomplish the goal, and thereby reduces the influence of distractions. There was some initial excitement about enhancing attentiveness by improving working memory via computer-assisted training but this didn’t seem to hold up.
It can be hard to attend to something if you find it repulsive, frightening to contemplate, or painful. Sometimes this can be unfortunately distracting, causing you to avert your attention from something you need to attend to. In such a case, it can sometimes be helpful to try to devote some time when you can deliberately, and in a safe environment, focus on just the aversion-causing thing (or on the feeling of repulsion/fear/pain itself). Sometimes when you look at such a thing directly, “staring it down” as it were, you can defang it so that it causes you less distress. When you’re sitting in meditation, for example, when you get bored, or irritated, or frustrated, or your back starts to hurt, or your nose itches, you’re encouraged to incorporate those things into your meditation by making them the focus. This has a way of making them seem less like imperatives and more like ordinary phenomena.
Learning how to be comfortable being assertive can help your concentration. Just knowing that it’s okay to say “not now; I’m busy” can be enough to free up the mental space you need to concentrate on what you’re doing.
If you have difficulty with attention because you are distracted by persistent unwanted thoughts, traumatic memories, hallucinatory voices, or things of that nature, professional psychological or psychiatric evaluation is probably your best bet.
In an essay for Aeon, chess grandmaster Jonathan Rowson explored how chess is “a socially permissible pretext to concentrate for several hours at a time” that “can teach us more about what concentration really means.” So chess may be another sort of concentration-strengthening exercise worth investigating. Rowson concludes:
“Our problem today is not that we don’t or can’t pay attention, but that the systems and structures of society oblige us to pay attention so frequently and fleetingly that we cannot in fact concentrate. Lacking an ability to concentrate, it’s a struggle to construct and maintain a coherent and autonomous sense of self, which leaves us at the mercy of digital, commercial and political puppeteers. Without concentration, we are not free.”