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Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 16, 2009
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Amazon Exclusive: Winifred Gallagher on Rapt
A wise research psychiatrist once told me that he had identified life's greatest problem: How to balance self and others, or your need for independence with your need for relationship? Since writing Rapt, I've come to believe that we now face a fundamental psychological challenge of a different sort: How to balance your need to know—for the first time in history, fed by a bottomless spring of electronic information, from e-mail to Wikipedia--with your need to be? To think your thoughts, enjoy your companions, and do your work (to say nothing of staring into a fire or gazing dreamily at the sky) without interruption from beeps, vibrations, and flashing lights? Or perhaps worse, from the nagging sense that when you're off the grid, you're somehow missing out?
Science's new understanding of attention can help shape your answers to this question, which pops up all day long in various forms. When you sit at your computer, will you focus on writing that report or aimless web browsing? At the meeting, will you attend to the speaker or to your BlackBerry? Research suggests that your choices are more consequential than you may suspect. When you zero in on a sight or sound, thought or feeling, your brain spotlights and depicts that "target," which then becomes part of the subjective mental construct that you nonetheless confidently call "reality" or "the world." In contrast, things that you ignore don't, at least with anything like the same clarity. As William James succinctly puts it, "My experience is what I agree to attend to."
The realization that your life—indeed, yourself--largely consists of the physical objects and mental subjects that you've focused on, from e-bay bargains to world peace, becomes even more sobering when you consider that, as the expression "pay attention" suggests, like your money, your concentration is a finite resource. How can you get the highest experiential return for this cognitive capital? By focusing on some screen or on playing your guitar? On IM-ing your old friend or joining her for a walk?
Considering the Internet's countless temptations and distractions, deciding how best to invest your time and attention when you're online is particularly challenging. Left to its own devices, your involuntary, "bottom-up" attention system asks, "What's the most obvious, compelling thing to zero in on here? That e-mail prompt? This colorful ad?" Fortunately, evolution has also equipped you with a voluntary, "top-down" attention system that poses a different question: "What do you want to focus on right now? Ordering that new novel, then checking the weather report, then getting back to work, right?" Sometimes, it's fun to just wander around online, allowing your mind to be captured by random, bottom-up distractions. In general, however, it's far more productive to focus on top-down targets you've selected to create the kind of experience you want to invite.
Along with making clear choices about what things merit your precious attention online, there are some other simple ways to protect the quality of your daily life from technological interference. Remember that your electronics are your servants, not your masters, and don't let them choose your focus for you. Abandon vain attempts to "multitask," because when you try to attend to two things at once—phoning while checking e-mail—you're simply switching rapidly between them, which takes longer and generates more errors. When you need to concentrate on an important activity, try to work for 90 minutes without interruptions, because rebooting your brain can take up to 20 minutes.
Most important, as you go about the day, bear in mind that by taking charge of your attention, you improve your experience, increase your concentration, and lift your spirits. Best of all, enjoying the rapt state of being completely absorbed, whether by a website or a sunset, a project or a person, simply makes life worth living. We cannot always be happy, but we can almost always be focused, which is as close as we can get.
From Publishers Weekly
Gallagher (The Power of Place, Working on God) couples personal ruminations and interviews with experts to explore the role of attention in defining consciousness, identity and the human experience: "who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love-is the sum of what you focus on." From paying attention to your inner dialogue (helping eliminate negative thought patterns) to bucking the myths of multi-tasking (says cognitive scientist David Meyer, "Einstein didn't invent the theory of relativity while multi-tasking at the Swiss patent office"), Gallagher draws practical conclusions from her examination of conscious ("top-down") and unconscious ("bottom-up") attention strategies. Though her claims to "a psychological version of... physicist's 'grand universal theory'" are a bit outsized, Gallagher takes illuminating forays into the evolution of the species and the global diaspora, looking for instance at how "Western individualism" emphasizes top-down focus while the Asian mentality encourages a broader, contextual perspective. A fascinating psycho-social look at human motivation and the power of focus, Gallagher's latest is worth paying attention to.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Rather than making a coherent case for where we should place our attention under what circumstances and providing techniques for controlling that attention, the author provides a journalist’s survey of the scientific work being done in the area. A sprinkling of nineteenth century philosophy provides some context, but we are left with little more than the general idea that attending to the right things will make us happier.
I actually bought this hoping that it would help my teaching practice, by helping me understand my students with attention issues, but I got so much more out of this read. I feel like this book will improve my experience of my recreation and family time more than my professional life. I found myself highlighting quote after quote from Rapt, as this book is densely packed with great info and advice.
RAPT is definitely worth reading and gives many of us new tools for making decisions and clearing out the clutter in our lives that keep us from focusing on what is truly important to us. RAPT has already helped me to do things that are more meaningful to me. But overall, especially toward the end of the book, I began to realize that there is a "bootstrapping" mentality that might seem lacking in compassion and doesn't consider that making these changes is very difficult, if not impossible, for some people. There are people in this world, who are in situations where life has become a downward spiral that is impossible to reverse, without a great deal of help, understanding, and compassion from others. Life for some is in free fall without a parachute, having only one possible ending no matter how they try to WILL it.
I think this book sees things from a perspective that needs to be balanced with another point of view. I highly recommend reading books, such as BRIGHT SIDED or NICKEL AND DIMED, by Barbara Ehrenreich, (another breast cancer survivor), which present ideas that create some balance and perspective when read together with this book.
Taking charge of your attention, especially with our ever multiplying
distractions, is essential. Gallagher makes this point well. The spiritual
side is not too heavy handed - indeed, I would not be able to tell
her religious affiliation from the book alone.
However, the discussion of science leaves something to be desired.
It is akin to reading a string of press releases - results are
interpreted in a very general sense, and there are no qualifications.
I understand that writing more carefully about these results
would make the book a lot less interesting. But, as with any
popular science book, the reader should keep in mind that
much of it is overinterpretation (if not misinterpretation).