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Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life Paperback – Bargain Price, March 30, 2010
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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.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top Customer Reviews
I found this book fascinating on many fronts. It takes a deep look at how what we focus on tends to be more of what we get and goes in depth on adaptive focus.
The two chapters I found most interesting were the chapters on work and productivity and Nurture: This is your brain on attention.
The author makes a strong argument about the superficial amount of focus children give due to technology overwhelm. Where hours of focused practice made for successful mastery of subjects, today's youth (and increasingly, many adults) are unable to focus long enough to complete tasks requiring intellectual rigor or deep thought. Or in the words of the author: "when you're finally forced to confront intellectually demanding situations in high school or college, you may find that you've traded depth of knowledge for breadth and stunted your capacity for serious thought."
In a time of information overwhelm, this is the one book that everyone should read, thoroughly.
None of her conclusions are particularly startling. And the studies she cites are ones you have probably already seen in the science section of your favorite news weekly. But I still think unless you study this subject professionally or have just finished a book of this same nature, Rapt is worth reading.
Although her premises are sometimes weak, and her conclusions are often over-broad, Gallagher accomplishes what she set out to do--I think--which is to bring complex ideas down to easy-to-grasp-though-sometimes-fuzzy level. For its simplicity and simplistic profundity, I enjoyed reading Rapt. And while I wouldn't propose citing it in your thesis, I found it to be a nice reminder of the power of the mind, the usefulness of mediation, and overall a well-written reflection on what really matters in life.
But the best parts of the book are not her ideas. I loved the ideas of the people she interviewed. She interviewed a number of people who study and write about happiness: Richard Davidson, Barry Schwartz, the Nobel prize winning economist, Daniel Kahneman, and Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi (whose work she seems to rely on a great deal). The quotes from these thinkers is worth the price of admission.
Her premise is a good one: what we pay attention to, in the end, becomes our life. Of course, the book opens up with a quote by William James that says exactly the same thing (that he wrote over 100 years ago). And then there is the classic 1990 book: Flow: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness Thus, I am not sure what is new in this book.
For a fresher approach to attention, mindfulness, and how it can improve our lives, I would suggest that people read these other recent books:
Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living
After all, these books were written by people who do the science and help clients create happy, meaningful lives. Makes more sense to go straight to the experts than the journalist.
Otherwise, if you have read Kahneman and Csikszentmihalyi, the last being very accessible, then this book would be repetitive and not as good as the material she references.
The above combined with the lack of compelling story telling, see Gladwell, and detailed practical advice, see Brain Rules, are the reasons for my three star review.
Not to sound harsh, if you have read nothing on the subject, then book is a good gentle introduction to the subject.