We’ve all probably heard from a teacher or a parent statements like Attention please! “Whatever you focus on will develop” “Pay attention”. And most of us probably castigate ourselves on a daily basis for our inability to concentrate on the task at hand. It seems in our distracted world of texts, tweets, and news feeds, more and more folks are bemoaning their scattered thinking and have a strong desire to improve their attention span and focus but we often come up short. When we do fail, the typical response is to redouble our efforts and ask; “What is going on here? Why is it so hard to bridle my attention?”
In answering this question, the two common culprits to point to are the increasing amount of distractions in our modern world and our lack of individual discipline. While these factors are certainly part of the problem, there is a more fundamental underlying issue at play: people want to master their attention, but they don’t know what attention actually is. Since you can’t change what you can’t understand, it is necessary to study the nature of attention – what it is, how it works, and why it’s so important.
What is Attention?
Attention is taking possession of the mind on one out of several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.
What we decide to pay attention to and what we decide to ignore shapes our existence and our reality. Since everyone pays attention to different things, everyone has different conceptions of reality and that is why three different eyewitnesses can have three different accounts of a crime and why couples get in fights about who is or isn’t pulling their weight around the house — everyone is training their focusing lens on different things and framing the “shots” of their reality in their own way. Attention involves a complex combination of different cognitive processes — like working memory and executive control — that work together in unison
So attention in a nutshell is the ability to focus on certain stimuli or thoughts while ignoring others, which in turn shapes how we perceive and experience the world around us.
Types of Attention
- Involuntary Attention
Involuntary attention isn’t consciously controlled by us, but rather by compelling stimuli in our environment. We experience involuntary attention when we hear a loud noise, see what we think is a snake slithering in the grass, or simply notice something new and novel. Stimuli that’s possibly dangerous typically grabs our involuntary attention more than stimuli that could lead to a reward; in primitive times, simply surviving was more important than getting ahead. In the modern age, our involuntary attention has been hijacked by the constant stream of stuff going on around us — urban noise, TV, smartphone pings, background music, etc. “Look, I see a bear!” has become, “Look a funny video on YouTube!
Basically, the sensitivity of our involuntary attention to the new and unusual is the reason why the internet is so distracting. While our involuntary attention can be overwhelmed by an onslaught of distractions, mild stimulation of it actually puts us in a state that quiets the mind and gives our voluntary attention a break. Getting out into nature puts us in this soft fascination state – there are different things to see whilst out walking in the woods, but the stream of incoming stimuli is so slow and mellow our mind feels simultaneously engaged and at rest.
- Voluntary Attention
Voluntary attention is a focusing process over which we have conscious control. Instead of our attention being at the whim of whatever stimuli grabs it, we deliberately decide what our mind attends to.
Voluntary attention requires effort, willpower, and intentional concentration. You exercise your voluntary attention when you decide which of the stimuli bombarding your involuntary attention you’ll attend to, and which you’ll ignore. We also call upon our voluntary attention when we try to shut out all competing stimuli in order to concentrate on a single task, like writing a memo, reading a book, meditating, or even playing a video game.
The more stimuli there are competing for our involuntary attention, the harder our voluntary attention has to work to stay engaged with the task at hand. If involuntary attention allowed our species to survive, voluntary attention is what has really helped us to thrive. It’s through voluntary attention that cities were built, wars were won, and masterpieces written. On an individual level, voluntary attention is what allows you to progress with your personal goals.
- Default Mode: Mind Wandering
When an outside stimulus isn’t engaging our involuntary attention or we’re not using our voluntary attention to attend to a specific task or thought, our mind shifts into a default mode called “mind wandering” – what we often refer to as daydreaming. On the one hand, mind wandering takes our voluntary attention away from whatever task we might be working on at the moment. It often happens while we’re engaged in low cognition activities like showering, walking, exercising, or even reading. On the other hand, when we engage in mind wandering, our brains actually use the same regions that are utilised when we are trying to exercise voluntary attention; even though we’re not paying attention to the task at hand, we are paying some attention to our distracting thoughts -like tonight’s dinner. Mind wandering is an important facet in our attention system because we spend about 50% of our time in this default. Spending time in this state has both benefits and drawbacks.
The Drawback of Mind Wandering
- Mind wandering keeps you from being present in what you’re doing
- When our minds wander, it normally drift towards negative thoughts and emotions such as unresolved problems, conflicts with co-workers, unfulfilled goals, bills to be paid, even an embarrassing moment from the past.
- These negative taught tend to pulls us deeper and deeper into a funk.
The Benefits of Mind Wandering
- Mind wandering directs our brain to the unused processing power towards solving unresolved problems. Mind wandering’s negativity bias is just trying to nudge us to work on the issues in our lives that need some untangling.
- During positive-constructive daydreaming, we engage in future planning, reminisce about positive emotional experiences, and engage in moral reasoning.
- Mind wandering can get our creative juices flowing. Mind wandering boosts creativity because it’s so unstructured. By allowing our mind to freely ramble over the hills and dales of our craniums, we’re able to make connections we otherwise wouldn’t if we were actively directing our attention to one single solution.
- Finally, and most importantly, daydreaming gives our voluntary and involuntary attention systems a break.
In summary, mind wandering can be good or bad, depending on how we manage and direct it. While research suggests that whether our mind wandering skews negative or positive depends largely in part on our genetic temperament, we do have the conscious ability to nudge our wandering mind into more constructive modes.