Attention is an essential human faculty, not only for learning but also for life itself. At present, everything seems to conspire to prevent us from being attentive. We receive many stimuli simultaneously and the effect of this is that we remain fragmented, so focusing on something sometimes becomes a titanic task.
Almost all the activities we do are interrupted constantly. If we stop to observe, we realize that we rarely perform a complete sequence of actions, continuously. We begin a task and it is just a moment before an alarm goes off on the phone or a noise appears that takes us out of focus. The distraction is served at the table at all times.
“Love instructs the gods and men, because nobody learns without wanting to learn. The truth is sought not as truth, but as good. Attention is linked to desire. Not to the will, but to the desire. Or, more exactly, to consent.”
The clearest example of the lack of attention is provided by the mobile phone, which we often review even if we do not have to. But that nervous relationship with the mobile is just the tip of the iceberg in the problems we have to fully attend to something. Today we are structurally programmed to distract ourselves with ease. Much of the time our thinking and our feelings are erratic.
William James and attention
William James was one of the pioneers of psychology and one of the researchers who most carefully studied the subject of attention. Contrary to what many of his contemporaries thought, James pointed out that an experience only becomes experience as such, if it is mediated by attention. When someone is not attentive to what they live, it is as if they had not lived it.
He points out that what we call real is nothing more than that to which we pay attention. If something counts for us, it is because we pay attention to it. Otherwise, it is as if it did not exist. Therefore, the reality that we perceive, is always a reality delimited by ourselves. We decided to focus on certain aspects and overlook others. In this sense, attention comprehensively defines our consciousness.
For William James, what characterizes a genius is the ability to maintain sustained attention. Poses that anyone who is able to focus on a matter decidedly becomes someone with enough expertise to stand out above average. Whether it is the product of willpower or spontaneous interest, the fact is that constantly following the thread of an issue leads to its profound knowledge and the birth of creation, invention or discovery.
Today the attention of people is a good that generates money. For a long time we stopped being people, individuals or subjects, now we are all “users” of something. And the attention of users is a factor that is capitalized. The like, the query to certain content or the audience is something that someone ends up charging. The market disputes our attention.
It is precisely the market that is the first source of stimulus bombing. The whole digital economy has as one of its pillars the capture of people’s attention. Unfortunately, we easily fall into that network. If something disperses attention nowadays, it is all that digital world, with its viral news, its social networks and all the frenetic communication that takes place in that environment.
The final result of all this is scattered consciousness. And the dispersed consciousness is dispersed experience. We go through thousands of daily experiences and, finally, none of them manages to become a full experience. We go over everything without stopping in a specific element or aspect. How to look and not see, or hear without listening.
Attention, a goal
Yes, it is possible to cultivate and educate attention. It is not a matter of willpower nor does it have to be induced by force. All oriental philosophies speak of the importance of mindfulness and promote methods to develop it. The first one is meditation.
Children can spend a long time examining a toy or observing how someone behaves. Paying attention is an exercise in contemplation, which is accompanied by the capacity for surprise and interest to discover.
In addition to meditation, the best way to develop attention is by consciously reducing the number of stimuli. That is, work to deactivate that tendency to accumulate information, friends, knowledge, etc. Less quantity and more quality. Less noise and more silence. Less small experiences and more full experiences.