Sunday, March 26, 2006

Attention Means Attention

So I finished reading Bypassing the Will, and now I understand why virtually every self-help book tells you not to expose yourself to negative people, news, or attitudes. That stuff goes straight to your brain! Specifically, it can go straight to the parts of your brain that do things, bypassing the conscious mind entirely! Ouch. That's gotta hurt.

When I was a preteen going to school in Montserrat, a lot of my classmates were slackers and troublemakers of various kinds, and I found myself becoming one as well. This was one of the reasons I ended up dropping out of school to study on my own when I turned 13. In retrospect I now realize that the same thing was happening to me at Verio, albeit with a different set of negative attitudes. While the first few weeks after being laid off were a bit of a roller coaster, I found I was for the most part a heck of a lot happier, no doubt due to ditching the negative mental environment.

For years, I've read in self-help books that you shouldn't hang out with losers, whiners, etc. and only hang out with positive people who have can-do attitudes. But I didn't really pay that much attention; it was one of those "yeah, whatever" things for me.

I guess I was thinking in terms of philosophical principles like people being allowed to think what they want, and of me being free to ignore what I hear or see from them. Now that I get just how contagious attitudes really are, it seems more like what people think of germs, as in "Ew! Keep those nasty things off of me!"

The even more disturbing thing about the article is that it basically explains why people seem so willing, even eager to be led. Functionally speaking, we are designed to be led by language, to act according to what we hear. This is the basis of hypnosis as well as politics and cults -- by which I mean all religions. (Richard Dawkins has theorized that religion might just be a mind virus that piggybacks on our evolved tendency to believe and act according to what our parents tell us; a kind of "selfish meme", if you will. Since religion is mainly "inherited" from our parents, this seems pretty plausible to me.)

But there is an awfully big ray of hope there too. It seems to confirm the notion I've been playing with, of unconscious automated processes being able to carry out complex operations without the need for conscious attention, but still being able to be initiated using simple triggers -- even verbal ones. If you can be made to do better at a task simply by mentioning the concept of "achievement", then how much more could you do by deliberate visualization and self-talk?

I've also still been rereading "How to Get Things Done", and finding some fascinating insights about the nature of consciousness and especially attention. It seems to me now that consciousness is in a sense nothing more than attention itself: a singling out of certain details of current internal and external experience for the brain's, um, attention. It is as though the function of consciousness is to just point to things that are somehow relevant.

It's almost as if consciousness were the brain's cursor - pointing and clicking at things that are judged "important" in some way. Once your brain is trained for an activity, however, the point-and-click is no longer necessary for the portions that have been trained. Perhaps in some way this cursor or "lens" of attention serves to guide the construction of both memories and TOTEs, perhaps by "noticing" connections that exist or should exist.

Attention Guides Feelings, Feelings Create Action

One specific thing that Seabury mentioned about attention, however, is that it is essential to getting started on tasks. And my experiences seem to concur on this point. When I pay sufficient simultaneous attention to the current state of my desk and how I'd prefer it to be, I find myself automatically taking action to change its current state. It is not necessary to push myself to act or to act consciously. The only conscious step necessary is the focusing of attention, and it's not something that even requires any mental effort or intention to act. Just the observation is enough.

In general, self-help literature and management literature often points to attention as a key factor in determining behavior. Phrases like "what gets measured gets done" abound, and many self-help gurus advocate finding better questions to ask yourself, in order to change the focus of your attention. Others urge you to have more gratitude in your life, by focusing on the positive things that you have, so that you will get more of those things. These all make a lot more sense to me now, as ideas that are now backed by theory as well as practice. (I guess in some ways I'm a lot like that joke about "Yes, I know it works in practice. But how well does it hold up in theory?")

At this point I've marked well over a dozen pages in Seabury's book for points to come back to, and perhaps blog about as well, but for tonight I just wanted to record some of these insights before they could have a chance to get away from me.

And there was one other such insight that I wanted to make note of - to pay attention to, as it were. (And again, we see the theme of how a blog or journal or conversation can act as a kind of secondary consciousness - a form of focusing that extends the durability of one's attention to allow more complex subjects to be placed under the lens.)

Anyway, I was thinking this evening that I would really like to use Seabury's material -- and whatever else it takes -- to become a "really organized person". But there just isn't enough information in his book -- or in any other book, for that matter -- to do that. After chewing on this thought for long enough, I saw the flaw in my thinking.

What I realized was, I had a presupposition that anything that could be done could either be documented by somebody (and thus read from a book) or figured out by me and written down (thus becoming a book). In a sense, you could say I was thinking as if all knowledge could be recorded and transmitted via books -- completely ignoring the fact that no behavioral knowledge can actually be transmitted that way. You can only learn how to do something from a book, in the sense that you can get enough of an idea to be able to teach yourself. The actual learning has to happen in a "situated" way -- that is, within your mind/body complex.

When I realized this, I had quite a good laugh at myself, and at the idea that I could possibly learn the things I wanted to, the way I had been thinking I could. In a sense, the only way for me to become an organized person is to practice being one -- the practice being mental, physical, or both. However, that practice could quite possibly be as simple as me paying attention to whether I am "being organized" at each moment, by asking myself what an organized person would be doing, etc. And I could do that without making any special effort to consciously change my behavior, but it would almost certainly begin to train my brain to make the necessary changes on my behalf.

So with all of this in mind, I'm now starting to really appreciate the story of the merchant who came to the Zen master and said, "Master, I know you are busy, so please write on this scroll some maxims of the highest wisdom for me to study." And the master wrote, "Attention." The merchant was puzzled, and said, "I don't understand." And the master wrote "Attention. Attention."

"But all you're doing is writing 'attention'. Isn't there anything else?"

And the master wrote it three times running: "Attention. Attention. Attention."

Exasperated, the merchant demanded, "What do you mean by 'attention', anyway?!"

"Attention means attention," the master replied.

And that, my friends, is indeed a maxim of the highest wisdom.