When we want to engage, believe me, we can. And not only will we then make fewer mistakes of perception, but we will become the types of focused, observant people that we may have thought we were incapable of becoming. Even children who have been diagnosed with ADHD can find themselves able to focus on certain things that grab them, that activate and engage their minds. Like video games. Time after time, video games have proven able to bring out the attentional resources in people that they never suspected they had. And what’s more, the kind of sustained attention and newfound appreciation of detail that emerges from the process of engagement can then transfer to other domains, beyond the screen. Cognitive neuroscientists Daphné Bavelier and C. Shawn Green, for instance, have found repeatedly that socalled “action” video games—games characterized by high speed, high perceptual and motor load, upredictability, and the need for peripheral processing—enhance visual attention, low-level vision, processing speed, attentional, cognitive, and social control, and a number of other faculties across domains as varied as the piloting of unmanned drones and laparoscopic surgery. The brain can actually change and learn to sustain attention in a more prolonged fashion—and all because of moments of engagement in something that actually mattered.
When we are engaged in what we are doing, all sorts of things happen. We persist longer at difficult problems—and become more likely to solve them. We experience something that psychologist Tory Higgins refers to as flow, a presence of mind that not only allows us to extract more from whatever it is we are doing but also makes us feel better and happier: we derive actual, measurable hedonic value from the strength of our active involvement in and attention to an activity, even if the activity is as boring as sorting through stacks of mail. If we have a reason to do it, a reason that engages us and makes us involved, we will both do it better and feel happier as a result. The principle holds true even if we have to expand significant mental effort—say, in solving difficult puzzles. Despite the exertion, we will still feel happier, more satisfied, and more in the zone, so to speak.
What’s more, engagement and flow tend to prompt a virtuous cycle of sorts: we become more motivated and aroused overall, and, consequently, more likely to be productive and create something of value.
Whether you think of it as a sin, a temptation, a lazy habit of mind, or a medical condition, the phenomenon begs the same question: why is it so damn hard to pay attention?
It’s not necessarily our fault. As neurologist Marcus Raichle learned after decades of looking at the brain, our minds are wired to wander. Wandering is their default. Whenever our thoughts are suspended between specific, discrete, goal-directed activities, the brain reverts to a so-called baseline, “resting” state— but don’t let the word fool you, because the brain isn’t at rest at all. Instead, it experiences tonic activity in what’s now known as the DMN, the default mode network: the posterior cingulate cortex, the adjacent precuneus, and the medial prefrontal cortex. This baseline activation suggests that the brain is constantly gathering information from both the external world and our internal states, and what’s more, that it is monitoring that information for signs of something that is worth its attention. And while such a state of readiness could be useful from an evolutionary standpoint, allowing us to detect potential predators, to think abstractly and make future plans, it also signifies something else: our minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.
The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. While our minds might be made to wander, they are not made to switch activities at anything approaching the speed of modern demands. We were supposed to remain ever ready to engage, but not to engage with multiple things at once, or even in rapid succession.
As children, we are remarkably aware. We absorb and process information at a speed that we’ll never again come close to achieving. New sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new emotions, new experiences: we are learning about our world and its possibilities. Everything is new, everything is exciting, everything engenders curiosity. And because of theinherent newness of our surroundings, we are exquisitely alert; we are absorbed; we take it all in. And what’s more, we remember: because we are motivated and engaged (two qualities we’ll return to repeatedly), we not only take the world in more fully than we are ever likely to do again, but we store it for the future. Who knows when it might come in handy?
But as we grow older, the blasé factor increases exponentially. Been there, done that, don’t need to pay attention to this, and when in the world will I ever need to know or use that? Before we know it, we have shed that innate attentiveness, engagement, and curiosity for a host of passive, mindless habits. And even when we want to engage, we no longer have that childhood luxury. Gone are the dayswhere our main job was to learn, to absorb, to interact; we now have other, more pressing (or so we think) responsibilities to attend to and demands on our minds to address. And as the demands on our attention increase—an all too real concern as the pressures of multitasking grow in the increasingly 24/7 digital age—so, too, does our actual attention decrease. As it does so, we become less and less able to know or notice our own thought habits, and more and more allow our minds to dictate our judgments and decisions, instead of the other way around. And while that’s not inherently a bad thing—in fact, we’ll be talking repeatedly about the need to automate certain processes that are at first difficult and cognitively costly—it is dangerously close to m8ndlessness. It's afine line between efficiency and thoughtlessness—and one that we need to take care not to cross
Attention makes the genius; all learning, fancy, and science depend on it. Newton traced back his discoveries to its unwearied employment. It builds bridges, opens new worlds, and heals diseases; without it Taste is useless, and the beauties of literature are unobserved; as the rarest flowers bloom in vain, if the eye be not fixed upon the bed.