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OTHERS :

Pay attention!" How often are children jolted out of a reverie by teachers and parents with this command? Even as we goad children to concentrate, we grown-ups are guilty of attention lapses that occur with greater frequency than we care to admit. “Did I lock the door before leaving home today?"; “What was the point my boss just made?"; “Despite resolving to work uninterruptedly, I just can’t help checking my email every 10 minutes."

Attention, the bedrock of all learning, is indeed as elusive as it is fleeting. Be it learning to drive a car, swim, multiply, understand the structure of atoms, tally a balance sheet or decode the subtext of Shakespearean prose, all learning demands attention. Experience tells us that we can focus our attention on a task, divide it between various jobs to a limited extent, switch it from one task to another and link it to what we have stored in memory. However, for most of us, attention is a scarce resource that gets depleted rather easily. Further, research suggests that almost everyone, not just those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is vulnerable to attentional slips. According to the website of the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders and can continue through adolescence and adulthood. Symptoms include difficulty with staying focused and paying attention, difficulty in controlling behaviour, and hyperactivity (overactivity).

But being mindful can help us hone our ability to concentrate and drive away distraction. Western scientists are now looking more closely at ancient Eastern views on attention. Merging traditional views with modern insights can help us lead more focused and fulfilling lives.

What exactly does paying attention entail? As psychologists are hard-pressed to define “attention" precisely, it is used as an umbrella term to encompass a variety of cognitive skills.

In fact, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychology professor, Claremont Graduate University, US, argues that attention is fundamental to our being and likens attention to “psychic energy". He writes in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience: “Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work it is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we invest this energy." When we immerse ourselves in a task we enjoy and are so absorbed by it that we lose sense of time, we are in a state of “flow".

What we are missing

Inconsistent performance is one of the key features of weak attention controls. Very often we berate a child who does well in one test and poorly in the next. But most often if adults are pressed into explaining how one can focus, we are often at a loss. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who pioneered the field of behavioural economics, makes a distinction between two systems in our brain. System 1 functions automatically and effortlessly, while System 2 requires conscious attention. The default setting in our brain is an automatically running System 1, with System 2 in a “low-effort mode". For most routine activities, this arrangement is apt as System 1 is capable of reacting to a loud sound, reading simple sentences, decoding facial expressions or driving on a quiet road. In contrast, System 2 is enlisted when we have to remember a phone number, compare two sets of mobile phones, solve an algebraic equation or evaluate the soundness of an argument.

System 1 is fairly good at running our humdrum lives and is always providing System 2 with inputs in the form of first impressions, gut feeling or impulses. In most instances, System 2 simply endorses the inputs of System 1, “with little or no modification", as we accept our hunches and respond to our wants. However, System 1 has its limitations, and we can help ourselves by accepting and being more aware of its constraints.

Psychologists Chris Chabris and Daniel Simons conducted a landmark study in which subjects had to watch a short clip of two teams playing basketball. The participants were asked to count the number of passes made by the players wearing white and ignore those made by the players in black uniform. While the subjects were thus engaged, an experimenter dressed in a gorilla suit entered the middle of the court and thumped her chest while facing the camera and then retreated. Around half the subjects failed to see the gorilla. The study was published in the journal Perception in 1999.

This finding, which has been replicated since, shows us humans in a rather humbling light. The fact that we perceive less than we think we do is an illusion of attention, according to Chabris and Simons. This tendency to overestimate our attentional capabilities can jeopardize our lives. For example, most people feel they can drive safely with a hands-free phone. In a simulated experiment, published in the Journal of Vision in 2003, psychologist Brian Scholl of Yale University in the US demonstrated that simply talking on the phone grossly reduces our ability to spot an unexpected object. On the other hand, having a conversation with a co-passenger does not have a detrimental effect as our companion is likely to alter his behaviour based on the surrounding traffic conditions.

Research indicates that attentional skills can be improved with practice.

In a 2005 paper published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child And Adolescent Psychiatry, Swedish psychologist Torkel Klingberg found that children who underwent a specialized training programme to improve their working memory, or the number of items they could hold in their conscious attention at a time, were also calmer and able to sit for longer than children in a control group. Similar studies have found increases in the attention span of adults also. A December study published online in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that mindfulness meditation training had ameliorative effects on adults with ADHD.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, also likens attention to a mental muscle that can be strengthened in his latest book, Focus. He cites a study conducted by the consultancy giant Accenture that involved interviewing 100 CEOs about the most important skills required to run a successful business. Among the 14 competencies that were found, “there was one ‘meta’ ability that emerged: self-awareness". In fact, Goleman recommends that “leaders need the full range of inner, other, and outer focus to excel". As a deluge of digital distractions invade our world, perhaps we would all benefit from taking time to getting to know our own selves better.

Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties

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