Attention: A Decisive Mental Faculty, According To Various Thinkers

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 vigilant. We receive many stimuli simultaneously and the effect of this is that we remain with fragmented consciousness, so that focusing on something sometimes becomes a daunting task.

Almost all the activities we do are constantly interrupted. If we stop to observe, we realize that very rarely do we perform a complete sequence of actions, continuously. We start a task and it is hardly a moment before an alarm goes off on the phone or some 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 no one learns without wanting to learn. The truth is sought not as truth, but as good. Attention is linked to desire. Not to will, but to desire. Or, more exactly, to consent ”.

-Simone Weil-

The clearest example of inattention is given by the mobile phone, which we often check even though we don’t have to. But that nervous relationship with the cell phone is only the tip of the iceberg in the problems we have to fully attend to something. Today we are structurally programmed to be easily distracted. Much of the time our thinking and 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 believed, James pointed out that an experience only becomes an 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.

It points out that what we call real is nothing more than what we pay attention to. If something counts for us, it is because we pay attention to it. Otherwise, it is as if it does not exist. Therefore, the reality that we perceive is always a reality delimited by ourselves. We decided to focus on certain aspects and ignore others. In this sense, attention comprehensively defines our consciousness.

For William James, what characterizes a genius is the ability to maintain sustained attention. It suggests that anyone who is able to focus decisively on an issue, becomes someone with enough mastery to stand out above the average. Whether it is the product of willpower or spontaneous interest, the truth is that constantly following the thread of a matter leads to its deep knowledge and the birth of creation, invention or discovery.

Monetized care

Today people’s attention is a good that generates money. Long ago we stopped being people, individuals or subjects, now we are all “ users ” of something. And the attention of the users is a factor that is capitalized. The like,  the consultation of certain content or the audience is something that someone ends up charging. The market is vying for our attention.

The market is precisely the first source of stimulus bombardment. The entire digital economy has as one of its pillars the capture of people’s attention. Unfortunately, we easily fall into that network. If there is something dispersing the attention today, it is the entire digital world, with its viral news, its social networks and all the frantic communication that takes place in that environment.

The end result of all this is scattered consciousness. And 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 dwelling on a specific element or aspect. Like looking and not seeing, or hearing 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 Eastern philosophies speak of the importance of mindfulness and promote methods to develop it. The first of these is meditation.

Children, when they are discovering the world, are very attentive to their surroundings. They 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 the 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.