Like consciousness or mind, attention is a complex neurological and behavioral business. There’s no tidy “attention center” in the brain. Instead, an ensemble of alerting, orienting, and executive networks collaborate to attune you to what’s going on in your inner or outer world in a coherent way that points you toward an appropriate response.
Neuroscience’s truly groundbreaking insight into attention is the discovery that its basic mechanism is a process of selection. This two-part neurological sorting allows you to focus by enhancing the most compelling, or “salient,” physical object or “high-value” mental subject in your ken and suppressing the rest. Outside of an elite scientific circle, however, this finding’s implications for everyday life have been stunningly unremarked.
When you focus, you’re spending limited cognitive currency that should be wisely invested, because the stakes are high. At any one moment, your world contains too much information, whether it is objects, subjects, or both, for your brain to depict clearly for you. Your attentional system selects a chunk of what’s there, which gets valuable cerebral real estate and, therefore, the chance to affect your behavior. This thin slice of life becomes part of your reality, and the rest is consigned to the shadows.
Attention’s selective nature confers tremendous benefits, chief of which is enabling you to comprehend what would otherwise be chaos. You couldn’t take in the totality of your own experience, even for a moment. Whether it’s noise on the street, ideas at the office, or feelings in a relationship, you’re potentially bombarded with stimuli vying for your attention. New electronic information and communications technology continually add to the overload. By helping you to focus on some things and filter out others, attention distills the universe into your universe.
Along with performing the Apollonian task of organizing your world, attention enables you to have the kind of Dionysian experience beautifully described by the old-fashioned term rapt—completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even “carried away”—that underlies life’s deepest pleasures, from the scholar’s study to the carpenter’s craft to the lover’s obsession. Some individuals slip into it more readily, but research shows that with some reflection, experimentation, and practice, all of us can cultivate this profoundly attentive state and experience it more often. Paying rapt attention, whether to a trout stream or a novel, a do-it-yourself project or a prayer, increases your capacity for concentration, expands your inner boundaries, and lifts your spirits, but more important, it simply makes you feel that life is worth living.