Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Deep Attention

Recently I came across a blog called “Brainwaves for Leaders” devoted to making neuroscience useful to people in business, developing their “Neurocapability”. It’s wonderful to see so many sites that apply brain science in practical ways. The site emphasizes the need for focused attention as a way to balance the increasing distractions of attention characteristic of modern life. The goal is to build “Attentional Intelligence.”
"Attentional Intelligence is an intelligence which when highly developed allows you to effortlessly but 'mindfully' notice where your attention is at any moment and to intentionally choose where you want it to be." Linda Ray (2012)
The idea of paying attention to what your paying attention to is classic meditation and has been shown to improve overall intelligence. Sustained attention goes into more aspects of a problem or idea and the site has interesting business oriented ways to cultivate it.
 It’s helpful to devise new words in order to better talk about kinds of attention. I’ve borrowed two from brain wave terminology and distinguish between alpha and beta attention. Like the brain waves alpha attention is slower, calmer, gets inside the immediate, giving the present duration. It’s focused attention, fully on the subject at hand. What we bring into focus is where we are engaged. Attention is a sign of our involvement. Brain chemistry then encourages continued involvement because this is where we extend our capacities.

Beta attention is the everyday monkey-mind attention. Its scope is wider, keeping track of more things but in a more surface way, skimming, scanning, switching around. In a study of college students at Ohio State they found that multitasking was emotionally satisfying but not as productive as focused attention, but it was the emotional satisfaction that made checking devices so addictive. Deeper alpha attention takes more in, digests it more fully and is required for any challenge. Which is why challenge is such a good way to train it. Learning any skill provides challenge and extends capability. This is why studying illusionism can be so satisfying. It makes you pay attention to far more about the details and variation within kinds of objects. It demands full attention so is an outstanding arena for building and strengthening those parts of the brain.

Beauty commands attention. This makes it powerful. People who try to define beauty don’t understand how ephemeral the quality can be, the momentary effect of the light on a flower that transcends definition. The picture you take is only a reminder, can’t hold the moment itself. Beauty encourages alpha attention, to notice and hold in awareness, take it in more deeply. Alpha attention is the deep attention to particulars, where Blake’s “grain of sand” opens worlds. Reflections, qualities and the movement of light and shadows are as important to the feel of the moment as objects. Reflecting on beauty we become aligned with the guidance provided by our attunement to harmonic relations.

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