>The power of paying attention


There’s another fascinating book out about the way our brains work. A delightful woman named Winifred Gallagher has just published Rapt–Attention and the Focused Life. Using some pretty impressive research, she makes another case to support something I learned in the excellent book Brain Rules: that multitasking just doesn’t work. Period.

A scientific study shows, according to Rapt, that our optimum period of concentration is ninety minutes. That means ninety minutes without phone interruptions, email distractions, conversations. Then, the study tells us, we should get up, move around, do something else. It also tells us that every interruption means the brain has to waste a significant amount of time getting “back on track”. This seems to me a perfect model for a writer! I hope that’s not just because I’m such a physically restless person.

Here’s the blurb from the Penguin USA website:

In Rapt, acclaimed behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher makes the radical argument that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it. Gallagher grapples with provocative questions—Can we train our focus? What’s different about the way creative people pay attention? Why do we often zero in on the wrong factors when making big decisions, like where to move?—driving us to reconsider what we think we know about attention.

Gallagher looks beyond sound bites on our proliferating BlackBerries and the increased incidence of ADD in children to the discoveries of neuroscience and psychology and the wisdom of home truths, profoundly altering and expanding the contemporary conversation on attention and its power. Science’s major contribution to the study of attention has been the discovery that its basic mechanism is an either/or process of selection. That we focus may be a biological necessity— research now proves we can process only a little information at a time, or about 173 billion bits over an average life—but the good news is that we have much more control over our focus than we think, which gives us a remarkable yet underappreciated capacity to influence our experience. As suggested by the expression “pay attention,” this cognitive currency is a finite resource that we must learn to spend wisely. In Rapt, Gallagher introduces us to a diverse cast of characters—artists and ranchers, birders and scientists—who have learned to do just that and whose stories are profound lessons in the art of living the interested life. No matter what your quotient of wealth, looks, brains, or fame, increasing your satisfaction means focusing more on what really interests you and less on what doesn’t. In asserting its groundbreaking thesis—the wise investment of your attention is the single most important thing you can do to improve your well-being—Rapt yields fresh insights into the nature of reality and what it means to be fully alive.


  1. >This is why I’ve found the practice of meditation so useful – it’s about being with what you are doing, 100%, for as long as you are doing it. And while focussing on what you love to do is a Good Thing, focussing on stuff you don’t like to do, if approached in the right way, can change attitudes for the better, There’s nothing actually wrong with any activity as long as it doesn’t hurt the doer or anyone else. But the very act focussing on, say, washing dishes or ironing clothes instead of focussing on how much I hate doing those things, can help me find the enjoyment to be had simply in focussing the attention completely. What I’m trying to say is this: whether or not we like the activity is less important than enjoying the focussing for its own sake. In that way everything we do can become a meditation,and we can emerge from it feeling refreshed and relaxed instead of tense and anxious, even if it’s something we thought we hated doing!

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