Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The management of our attention

Here is another of the many nuggets (from Chapter 9) from Metzinger's new book that hit me as an excellent summary. He discusses the problem we face in the management of our attention:
The ability to attend to our environment, to our own feelings, and to those of others is a naturally evolved feature of the human brain. Attention is a finite commodity, and it is absolutely essential to living a good life. We need attention in order to truly listen to others - and even to ourselves. We need attention to truly enjoy sensory pleasures, as well as for efficient learning. We need it in order to be truly present during sex or to be in love or when we are simply contemplating nature. Our brains can generate only a limited amount of this precious resource every day.

Today, the advertisement and entertainment industries are attacking the very foundations of our capacity for experience, drawing us into the vast and confusing media jungle. They are trying to rob us of as much of our scarce resource as possible, and they are doing so in every more persistent and intelligent ways. Of course, they are increasingly making use of the new insights in the human mind offered by cognitive and brain science to achieve their goals ("neuromarketing" is one of the ugly new buzzwords). We can see the probable result in the epidemic of attention-deficit disorder in children and young adults, in midlife burnout, in rising levels of anxiety in large parts of the population. If I am right that consciousness is the space of attentional agency, and if (as discussed in chapter 4) it is also true that the experience of controlling and sustaining your focus of attention is one of the deeper layers of phenomenal selfhood, then we are currently witnessing not only an organized attack on the speace of consciousness per se but a mild form of depersonalization. New medial environments many create a new form of waking consciousness that resembles weakly subjective states - a mixture of dreaming, dementia, intoxication, and infantilization.
Having just forced myself to watch the recent American Idol show climax, these points have struck me as particularly cogent. Metzinger suggests we counter the attacks on our reserves of attention by introducing classes in meditation in our high schools, by making the young aware of our limited capacity for attention, and the need to learn techniques to sustain it and enhance mindfulness.

1 comment:

  1. I would add to the excellent insight here, one from Rollo May, another insightful thinker from the realm of Existential Psychology. He points out that a person will only allow their self to see that in which they feel they have the resources to stand up to. (when it comes to seeing something challenging.)

    So to your dismay represented by American Idol, I would ask questions like, "what are people ditracting themselves from?" and, why is it that people are so easily distracted? and, what is the cost of evolving into higher orders of seeing?