“We are drowning in information, while we starve for wisdom.” Those were the words of the American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson at the beginning of the turn of the century.
There is no doubt that we are living in the era of greater access to information, but this is more fragmented, chaotic and fleeting than ever. Navigating this sea of information does not guarantee us wisdom, but rather sinks us into a kind of drowsiness induced by the bombardment of data from different sources, a state of “continuous partial attention” that ends up fragmenting and dispersing one of our valuable tools.
As the Nobel Prize in Economics Herbert Simon said: information consumes “The attention of its recipients. Hence, the excess of information is necessarily accompanied by poor attention”.
The “attention economy” trap
The “attention economy” is a phrase that is often used to explain that attention is a limited resource for which constantly struggle news, alerts and mobile notifications, people who are at our side, stimuli of the environment …
Undoubtedly, it is a useful narrative in a world marked by information overload where devices and applications are specially designed to keep us hooked. It alerts us that we cannot pay attention to everything, because attention is a limited resource. However, that conception of attention is only part of the truth.
The economy, after all, is responsible for allocating resources efficiently to the service of specific objectives, such as assimilating as much information as possible when we read the press. Therefore, referring to the “attention economy” implies accepting that it is a resource that we must use for servicing some objective.
However, attention is much more than a resource, it is what allows us to be in the world, it is our connection with the environment, but also with our “ego”. As William James said: “Everything we pay attention to is reality.”
The idea is simple but profound: attention connects us to the world by modeling and defining our experience. Therefore, attention is not just a resource, it is also an experience.
There is a focused attention, which is what we use to read the news, browse social networks, watch a movie or listen to our interlocutor, but there is a much broader attention, an exploratory mode that implies a mental openness to everything appears before us, in its fullness.
That is precisely the attention we are losing, sacrificing it on the altar of focused attention, which can serve us to achieve certain objectives, but that ends up erasing much of what surrounds us and even blurs our self-consciousness.
The loss of spontaneous attention
Exploratory or full attention is more open, allows us to explore and have the widest possible experience in the world. Focused attention allows us to focus on one point of the road, so as not to lose sight of it, while exploratory attention opens our vision in all directions.
This exploratory mode of attention is not only external, but also allows us to connect with ourselves. In fact, Zen master David Loy states that samsara, the unenlightened existence, is simply the state in which attention is trapped as it clings from one thing to another, always looking for the following thing to grab to. Full and open attention is that which is released from these fixations.
The problem, therefore, is twofold. First, the bombardment of stimuli competing for our attention leans us toward instant gratification, which ends up displacing the exploratory attention. When we arrive at the bus stop, for example, we automatically take out our cell phone instead of looking at the space and the people around us.
Secondly, if we assume attention as a mere resource, we run the risk of losing the whole experience, turning attention only into a means to a goal. In this narrative there is an implicit bias according to which, focused and goal-directed attention is more valuable than open and spontaneous attention.
Evidence indicates that our society is moving in that direction. A study by psychologists from the universities of Virginia and Harvard concluded that “People normally do not enjoy spending just 6 or 15 minutes in a room alone with their thoughts, they prefer to perform external mundane activities and many choose the administration of electric current before than being alone with their thoughts.”
How to develop spontaneous attention?
When we fail to use our attention, it becomes a tool that others will use and exploit. How to prevent it?
1. Starting thinking of attention as an experience. Focused attention is important, there is no doubt, but it is also important that we leave room for spontaneous attention. To do this, the first step is to get rid of the belief that attention must be at the service of problem solving or goal achievement. We must begin to think in terms of broader attention that implies our way of being in the world, but also the way of being with ourselves.
2. Thinking about how we spend our time. To develop exploratory attention, we need to be aware of all those activities with which we prevent the mind from moving at its own pace, without a precise objective. We are likely to discover that we spend too much time entertaining in external activities that restrict our field of attention, instead of opening it.
3. Performing activities that stimulate spontaneous attention. We need to look for activities that nourish us in an open and non-directed way, to give space to that broader attention, such as taking a walk through nature without mobile devices. Or just sitting for a few minutes focusing on our bodily sensations or letting the mind wander aimlessly. It’s about loosening the tight grip on our mind, letting it move at its own pace. Without setting goals. Without expecting anything. Just opening up to the experience.
In the era of fast technologies and instant successes, this speech may seem a bit disappointing. But those moments of simplicity without ornaments and without haste hide a wonderful world to discover. As Daniel Goleman said: “A wandering mind can not only move us away from what matters to us, but also bring us closer to what interests us.”
Nixon, D. (2019) Attention is not a resource but a way of being alive to the world. In: Big Think.
Wilson, T. D. et. Al. (2014) Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science; 345(6192): 75-77.
Goleman, D. (2013) Focus. Barcelona: Editorial Kairós.