Monday, October 28, 2013

What I've Been Reading

Rapt: Attention and Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher. If you are looking to improve your life or any aspect(s) of your life then just pick up this book and start reading - highly recommended.

What is attention?

What your experience largely depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a physiological fact. When you focus on a STOP sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock-market tip, your brain registers that “target,” which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things that you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you. All day long, you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and, ultimately, your well-being.

Attention is commonly understood as “the concentration of the mental powers” or “the direction or application of the mind to any object of sense or thought.” Recently, however, a rare convergence of insights from both neuroscience and psychology suggests a paradigm shift in how to think about this cranial laser and its role in behavior: thoughts, feelings, and actions. Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships. If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.”

You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different. In short, live a focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.

Williams James states it perfectly in The Principles of Psychology:

Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalisation, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.

And according to William James wisdom was “the art of knowing what to overlook” and his concept of happiness is pretty simple - "I don’t sing because I’m happy. I’m happy because I sing.”

Michael Posner the designer of computerized Attention Network Test adds:

The tendency to focus on the seemingly minor delights of a good, crisp apple or your favorite song on the radio is an important element in the construction of an optimistic, upbeat personality and corresponds with a greater overall satisfaction with life. Conversely, a chronic inability to focus on small opportunities to cheer up and enjoy yourself correlates with depressionand its dour worldview.

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson on meditation:

Most people could meditate daily, and the more you practice, the better you get. Our data directly correlate the number of hours spent with the magnitude of the changes in the brain signals.” When he tells the monks that William James observed that a person can’t focus steadily on an object for more than three or four seconds, “they just laugh,” says Davidson. “They can’t believe that someone I hold in such high regard would say something so stupid, so inconceivable. They think that controlling your attention is within the inherent capability of all human beings, and that it’s foolish not to develop that capacity.”

Dugu Choegyal Rinpoche, a teacher and artist who’s based in India and Nepal, is an expert in the Tibetan Buddhist way of paying attention to reality and her definition of attention:

“It means mindfulness— just the mind being simple. Whether in meditation or daily life, we try to pay attention to just being present, rather than being caught between hope and fear, which is the mind’s usual condition.”

What is beyond Meditation?

In the Buddhist scheme of things, of course, Amtrin’s life may be finished, but his mindful attention isn’t. By way of explaining reincarnation, the rinpoche says that mind’s basic nature is “a vibration or energy that over many lifetimes becomes stronger. The good things you learn stay and develop from life to life, giving you a head start. The more clarity you gain, the fewer negative emotions you will have next time.” On the long road to enlightenment, says the rinpoche, a person first meditates so that the mind can “get a glimpse of itself. Eventually, you take away the meditative state and free the mind even from that. Then mind can come back to its own nature of attention and awareness without contamination by concepts— even meditation.”

Few words of wisdom from Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi:

If you ask me while I’m playing tennis if I’m happy, I’ll say, ‘Heck! Wait a minute . . .’ Happiness is a later reflection of the flow, rather than the result of the experience at the time.
With some thought, effort, and attention, you can make even an apparently dreary job, such as assembling toasters or packaging tools, much more satisfying. “The trick, is to turn the work into a kind of game, in which you focus closely on each aspect”— screwing widget A to widget B or the positions of your tools and materials—“ and try to figure out how to make it better. That way, you turn a rote activity into an engaging one.”

Finally on ADHD:

Attention researchers tend to describe the dearth of basic knowledge about ADHD in terms like “astounding” and “appalling.” “You would not believe how little work of this kind has been done,” says the NIMH’s Leslie Ungerleider, “and most of that concerns the hyperactivity aspect of control. There’s almost nothing about how children filter distractions. Beginning with primates, we’ve developed good ways to test that, but none of them has ever been used for clinical assessment.”

Just as “epilepsy” turns out to be perhaps two hundred different seizure disorders, ADHD is an umbrella term for a variety of problems that have some symptoms in common. As they did for epilepsy, new tools such as fMRI are helping to identify certain broad categories of attention difficulties, which is the first step toward developing appropriate treatments for each— a big step up from the fever-aspirin approach.

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