Attention is not a resource, it is our way of experiencing the world - and we are losing it

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Robert Maurer
@robertmaurer
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"We are drowning in information as we starve for wisdom." These were the words of the American biologist Edward Osborne Wilson at the turn of the century.

There is no doubt that we live in the age of greatest access to information, but this is more fragmented, chaotic and fleeting than ever. Navigating this sea of ​​information does not guarantee us wisdom, rather it plunges us into a sort 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 most precious tools. .



As the Nobel laureate in economics Herbert Simon said: information consumes “the attention of its recipients. Therefore, the excess of information is necessarily accompanied by a lack of attention ”.

The attention economy trap

The "attention economy" is an expression used to explain that attention is a limited resource that constantly disputes news, alerts and notifications on the mobile phone, people next to us, environmental stimuli ...

Undoubtedly, it is a useful narrative in a world marked by information overload where devices and applications are specially designed to keep us connected. It warns us that we cannot pay attention to everything, because attention is a finite resource. However, this conception of attention is only part of the truth.

After all, the economy is in charge of allocating resources efficiently to serve specific objectives, such as assimilating as much information as possible by reading the newspaper. Therefore, referring to the "economy of attention" implies accepting that it is a resource that we must use in the service of some objective.

But 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 "I". As William James said: "All we pay attention to is reality."



The idea is simple but profound: attention connects us to the world by shaping and defining our experience. Therefore, attention is not only an asset, 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 ' open mind to everything that comes before us, in its fullness.

This is precisely the attention we are losing, sacrificing it on the altar of focused attention, which can serve us to achieve certain goals, but which ends up erasing much of what surrounds us, even clouding our self-awareness.

The loss of spontaneous attention

Exploratory or full attention is more open, allowing us to explore and have the widest possible experience of the world. Focused attention allows us to focus on one point of the journey, 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 while clinging to one thing or another, always looking for the next thing to grasp. Full and open attention is what frees itself from these fixations.

The problem, therefore, is twofold. First, the bombardment of competing stimuli for our attention pushes us towards instant gratification, which ends up crowding out exploratory attention. When we arrive at the bus stop, for example, we automatically pull out our mobile phones instead of looking at the space and the people around us.


Secondly, if we take attention as a mere resource, we run the risk of losing the whole experience, turning attention only into a means to an end. There is an implicit bias in this narrative that focused, goal-directed attention is more valuable than open, spontaneous attention.


Evidence indicates that our society is moving in that direction. A study conducted by psychologists at the universities of Virginia and Harvard concluded that “people do not normally like to spend 6 or 15 minutes alone in a room with their thoughts, they prefer to carry out mundane outdoor activities and many choose the administration of electric shocks rather 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. Start thinking of attention as an experience. Focused attention is important, no doubt, but it is also important to leave room for spontaneous attention. To do this, the first step is to get rid of the belief that attention should be in the service of solving problems or achieving goals. We need to start thinking about a broader focus that implies our way of being in the world and with ourselves.


2. Think about how you spend your time. To develop exploratory attention, we must be aware of all those activities with which we prevent the mind from moving at its own pace, without a precise goal. We are likely to find that we spend too much time enjoying outside activities that limit our focus instead of expanding it.

3. Do activities that stimulate spontaneous attention. We must look for activities that nourish us in an open and non-direct way, to give space to that broader attention, such as taking a walk in nature without a mobile phone and / or technological devices. Or simply sit for a few minutes focusing on our body sensations or let the mind wander aimlessly. It is about loosening control over our mind, letting it move at its own pace. Without setting goals. Without expecting anything. Only by opening ourselves to experience.


In the age of fast technology and instant success, this speech can seem a little underwhelming. But those moments of simplicity without details and without haste hide a wonderful world to discover. As Daniel Goleman said: "A wandering mind can not only take us away from what matters to us, but it can also bring us closer to what interests us".

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