The Topology of Attention

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that my work is really about attentional design.

Becoming aware of attention. Shaping and directing it. Shifting its quality and inner experience. Leveraging it to produce work of real value.

Tell someone what to do, they might be more productive for a day. Tell them what to pay attention to, and they’ll potentially discover an insight that lasts a lifetime.

Attention is more powerful than mere knowledge, but more concrete than consciousness. It’s the middleware layer between the body, mind, and spirit. A kind of mediating fluid, allowing more rigid and mechanical parts to work seamlessly together.

Let me tell you what I’ve learned about attention.

1. ATTENTION HAS A SHAPE

In 10 Days of Vipassana, one of my first blog posts, I described my experience at a meditation retreat, learning the practice of vipassana.

The first few days were spent focusing all our attention on the space between our lips and nose. At first I didn’t feel anything, but over time my sensitivity grew, and I discovered a whole world of sensation in that square inch of flesh.

Once my attention was sharpened to a fine point, I was asked to explore the surface of my body with it. I was shocked to discover I could feel just the sensations at the tip of a single finger, or the end of an earlobe, or the bottom of my heel. I discovered that the more narrow the focus, the more sensitive the instrument, and the more intense the sensations.

But then we were asked to explore the inside of our bodies. And I found that the only way to do this was to form my attention into shapes. Long and narrow, like a cylinder. Round and smooth, like a sphere. I even experimented with a torus, and found that passing these shapes through different parts of my body, I could indeed focus only on the sensations where the shapes and my body overlapped.

This was the first time I was introduced to the idea that attention has a shape. It has its own distinct topology.

You can try this for yourself. Look at a table littered with objects. Pay attention to the whole surface equally. Now focus only on the four corners. Now on the center. Focus only on things colored red, now green, now blue. Focus on large objects, now on small ones. Try focusing on the things that excite you, or that you feel aversion toward, or that you could eat, or that would fit in a shoebox.

Notice that something is shifting each time you change your focus. You can widen and narrow the lens of your attention; give extra weight to certain features of the scene you’re viewing; filter for certain kinds of objects; distribute your attention along certain dimensions; keep some attention in reserve to monitor other things; dial up certain senses while blocking out others; increase or decrease your sensitivity; even “look” for things that don’t exist in physical reality, like connotations, associations, and similarities.

Notice that you can make all these shifts without really shifting your gaze much at all. Attending to something overlaps but is distinct from merely looking at something. Looking is necessary, but not sufficient.

2. ATTENTION HAS A QUALITY

Along with a shape, I’ve learned that attention has a quality.

It can be sharp and exacting, like the attention paid to a code snippet you’re trying to learn. It can be diffuse and soft, as when you’re walking through a friendly crowd. It can be savage and cold, when a stranger on the street feels threatening. It can be warm and invitational, as in a dinner party among close friends.

These would seem to be merely emotions or states of mind you take on while in the act of paying attention. But I think it’s something more. We are so deeply embodied and embedded in this world, it is more natural to project a quality of attention onto external reality, and then react to whatever gets illuminated, than to try and intake all the data and model the situation in our head.

These qualities of attention are not just emotional overtones. They are as tangible as adding new lenses to your camera.

Attention can be tuned to certain frequencies, so that you notice details in some aspects while completely ignoring big changes in others. It can penetrate the surface and “see inside” the way things work, the visual stimulus combining fluidly with your knowledge and past experience. It can combine with intuition to become a calculus for action, projecting what will happen next more powerfully than the most advanced supercomputers.

3. ATTENTION CAN BE CULTIVATED

What I’m getting at here is that attention can be developed with experience and training. I would go so far as to say that experience can give us new kinds of attention, simply unavailable to anyone who hasn’t done the work.

One of my favorite things to do is hear experts tell me what they see. A dancer once tried to explain how fully extending the arm was a crucial mark of skill in a ballroom dancer (I couldn’t see what he was referring to). An artist passionately insisted that the Picasso piece in front of us was in fact continuing the exploration of fundamental form that Cézanne had started (I couldn’t see the connection). An old-time sailor struggled to explain how he knows when the next gust will arrive, by “reading the ripples” across the water (I saw only waves).

And this isn’t just true with life-long, skilled pursuits. In every experience, we have the ability to shape the way we pay attention to produce different effects, different states of mind, and different skills.

I sat on a trans-Atlantic flight recently, watching the movie playing on the screen without any sound. I was amazed to find that I could follow the plot quite easily, and that focusing my attention only on body language and facial expressions yielded a surprising amount of information. And probably information I would’ve ignored with the sound on.

This happens in the public sphere as well. Research has shown that trying to make roads “safer” (by straightening roads and widening shoulders, for example) actually makes roads more dangerous, because people pay less attention to how they’re driving. The study above concluded that the failure to recognize and appreciate risk (partly due to overly forgiving roads) contributes more to crashes among novice drivers than does the much lamented divided attention.

Another way of saying all this is, “what we pay attention to grows.” Give your attention to fear, and the fear will grow. Give your attention to love, and love will grow. This is the basic choice we have in creating our own experience — which aspects to nourish and which to starve, by offering or withholding our attention.

4. ATTENTION IS CURATIVE

Crucially, this is not the same as simply ignoring things you don’t like. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way many times over. Pain is the body and mind’s way of telling us that attention is needed in a particular area. Our choice then becomes what kind (what shape and quality) of attention to apply there.

Is it harsh and judgmental? (Why won’t my body do what I tell it to? Why can’t I get the motivation to do this task? Why won’t she just do what I tell her?)

Is it forgiving and grateful? (What is this pain trying to teach me? What is producing the fear I have in this area? What is the good in this experience?)

One of the most powerful techniques I know of for addressing pain (whether physical or psychic) is to bring nonjudgmental attention to the part of yourself that is crying out. To accept it, love it, forgive it, invite it to come in and inhabit you. This invitation sparks curiosity, which allows for learning, which eventually leads to gratitude. Pain is, at its root, separation, and forgiving the part of yourself that you’ve isolated and condemned for being “wrong” allows it to come back into the fold, to be reintegrated with the rest of your self.

Gratitude, by the way, could be described in these topological terms. It is the moving of the center of attentional gravity away from yourself and onto the world and others; it is the shifting of its quality from judgmental to appreciative; and it includes a conscious choice to emphasize the good in the situation. Your complaints and self-pity disappear not because the world has suddenly changed, but because your world has changed.

I stopped in my metaphorical tracks when I came across this sentence in The Inner Game of Work (Affiliate Link) (summarized here): “Attention by itself is curative.”

It is such a radical statement. So at odds with our entire culture of work, improvement, solutions, and fixing things. It suggests that the greatest tool at our disposal is free, abundant, available anytime and anywhere, and requires no special training.

But that’s not quite right. Because if you accept the three previous points, then it follows that it is only certain shapes, qualities, and kinds of attention that are curative. Or at least, that certain shapes/qualities/kinds are more curative than others.

Which leads me to the conclusion that attentional design can work, and that it’s needed more than ever, because…

5. ATTENTION IS OUR GREATEST ASSET

This probably seems very uncontroversial. But I think the extent to which this is true is something few truly appreciate. In an attention economy, a scarce supply of the most valuable asset can’t help but rapidly appreciate.

I went to Burning Man for the first time this year (you knew this was coming!). Among the many things that struck me, was that it represented the ultimate attention economy. Because money is prohibited within the camp, the whole place is catapulted into a future where attention is gold.

Erik Davis describes how this economy operates in Beyond Belief: The Cults of Burning Man (yes, there’s more than one!):

“…what participants exchange are the willingness, and the opportunities, to submit to new experience. These experiences in turn create stories, which become the coin of the realm, fetishes traded over the fire, always pointing back to the mysterium tremendum of consciousness itself.”

Walking and riding the streets of Black Rock City, I felt distinctly that my attention was what everyone here was after. This is why it’s not just one thing — mystery, absurdity, sensation, titillation, seduction, humor — that characterizes the place. Human attention is a flighty and temperamental beast, and the effort to capture it has to be constantly changing, constantly tracking the changing mood.

This relentless pursuit of the attention of others manifests, Davis writes, as a “…pervasive mode of seduction: the blinky light or exotic body or hilarious shtick that seeks to distract you from whatever goal or concept you were riding in order to draw you ever more deeply into the wildfire of energetic activity blazing in the Here and Now.”

The experience is like an attention bootcamp: pushing you repeatedly to the edges of how much you’re able to integrate, how fast, and at what risk to your existing conceptions. Those three are like the sides of a triangle, and you only get to pick two.

The Latin root of the English word “attention” is tenere, which means “to stretch or make tense.” The external objects we pay attention to function as attachment points for the mind, keeping us grounded in reality.

What Burning Man and any kind of unusual altered experience provide is a temporary “ungrounding,” — the opportunity to loosen those attachment points just a little. By shifting the external scaffolding far faster and more unpredictably than we are used to, the changing backdrops become a blur, and we are left with only the attachments, to question or dispose of as we see fit.

ATTENTION IN KNOWLEDGE WORK

Bringing this back to the nature and practice of knowledge work, the implication of all this is that the ability to intentionally and strategically allocate our attention is the single most important skill in knowledge work.

Remember the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, in which children who were able to wait longer for more marshmallows ended up being wealthier, happier, and more successful later in life?

The conclusion many took away — that willpower is the key to success — is a misconception. The researchers’ own conclusion was that it wasn’t some mysterious inner reserve of willpower that determined how long they waited. It was just this ability to strategically allocate their attention, in this case to distract themselves from temptation and strengthen their resolve.

This is also how professionals work. They don’t try to store everything in memory, but instead use “jigs” to informationally structure their environment as they go along. Think of a bartender laying out the glasses corresponding to drink orders, so he doesn’t have to remember them. Or a developer leaving comments in the code so she doesn’t have to remember what she knows about that segment. Or a designer printing out mockups to provide a new medium to make drawings and comments on.

In my article summarizing The World Beyond Your Head, I emphasized repeatedly the value of skilled practices (like cooking, motorcycle riding, woodworking, playing music, glassblowing, sailing) in countering the abstraction of modern society. These disciplines push back against the de-skilling of everyday life, embed us in communities of practice, and give us a new autonomy that depends on skillful interaction, not boundless choice.

For me, the glaring question is “Can knowledge work count as a skilled practice?” In other words, for those of us that spend most of our days on computers, are we doomed to sink ever further into virtual worlds that disconnect us from sources of meaning and intimacy?

I think it depends on the kind of attention we pay to our work. If it is dominated by fear, avoidance, and suffering, we won’t be open to whatever the experience (and others) are trying to teach us. If it is suffused with gratitude, appreciation, and curiosity, we can learn from anything and anyone.

How do we change the kind of attention we pay to our work? The basic medium, and also the basic tool, is attention itself. What we pay attention to now…and now…and now…and now.

This for me is the great mystery and also great promise of attentional design: that attention only yields to attention itself. It is the only tool that fashions itself. It is also the only resource that everyone has access to, everyone has control over, and everyone knows intimately.

Awareness of our own attention — noticing what we are noticing, and how we are noticing it — is the fundamental zero-to-one breakthrough. It is the first buckle we tighten on the first boot, as we begin bootstrapping our way to higher levels of self-awareness.


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