A Better Way to Pay Attention

Two friends talking while drinking from gold mugs.
Two friends talking while drinking from gold mugs.
Photo: Carlina Teteris/Getty Images

In 1958, a British psychologist named Donald Broadbent posited the “filter model” of attention (also known as the “bottleneck model”). The world floods our senses with data, like a fire hose. Our brain’s ability to process this data is limited, so it deploys attention as a means to prioritize all that information, to control the fire hose.

It’s a compelling theory, one that intuitively seems to make sense. Attention, we assume, is like a bank account we draw down, or a hard drive with limited capacity. We’ve all experienced that sensation of being overwhelmed by too much information. So much bombards us that nothing sticks. Several studies have found we routinely overestimate our ability to multitask.

But what if Broadbent’s theory is flawed? What if the human capacity for attention is not finite but, rather, that we’ve been going about “paying attention” the wrong way? As Alan Allport, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, once wrote, “No such upper bound [of attention] has been identified, either generally or within a specific processing domain.” Maybe when our attention short-circuits, it’s because we’ve exhausted our effort. Maybe we haven’t hit capacity, but are merely tired.

To paraphrase the great philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, often what we consider natural or “the way things are,” is really the way things are here and now. A local truth masquerading as a universal one. In order to become better at paying attention, we have to unlearn what we’ve been led to believe attention should be.

You are what you pay attention to

Looking back at your life, which memories bubble to the surface? Chances are it’s moments when you were most attentive: being sparked by a life-changing revelation, or experiencing an instance of pure connection.

Our lives are no less and no more than the sum of our most rapt moments. “The highest ecstasy,” said the influential 20th century French philosopher Simone Weil, “is the attention at its fullest.”

Attention matters. More than anything else, it shapes our lives. It defines our relationships and feeds our ideas. It was also a central theme in Weil’s work.

Weil argues for a rethinking of attention that makes us better thinkers and more compassionate human beings — and goes against some of our most stubbornly ingrained cultural impulses. That’s because, in Weil’s view, attention is not an experience of focused thinking — or, concentration — but a suspension of thinking altogether. Concentration can be coerced, while attention cannot.

Attention, according to Weil, is not something we do so much as consent to. Less weightlifting, more yoga. “Negative effort,” she called it. Genuine attention, she believed, is a kind of waiting. For Weil, the two are virtually the same. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them,” she wrote.The opposite of attention is not distraction but impatience.

In other words, don’t seek solutions but wait for them. The more you scan your brain for the “right” word, the more it eludes you. Wait for it, though, and it will come. Eventually.

Attention is a form of empathy

Simone Weil was a sickly toddler, a sickly child, and grew into a sickly young adult. At age 13, she began to suffer acute, debilitating headaches that would torment her throughout her life. And, though brilliant in her own right, Weil felt overshadowed by her wunderkind brother, André, who would go on to become one of Europe’s greatest mathematicians. Her parents made it clear that they had wished for a second genius son and sometimes referred to Simone as “Simon” and “our son number two.”

Perhaps as a result, Weil was deeply, astonishingly, empathetic — both as an individual and as a thinker. At age six, as World War I raged, she announced she was forsaking sugar because “the poor soldiers at the front didn’t have any.” Later, as a young adult, she refused to heat her apartment, out of sympathy for workers who couldn’t afford heating fuel.

Weil’s radical empathy helps explain her radical views on attention. She didn’t see it as a mechanism, or a technique. For her, attention was a moral virtue, no different from, say, courage or justice, and demanding the same selfless motivation. Don’t pay attention to be more productive, a better worker, or a perfect parent. Pay attention because it is the morally correct course of action, the right thing to do.

There’s a name for attention at its most intense and generous: love. Attention is love. Love is attention. They are one and the same. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention,” writes Weil. Only when we give someone our attention, fully and with no expectation of reward, are we engaged in this “rarest and purest form of generosity.” This is why the attention denied by a parent or lover stings the most. We recognize the withdrawal of attention for what it is: a withdrawal of love.

In the end, our attention is all we have to give. It doesn’t take much, says Weil. A simple five-word question can soften a heart, and change a life: “What are you going through?” These words are so powerful, says Weil, because they recognize the sufferer, “not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labeled ‘unfortunate,’ but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.”

Yet Weil concedes that pure attention, pure empathy, is not easy. We pay attention only to what we consider worthy of our attention. We latch on to an idea too quickly, and pay a price: We miss a flash of dimension or depth. That’s why, says Weil, it’s important to maintain a state of unknowing, of unthinking, for as long as possible. This requires patience, something scarce during Weil’s time and even more so today.

Why true attention demands patience

As the adage goes, patience is a virtue. Patience, though, doesn’t strike us as a lot of fun. The English “patience” comes from the Latin patiens, for suffering, endurance, forbearance. The Hebrew savlanut is a bit cheerier. It means both patience and tolerance. Tolerance for what? For suffering, yes, but also tolerance for the rejected parts of ourselves. People impatient with others are rarely patient with themselves.

Weil warned against impatience, which in her view precluded compassion. But she was also wary of a different, yet directly related, sort of impatience: An intellectual impatience, born from insecurity, that will grasp at ideas haphazardly, regardless if they happen to stink. All our mistakes, says Weil, “are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.”

We see this dynamic at work in people eager to hook the Big Idea, one they hope will transform them from mere thinker to Thought Leader. More interested in packaging ideas than pondering them, they release their Big Idea into the world before it has ripened. These aspiring Thought Leaders don’t want to do the work attention demands, because it’s hard — not hard in the way it is to run a marathon or learn a new language, but hard like meditation, or like parenting. It’s hard the way waiting for a train is hard.

And therein lies the challenge. Attention is not a skill we acquire, like knitting or fencing. It is a state of mind, an orientation. We don’t so much learn attention as turn toward it. The pivot only happens when we pause.

From THE SOCRATES EXPRESS: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers by Eric Weiner. Copyright © 2020 by Eric Weiner. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Philosophical Traveler. Recovering Malcontent. My new book, THE SOCRATES EXPRESS, is out now!

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