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March 30th, 2021
Attention is a subtle subject, which is to say that it’s either too complex to accurately describe or our knowledge of the subject is too lacking for any such description. This is merely to preface a musing about attention with the fact that we haven’t nailed down any hard truths. But in order to make any headway, we first need an idea to work with, a figment of the imagination that we can rub up against reality and try to falsify.
One conjecture about attention that seems to have some ground within the current state of the thought is that our attention is two fold. We can’t actually multi-task as some very inefficient people might claim, but we can handle two tasks quite well. Like holding a conversation while driving a car. We cannot however, drive a car, have a conversation and write an email, for example.
If for a moment we take the premise that we have two attentional avenues as true, what exactly might these two attentional avenues look like? How do they differ and in what ways are they similar?
Attention, is a state of context. It’s defined primarily by what is within it’s scope. When a teacher snaps in the direction of a student and says “pay attention” that teacher is prompting the student to switch context - to abandon what is in the student’s current context and replace that object or objects with that of the teacher, and the subject being taught.
With the conversation in the car, one attentional field is quite expansive, noting what is behind the car via mirror, the shape of road up ahead and of course other cars. The other attentional field is focused just on the words of the conversation, the phrasing, the rhythm and tone of the person’s voice. In this case the context is much smaller and the objects of focus are far fewer.
Iain McGilchrist in his book “The Master and his Emissary” holds that these two attentional fields have just that ratio: one is focused on the bigger picture and the other is narrowly focused on specific details.
McGilchrist doesn’t vary too much from this position, but what if the ration of scale between these two attentional forms changes? Certainly any ratio comparison between two things of different size pretty much means that one will always be bigger and the other smaller, but what if instead of one attentional avenue being chronically stuck with the aperture wide open and the other tuned in like a microscope, what if they can toggle to intermediary sizes? What if we can be focused simultaneously on two similarly sized contexts?
An example might be playing a piano song. One attentional avenue may be concerned with the accuracy and timing of each note, and another is focused on the overall feel and sound of the whole song. Certainly something like this must be the case if we do in fact have two attentional fields since a person can get “lost” in the act of playing and therefore isn’t paying attention to what’s going on in the room. But then again this begs the question of whether there are in fact multiple attentional avenues at play in the first place. Who’s to say there isn’t just one?
If there are two attentional avenues and if their scope and context is a ratio that can change, is there a benefit or danger with a close ratio? What about a highly unbalanced one?
There are some aphorisms that point at an answer.
Can’t see the forest for the trees. Is one.
Another is: penny wise, pound foolish.
Both of these attempt to convey the danger of focusing on details at the expense of the larger picture. It’s a bit like telling someone to not look at their feet as they walk, but instead to look ahead for that cliff you’re about to walk off.
We’re all quite aware of how important it is to keep the bigger picture in mind, despite how bad we actually are at it. Hence the aphorisms. It seems we feel we need the constant reminder.
That being said, getting anything done inevitably requires an attention to detail. Any accomplishment, no matter how big really just boils down to the execution of innumerable tiny tasks, which of course reside in a small and narrow context.
The ratio of attention we seem best to shoot for is a highly imbalanced one: Keep your eye on the price, but make sure you take care of the details as you go.
This might mean that we risk something important when we fail to stretch our attentional avenues as far away from one another in scope as possible. The more that ratio approaches a one to one relationship, the more our dual powers risk reducing to the functioning power of just one power. Perspective becomes stiff and homogeneous, making it harder to change, being blind to other possible directions that would be obvious with a larger perspective.
Although there’s still as of yet so much to be determined regarding the nature of attention, it’s clear that at least within this framework, the greater the ratio, the better. But regardless, this is just one small hypothetical detail in a large emerging field.