Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
By Winifred Gallagher
In Rapt, acclaimed behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher makes the radical argument that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it. Gallagher grapples with provocative questions—Can we train our focus? What’s different about the way creative people pay attention? Why do we often zero in on the wrong factors when making big decisions, like where to move?—driving us to reconsider what we think we know about attention.
Gallagher looks beyond sound bites on our proliferating BlackBerries and the increased incidence of ADD in children to the discoveries of neuroscience and psychology and the wisdom of home truths, profoundly altering and expanding the contemporary conversation on attention and its power. Science’s major contribution to the study of attention has been the discovery that its basic mechanism is an either/or process of selection. That we focus may be a biological necessity— research now proves we can process only a little information at a time, or about 173 billion bits over an average life—but the good news is that we have much more control over our focus than we think, which gives us a remarkable yet underappreciated capacity to influence our experience. As suggested by the expression “pay attention,” this cognitive currency is a finite resource that we must learn to spend wisely. In Rapt, Gallagher introduces us to a diverse cast of characters—artists and ranchers, birders and scientists—who have learned to do just that and whose stories are profound lessons in the art of living the interested life. No matter what your quotient of wealth, looks, brains, or fame, increasing your satisfaction means focusing more on what really interests you and less on what doesn’t. In asserting its groundbreaking thesis—the wise investment of your attention is the single most important thing you can do to improve your well-being—Rapt yields fresh insights into the nature of reality and what it means to be fully alive.
I stumbled across a reference to Rapt in a book I read last year and I was intrigued by this quote:
“In short, I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”
This resonated with me personally because I have been dealing with panic attacks for five years. I am in a significantly better place than where I started but I found that anxiety and panic attacks colored my perspective on life. Ask me how I’m doing and I’ll probably give a response relative to a panic attack. “Rough weekend, lots of panic attacks” or “Doing okay. I haven’t had a panic attack in a month.” I counted days and weeks between panic attacks, even as they happened less and less, trying to find a pattern of cause and effect.
This book arrived just as I was starting to contemplate that there may be no pattern and no discernable cause and effect for my panic attacks anymore. (There used to be a clear delineation as to why they happened.) Considering a lack of a pattern is terrifying for me because, one, I pride myself on my logical mind and ability to find patterns to problem-solve and, two, because no patterns means there’s no reason and that’s just chaos.
With my therapist I found a way to approach this terrifying conceit – that which I give my attention to becomes the focus of my life. Not that I believe thinking about a panic attack results in a panic attack but that seeing my life through a lens of anxiety colors everything in a stressful hue. Maybe focusing my attention toward something else would change my relationship with my anxiety. I have come to accept I will have it and panic attacks will occur from time to time despite my best efforts. So why keep dwelling on it?
When asked what I value, I told my therapist reading and writing. I will choose those activities over others. I plan my day around writing in the morning, reading on my lunch breaks and doing one or the other most nights. Left to my own devices, I will read a book on a Friday night instead of watching a movie or going out. It felt strange to say I ‘value’ reading and writing, as opposed to saying they are hobbies or interests, but it’s true. I want my life to be filled with reading and writing so I must value them.
We can up with a homework assignment (because I do love homework and I say that without any sarcasm) to focus on what I value even more than I already do. It’s why I started this blog back up, so I have a place to list the books I’m reading and any thoughts I have about them. As I read Rapt during this time, I took notes because there were so many interesting things to consider. I love taking notes. I spent my time with words in a thoughtful, purposeful way and it’s felt good.
Rapt presents a full picture of attention and focus, including work environments and the concept of multi-tasking, but I was drawn to the sections more philosophical or psychological. Gallagher’s main conceit (the aforementioned quote) carries throughout the book. That which you give attention to becomes your life. Maybe you love TV so watching shows after work is a focused event for you. Maybe you’re more like me and it can be about killing time and an idle mind is no good for me. Better to find things that capture my attention and do those. For me that is reading and writing, conversations face-to-face, and selected movies and shows that engage and excite me.
I’m glad I took notes as I read this book because I know I will want to go back and remember ideas and quotes. Refreshing my memory of the book will help me stay on point with directing my attention toward what I value and enjoy.