The Attention Economy The vanishing art of how to focus in an age of distraction.

(Credit: Metin Ozer via Unsplash)

I threw down my purse and flipped on my computer, ready to pound out a story due in two hours. The open newsroom of The Riverfront Times was oddly quiet—no cheerful insults hurled over the cubicle walls, no muttered profanity, no banged-down phones.

Then the laughter started.

I had won several people money by, as predicted, walking right past the brand-new scarlet WonderBra they had pinned to my cubicle entrance. (Macy’s had couriered one to me as a subtle story suggestion, and my colleagues had intercepted the package.)

They say a writer’s job is to pay attention, but mine is selective: I can register a tense silence and miss bright red lace. Preoccupied, I can miss anything—a highway exit, a friend waving, an Out of Order sign on a restroom door. Oblivion comes easily to me.

So who did I marry? A man who notices too much.

Andrew has what is still called ADHD, though he outgrew the hyperactive Go, go, SpeedRacer part and is often exhausted instead. It takes vast amounts of energy for his brilliant mind to focus; what is called a deficit is really a surplus of unfiltered stimuli. He was not diagnosed until he was thirty, and soon after, I persuaded him past his reluctance to take Ritalin.

“You don’t understand,” he [Andrew] told me. “This is the first time in my life that I have ever been able to read more than a few paragraphs without losing focus and having to drag my mind back on track. I read a whole chapter. Uninterrupted.”

The day he took the first dose, I came home worried. What if I had nudged him into some disastrous chemical nightmare?

“How was it?” I asked in a small voice.

He looked up with something like wonderment on his face. “I read a whole chapter.”

Oh my God, I thought, this stuff has destroyed his beautiful brain. He sounded like a stoner, rapt over some hallucination. And just a chapter? This was a guy who had read Robert Massie’s 862-page biography of Peter the Great.

“You don’t understand,” he told me. “This is the first time in my life that I have ever been able to read more than a few paragraphs without losing focus and having to drag my mind back on track. I read a whole chapter. Uninterrupted.”

That took a minute to sink in. Books are my refuge; I get lost between their covers. I could not imagine being yanked away after every sentence. Implications began to dawn on me.

“Sweetheart, how did you ever get through grad school?”

“Pushed hard for the master’s. And I didn’t finish the Ph.D., remember? If I’d had this stuff, I might have. But it’s like ten tv stations are playing at once, all of them loud. It’s a fight just to get through the day.”

 

•  •  •

 

Ritalin quieted my husband’s brain long enough for him to focus. How do we quiet an entire culture? Daily life is a kaleidoscope now, the colors and patterns constantly changing, the speed accelerated to strobe. News, fads, pop-ups, slang, and memes all fly by so fast, you would think we would cease to bother. But tech capitalizes on B.F. Skinner’s variable rewards, hooking our attention and keeping us clicking. We pull up eBay if we feel empty, Facebook if we are lonely, Twitter if we suffer FOMO, Google if uncertain, Instagram to be voyeurs, YouTube when bored. . . .

“Online social platforms and knowledge repositories together shorten our attention span and make us move to newer things very quickly,” notes Taha Yasseri of the Oxford Internet Institute. Our minds skitter like dragonflies, unable to light anyplace for long. As a result, social media’s gatekeepers can “maneuver the whole flow of attention at the societal level.”

Daily life is a kaleidoscope now, the colors and patterns constantly changing, the speed accelerated to strobe. News, fads, pop-ups, slang, and memes all fly by so fast, you would think we would cease to bother.

I think of these distractions as annoying tugs that interrupt my concentration, but the problem starts earlier, before I am even conscious of being distracted. The internet takes advantage of our passivity to embed bad habits, and soon we are training ourselves to be easily distracted. A New Yorker cartoon shows a couple seated on a couch, the man asking the woman with great concern, “Are you O.K.? You’re barely paying attention to your book, phone, show, laptop, and the crossword you started ten minutes ago.”

I groan in sympathy. Too much bombards me, I wail, blaming the blooming, buzzing confusion of data instead of my own nervous reach or abdication of control. Sliding easily into the new normal, I use tech to defend me from tech, reaching for password managers, to-do list software, automated bill payment, and subscription shopping to organize my days; meditation apps and alpha-wave brain-soothing music to detach me at night. I try everything except disconnecting. Step away from the screen, ma’am. Keep your hands where we can see them.

 

•  •  •

 

“Let’s go the whole weekend without phones or internet,” I suggest brightly. “An experiment in attention.”

Andrew hesitates. “Ten minutes twice a day to check email.”

“Deal.”

We start at sundown on Friday. That first evening feels like prepping for surgery: I steel myself, anticipating challenges, mentally rearranging my routine. “I’m waiving my first ten minutes,” I announce grandly. We spend a long time sitting on the couch just…wait for it…talking.

Then I find an Amazon box dripping ginger syrup all over our doorstep, the glass jar broken, and I am overtaken. I need to photograph it! Find a customer service email! Get my money back!

Both farmer and poet, Wendell Berry has a double head start in paying attention. He describes pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.”

I snap photos and realize, grudgingly, that I can wait to email them. Saturday morning I rush through the syrup exchange then bog down in other emails and forget to check the weather. I can probably manage to walk the dog without knowing when the rain will begin? I have slept well, unusual for me. Moving through the house, I realize I do not need to carry my phone with me. The little voice in my head that wonders who has texted, what has been posted, what I need to respond to…goes quiet.

Both farmer and poet, Wendell Berry has a double head start in paying attention. He describes pleasures “to which a man had to be acutely and intricately attentive, or he could not have them at all.” Certain experiences demand more than others. TV just washes over us, for example; hobbies require active involvement, and other human beings need a ton of attention. How many marriages have failed for lack of it? How many children have grown up uncertain, their footing on the earth still shaky?

Our minds are capable of complicated miracles—making choices, storing memories, evoking feelings, whipping up ideas. But the gateway to all those feats is attention.

 

•  •  •

 

(Photo by MicaDew via Flckr)

 

 

 

We talk about paying attention, as though it is a debt—and these days, attention is definitely currency. We still use money and buy material stuff, but these transactions all begin by gaining our limited attention, so companies compete hard for it. Online, content is abundant, nearly infinite, and unless paywalled, instantly available; what is scarce and prized is attention. We live—as is often observed but not yet fully understood—in an attention economy.

How did this happen? Back in 1971, Nobel laureate Herbert Simon called attention the “bottleneck of human thought,” explaining that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Because information system designers focused on the wrong thing—on information scarcity rather than attention scarcity—they built systems that flooded us with information rather than systems adept at filtering out what was irrelevant.

They stole our sanity.

In an attention economy, it is the extremes that win, the content that is crude, garish, loudly self-promoting. Drowning in information and barraged by all that noise, we grab for a counterweight, maybe binge on every season of a particular Netflix show or fall under the spell of some Influencer, because only by soaking ourselves for a sustained period, like the ancient Romans at their baths, can we feel immersed and sated.

We wonder why we cannot concentrate on a single task, start to finish, the way we used to, never dreaming that the reason might be physiological. Our drift toward divided attention has changed not only how we behave but how we are capable of behaving.

Online communities form around these obsessions, and the more people paying attention to something, the more value can be created. This is why we can have bitcoin, severing its worth from the physical world and adjusting it by the number of people paying enough attention to want a share of it. This is why we flock to social media, where we can all grab a bit of the attention once reserved for celebrities. This is why every service or product we buy wants our review, our feedback, our subscription, our data.

The guy who first popularized the notion of an “attention economy” back in the mid-1990s, Michael Goldhaber, was worried about the way the internet was rewiring the human brain. Sure enough, in 2019, an international team of researchers found that internet use does cause both acute and sustained changes in the way we think. Our online activity can affect our attentional capacities, memory processes, and social interactions.

We surf, read the first paragraph, click for more, follow an internal link, forget where we started. (Would E.M. Forster have said “Only connect” if he knew what would become of us?) We wonder why we cannot concentrate on a single task, start to finish, the way we used to, never dreaming that the reason might be physiological. Our drift toward divided attention has changed not only how we behave but how we are capable of behaving.

And our constant checking of social media, encouraged by its very design? The founder of the Center for Humane Technology (nicknamed “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”), Tristan Harris once worked as a Google design ethicist. “Behavior design can seem lightweight, because it’s mostly just clicking on screens,” he concedes. “But what happens when you magnify that into an entire global economy? Then it becomes about power.”

 

•  •  •

 

“Do you think our consciousness lasts after we die? And if it does, is it still us, or does it merge into some big blob of spirit?”

We were cozy inside the car, driving home on a winding country road in a thunderstorm. To me, it seemed a lovely time for a deep conversation. “Ask me later,” Andrew said through a clenched jaw. “I am trying not to kill us.”

Early in our marriage, I was that stupid many, many times. He would seem so calm and competent that I would forget the churning effort of will beneath that calm surface. I did not understand the biochemistry—how hard it was to segue between activities or triage tasks; how easy it was to slip into rumination or self-criticism because his brain did not have the toggle switch that would keep him, as we say, “on task.” He had to do that himself, every minute of the day, and the effort was Herculean.

I was equally incomprehensible to him. Once, I tossed his paycheck into the recycling bin by mistake. More than once, I left our housekeys dangling from the lock. When he found them (because invariably, it was he who noticed), I was breezy, used to my absentmindedness and startled by his reproof. And then I was too busy pouting— I had muddled along just fine for thirty years, how dare he treat me like a child?—to see the real issue: Andrew does not give himself permission, ever, to let his attention lapse. That slope is a slick of ice.

It only took a quarter-century for us to adjust to each other’s brains.

 

•  •  •

 

“Everyone knows what attention is,” William James writes in 1890. “It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form of one out of what seems several simultaneous objects or trains of thought…. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

Several contemporary researchers say James was wrong: We do not know what attention is. The term is in fact useless, a concept with too many meanings.

Sure enough, when I seek insight from Richard Abrams, professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University, he opens the conversation by asking, “What do you mean by attention?”

“I know, some people say the word is too broad,” I hasten to add, “but what I mean is the ability to hold something in my brain until I choose to let it go.”

“That’s interesting,” he says politely, “but it’s not what we call attention. What attention researchers mean is that there is so much information coming at us, too much stimuli for us to process all at once, so we have to pick and choose. We have to select some parts of the scene to process more fully and some parts to process less fully. That choice is attention. And it’s not necessarily a conscious choice.”

John Locke called the ideas that float through our mind “reverie” and the noticing of those ideas “attention,” and there he stopped. It took another century for anyone to realize that attention starts before we notice anything. It prepares our mind for what we will notice—and afterward, it can determine what we remember.

There must be two stages of triage, I decide. Maybe our brain picks and chooses first, and then, once it has engaged with the stimuli it selected, it has to beat back distractions in order to pay the kind of attention I was defining.

Four centuries ago, such definitions came easily to John Locke. He called the ideas that float through our mind “reverie” and the noticing of those ideas “attention,” and there he stopped. It took another century for anyone to realize that attention starts before we notice anything. It prepares our mind for what we will notice—and afterward, it can determine what we remember.

How much can we attend to at once? “By Charles Bonnet the Mind is allowed to have a distinct notion of six objects at once,” James quoted; “by Abraham Tucker, the number is limited to four.” In the mid-twentieth century, dazzled by the first clunky, room-sized, elephant-gray computers, we began thinking of attention in terms of “capacity limitations.” We can gather a great deal of data with our senses, but then it bottlenecks, theorists suggested. Maybe only once; maybe in several places—and how soon? Do we manage to gulp down more data than we realize?

Experiments suggest that we do take in more than we realize—but to what extent does that unconscious information prime our later perceptions and actions? And is it really our capacity that is limited, or only our awareness?

We have all sorts of metaphors for these mysteries. We talk about the precious state of alert, focused cognition “bandwidth,” as though it has a hard limit. We talk about “spotlight” attention, because its light can only shine in one place, leaving the surrounding area dark. Always, something is lost; huge chunks of the world must be ignored before attention is even possible. We move through life like a wheat thresher, constantly filtering and discarding.

When we multitask and think we are paying attention to two things at once, we are not. We are alternating our attention, shifting back and forth with far less dexterity than we imagine. Only stimuli that do not compete—that reach us through different senses and require different sorts of responses—can be processed simultaneously. We can feel hot and sticky, hear a distant saxophone, and watch a flock of bats glide through the night sky, but we cannot write a check, solve a math problem, and compose a sentence at the same time. Unless, of course, we are the latest incarnation of Julius Caesar, who was said to dictate four letters while he wrote a fifth.

 

•  •  •

 

Andrew notices instantly when our dog is favoring a sore paw or sitting awkwardly because he needs his anal glands expressed (another glamorous Saturday night). I notice emotional weather the minute I enter a room, but I catch physical details only if I am trying. Attention takes different forms, highlights different content. It can feed us concrete sensory details or wander into woolly daydreams. It can be sustained or broken, divided or whole; it can fasten down with laser focus, diffuse softly across our surroundings, or give an instant read, like a digital thermometer.

I read definitions like “focused mental engagement on a particular item of information” and roll my eyes. So western. That kind of trained attention drained all the color from what I studied in school; it took me years to heed fragrance and texture and sound and emotion.

Attention research still seems thin to me, because it focuses almost exclusively on the visual. It is easier, in a clean white lab, to note how someone continues to notice things that are green after being told to look for green signs in an earlier exercise. Proustian explorations of taste and scent would get…complicated. Besides, sight dominates our culture—ancient Hebrews gave more weight to what they heard, but even now, caught in a sandstorm of deep fakes, we prefer to trust our eyes.

Seeing can mean more than vision, though, as Annie Dillard notes in her luminous Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. You can analyze and pry and attach words to every observation, but you can also let go, empty yourself of agenda, and make room for all your senses. That second sort of attention admits no distractions. It transfixes you, and it leaves you changed.

The rapt, wordless seeing Dillard describes is rare for me; I race to glue the right word to every sensation. But the times it happens feel like a yielding; like I am giving in to something grander than my pea brain, letting what is ineffable soak into my soul. I emerge peaceful.

A while ago, a friend sent me a video clip of a cloud avalanche, a billowing white mist that rolled between two mountains toward a group of campers, engulfed them, and left a rainbow. Riveted, all they could do was shout and laugh, like people transported by a religious experience. I envied those campers. Because of the way they paid attention, the delight of that moment will braid itself into their psyche. The memory will stay alive, easy to access on demand.

 

•  •  •

 

Mom! Watch this!” An eight-year-old boy balances on the pool’s rounded edge, wobbling until he is sure his mother is looking. He dives, feet splayed, into cool aqua—a new and dangerous medium—and surfaces with a triumphant spray of droplets, already spun around so he can see his mom clapping. Babies spontaneously follow their caregiver’s eyes, attend to what they are attending to, and thus learn the important lesson, so strange to a narcissist, that there are other minds to consider.

We learn who we are, where our body begins and ends, how we will survive in this world, from the attention we receive.

I take a break from attention and click on a video of a baby lamb. She keeps nuzzling the young man squatting next to her, desperate to be petted. YouTube offers me scads of similar videos: cows, puppies, ferrets, river otters, hens, cockatiels, all insisting that they be stroked, scratched, adored.

Attention is a form of respect—and often a proof of love. A thick rope, it can pull a drowning man to safety. But it requires a generosity of spirit, a willingness to jettison preoccupations.

We want the same thing; other animals are just more honest.

Attention steadies us, even in adulthood. We bloom, become expansive, like ourselves a little better. Attention is a form of respect—and often a proof of love. A thick rope, it can pull a drowning man to safety. But it requires a generosity of spirit, a willingness to jettison preoccupations. How often have I made a grocery list while listening idly to a friend’s catalog of angst?

There are tricks, though. Touch, for example, guarantees attention. You can fake listening with well-timed mmm-hmms, but touching someone brings you into their presence. Eye contact keeps you there. A friend who trains dogs repeats “Pay attention!” in a soft voice, bringing her fingers from the dog’s nose to her own eyes, making sure they glance up at her often. She gets a perfect heel. Me, I let my mind wander during our walk, and at bedtime the neighbors hear my forlorn yodels because Willie has defied me to visit Aggie, a lovely young German shepherd two doors down. She has his complete attention. I do not.

We pay attention to our studies, our responsibilities, the “At-ten-SHUN!” drill sergeants in our lives. But the attention that flows voluntarily between two people is different. The magic of falling in love is that you are being seen so closely, so fully, with such warm interest, and another person has filled your field of vision so completely that everything else has receded into the background. A gentleman’s “attentions” (flowers, chocolates, and a filled dance card) opened the Edwardian courtship dance. Dictionaries give, as an example for “attentive,” a husband who is considerate, courteous, devoted, solicitous. (No one ever mentions an attentive wife; the noun contains the adjective.)

Mary Oliver grew up noticing the details of the natural world and turning them into poetry. Then she fell in love. “Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report,” she writes. “An openness—an empathy—was necessary if the attention was to matter.”

“We are less and less attending directly to the world,” notes philosopher Ophelia Deroy, “and more and more to mere representations of the world.” In other words, we really are in Plato’s cave now. Reality is getting tougher to find and agree on.

With strangers, less emotion is required, but almost as much receptivity. Only by paying attention to the same thing do we realize how differently we might experience it—and that is the beginning of understanding, which is the beginning of empathy.

These days, though, we are all looking at very different streams of news and entertainment, divided from one another and increasingly removed from direct physical reality. “We are less and less attending directly to the world,” notes philosopher Ophelia Deroy, “and more and more to mere representations of the world.” In other words, we really are in Plato’s cave now. Reality is getting tougher to find and agree on.

 

•  •  •

 

Andrew and I talk easily about anything—sex, money, politics, hurt feelings, raw fear, gastric distress—yet it feels awkward to play reporter and interview him about this thing he has struggled to overcome and I have struggled to understand. I have never, for example, asked him how he defines attention.

“The ability to function in this world,” he says instantly. “The ability to focus on what needs to be done. To track what’s going on around you so you can respond. To concentrate on the details.”

God is in the details, Mies van der Rohe said. So is the devil. Best not to ignore either one.

“You need to know what’s going on in your community, your country, the world,” Andrew continues (this directed squarely at a wife who dips into denial). “Paying attention lets you help those around you—especially animals, who can’t speak. You have to pay attention to be a good gardener: what grows well where? Where is the sun, and when? Where does water collect and flow? You have to pay attention to be a good lover. You have to pay attention to a friend’s mood so you know when to tread lightly and when to cut loose.”

He was raised to be conscientious, and except for the cruel joke of ADHD, has the steady, gentle temperament that requires. So instead of fulfilling the fast-moving, impulsive, spontaneous, wildly creative stereotype of the disorder, he doubled down, organized and structured his life, put reams of effort into something that, for others, happens automatically. “All these things I try to pay attention to—can you imagine trying to do that while you can’t focus your attention?” he asks me. “Until my forties, I had a problem with temper, because I had to wrap myself so tightly to stay focused and get through a day that any interruption derailed me. There are too many fronts, I would think. I can’t fight on all of them.

My mind flashes to all those times, a sped-up movie reel of them, when he grew frustrated with some DIY project, a computer glitch, a tool that balked. Suddenly this man who is so level, so devoid of neurosis or drama, would mutter, “Everything fights me. Nothing can ever be easy.” It struck me as melodramatic and utterly out of character. Now I realize it was not a sweeping, self-pitying, Eeyore exaggeration. It was simple truth.

Novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein has been thinking aloud, lately, about our raw, almost desperate need for mattering. “To say that something matters is to assert that attention is due it, the kind of attention that both recognizes and reveals its reality,” she remarks.

“So that’s why your life feels like a fight all the time,” I say slowly.

“Yes, very much so.” His tone is pure relief. For years I have been telling him not to be silly, we all run into computer glitches and tools that balk. I missed the real point: the struggle that runs below those everyday frustrations, leaving him no extra energy for the unexpected.

“What would you tell the parent of a kid with ADHD?” I ask, switching topics before I get any angrier with myself.

“‘Leave ’em at the supermarket and walk away quietly,’” he tosses out. “No, don’t put that. But I don’t know how my parents dealt with it, I honestly don’t. Mom worked nights to afford private school, because we all knew I would have dropped out if I’d stayed in public school. I wasn’t really learning anything. The classes were too big.”

I ask about his extraordinary ability to get to the heart of a problem, bring order out of chaos, sift through fuss and irrelevance. I can research a story for a month, then blurt out how impossible it will be to marshal and structure all this information. Andrew will listen closely, then utter a single sentence that sums up the point and lets me begin. If it were not so helpful, I would be furious.

“I have to get to the crux of things,” he says now. “I have to be able to organize, physically and intellectually, everything around me, if I want to pay attention to what matters.”

Novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein has been thinking aloud, lately, about our raw, almost desperate need for mattering. “To say that something matters is to assert that attention is due it, the kind of attention that both recognizes and reveals its reality,” she remarks. “If I say that something doesn’t matter, I’m saying that it’s not worth paying attention to.”

Attention itself matters: “Changes in the direction of our attention can make some difference to the character of conscious experience.” I type this Merleau-Ponty quote happily—French philosophers always sound profound—but only after a third reading does it hit me full force. Consciousness is who we are, and changing the direction of our attention can change that. For better or for worse, depending on where we focus.

 

•  •  •

 

One weekend away from the internet, and I emerge changed. No exaggeration. I finally begin doing what self-help articles always suggested: checking email only twice a day. I check texts at the same time, because the form has lost urgency and become the new email. I silence the notification beeps that had me twitching like Pavlov’s terrier. In the evening, I read and revise on paper only. I stop myself, sometimes with such an effort of will I can feel it pressing against my rib cage, from flitting to another task before I have finished the current one.

It is clear to me now: I had continued to live with the deadline frenzy, the constant undercurrent of mild panic that I acquired three jobs ago. My screens cooperated in this folly, popping new stuff at me until I was whacking it away as often as possible, desperately trying to keep up, letting the technological imperative and other people’s messages dictate how I spent my time. You are not a war correspondent, I remind myself. Not one of these messages is the least bit urgent.

Whyever did I give up—for no reason except that other people expected immediacy and my technology encouraged it—peace of mind?

 

•  •  •

 

In a craft talk after receiving the Saint Louis Literary Award, Michael Chabon speaks about distractions, admitting a self-sabotaging impulse to check his email even “while my writing is going well, while my keys are flying.” He finally downloaded an app to sever his internet connection. “A writer needs to be in the space that she is in,” he says. “All the time. That’s where the material comes from. How the world smells, how it sounds, how it looks…your attention on the world.”

By the time Chabon finishes with the topic, he looks disgusted with himself and everybody else. “Henry James said a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost. But when you have this in your hand”—holding up his iPhone—“everything is lost to you.”

Attention is presence. Presence of mind, the ability to focus and concentrate on what is at hand. Emotional presence, so we can say, “I hear you.” “I feel you.” Spiritual presence, emptied of our monkey-mind desires and distractions.

In a craft talk after receiving the Saint Louis Literary Award, Michael Chabon speaks about distractions, admitting a self-sabotaging impulse to check his email even “while my writing is going well, while my keys are flying.” He finally downloaded an app to sever his internet connection.

The poet Ross Gay calls gardening “an exercise in supreme attentiveness.” I picture his backyard as a necessary contradiction, a carefully tended yet wild tangle, natural and unforced. If you are watching, you can see that the clematis wants to grow the other direction, defying your design, and the St. John’s Wort is happier crowded against the daisies. You defer. Easygoing and wise, Gay is good at this deferring. Practice has persuaded him “that attention is the elemental unit of time”: “Each moment we are fully paying attention is an atom of eternity.”

If you loathe sweat and mud, a class in Zen meditation will take you to the same place. Your knees hurt, your heart races, you wonder if the other students still have their eyes closed, too… and then the stillness expands, and that ticking clock inside you unwinds, and for a second or two, you touch infinity.

In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil defines attention as “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” She suggested we “try to cure our faults by attention and not by will. The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles,” forcefully rearranging what it can reach. But attention acts from within, and thus “avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter…. Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer.”

I think of the rare times I have paid unmixed, undivided, sustained attention. It does feel like prayer. Wholehearted and rapt. Selfless.

Thanks to Jane Owen’s money and careful attention, New Harmony, Indiana, is a town shaped by art and spirit, not commerce and greed. Beauty is scattered everywhere, drawing writers, artists, architects, and theologians to make the town their refuge. As you walk, you happen upon a sacred labyrinth or a piece of sculpture, a quote from Thomas Merton at the entrance of the woods, or a plaque like the one I am remembering now: “A culture that has forgotten how to pray will soon run mad with desire.”

Those words are coming true, but in reverse order. We have run mad with our desire for money and success and gadgets and apps and devices, and we lost the ability to give our full attention to anything. You do not need a formal religion or even a deity in order to pray, but you do need a quiet mind.

My husband has been forced to battle his own brain’s impulses to reach that quiet. Because I can be oblivious, I always thought I could focus. Now, images flash: my hair-trigger boredom and reflexive reach for my phone, that succession of hobbies I dabbled in and never mastered, the flowers and shrubs I bought on impulse and planted too impatiently, usually in the worst possible place, then ripped out at their first failure to thrive because I could not bear to watch them die. The fact that it has taken more than a quarter-century and I still understand only half of Andrew’s struggle, while he seems to know more about me than I do.

I think of the rare times I have paid unmixed, undivided, sustained attention. It does feel like prayer. Wholehearted and rapt. Selfless.

Instead of letting ADHD make him reckless, my husband hyperfocuses, noticing details, dangers, subtleties. By nightfall, he is worn out. Me, I glide along the surface and make sudden deep dives, like a hungry duck. My mind is always buzzing, but what I perceive drifts away unless I scribble it down, and I bore too easily to absorb even a tenth of what Andrew observes and remembers. I spend much of my time paying what I am told is “continuous partial attention,” ostensibly focused on a task but monitoring the background in case something more important or interesting comes along.

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will,” notes William James. “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time. What is called sustained voluntary attention is a repetition of successive efforts which bring back the topic to the mind.”

He wrote that in 1890. He would blanch at the effort attention requires today.

 

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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