Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Importance of Being Ernest(ly Attentive)

Photo Credit to

Do you ever get to a certain point in your day and say to yourself: "Did I put on deodorant this morning?" You can't recall if you did or not. Why? Because you weren't paying attention. If I happen to be talking to someone in the passenger seat while I'm driving, sometimes I miss my turns. Why? Same reason. The problem we mere mortals have in that we can only concentrate on one thing at a time. We manage to do some other things at the same time, but they're being accomplished on autopilot. That's right, you have the capacity to do things on autopilot, meaning that you are not aware of what you're doing, even though a part of your mind is clearly engaged. Otherwise you'd drive off the road in no time.

Because we have such a limited capacity, paying attention, earnestly paying attention if you will, necessarily involves a process of being carefully selective. We have to choose to pay attention to a certain thing at the cost of having to ignore many other things. There are far too many "things" in our environment, including within our own minds and bodies, to which we can give our attention, so we have to be choosey. This choosiness, this ability to focus on something for extensive periods of time to the exclusion of all possible distractions, is in fact a very strong correlate of intelligence.

Isaac Newton attributed his genius to his "patient attention," and Yale economist Robert J. Shiller, seconding that thought 300 years later (in 2000), declared that "the ability to focus attention on important things is a defining characteristic of intelligence." It has been said of Newton that the mass of his "papers, manuscripts, and correspondence which survives reveals a person with qualities of mind, physique, and personality extraordinarily favorable for the making of a great scientist: tremendous powers of concentration, ability to stand long periods of intense mental exertion, and objectivity uncomplicated by frivolous interests" (

Neuroscience is now in the process of understanding exactly what takes place within the human brain when we pay attention to something. Why do things seem so much more vivid when we pay attention to them? Why do they persist in our memories? As it happens, "sustained attention makes us process things more effectively, literally making the world come into sharper focus" (Observer Online).

We have all experienced the painful task of concentrating on something in which we're not particularly interested. Studying for a exam or listening to an insufferably dull lecture, for instance, can be exhausting endeavors. On the other hand, anyone can focus on something they enjoy, to the exclusion of all else. Picture a sports fan watching an important (to him, anyway) football game. As far as he is concerned, there is no one else in the entire cosmos but him and the big screen.

These phenomena create a kind of survival of the fittest scenario, whereby those who are willing and able to marshal their full powers of concentration on the things that are in fact important, who can exclude distracting influences and choose to pay attention for extended periods of time, will usually be the most successful at whatever they are attempting to master.

The lesson? Remember the importance of being earnest(ly attentive).

(Credit for graphic to Teleportjobs.)


TeleportJobs said...
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