How paying attention can lead 
to greater — Oh look! A squirrel!

You might want to pay attention to what you are paying attention to when you have nothing else to pay attention to.

I haven’t always thought that paying attention was a scientific topic. I thought it was just one of the unreasonable demands placed on me by my teachers back in public school. It turns out that paying attention actually is necessary to learning something. My teachers were right.

Dang! I hate it when that happens.

Paying attention is defined by psychologists as “selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things.” Well, that’s how some psychologists define it. Others define it differently, but that’s the beauty of psychology. Anyway, there’s a bird perched on my windowsill. Cool! However, I have a hard time understanding how psychologists investigate paying attention scientifically.

What does a person look like who is paying attention? How can I tell one of them from a person who is not paying attention? You should hear the song I’m listening to. This guy knows how to play a guitar. My students “look” like they’re paying attention. Let’s be honest. I can even look like I’m paying attention when I know perfectly well that I’m not. Ask my wife.

How do you investigate scientifically that which you can’t recognize?

How much attention qualifies as paying attention? Lots of people think they can multitask. So is there a limit as to how many things one can pay attention to at the same time before it is considered not paying attention at all? I really need to get a haircut but I don’t want to take the time. “Maybe” people can talk on the phone and drive, but it isn’t likely we can learn complex symbolic subjects like music and math simultaneously.

How much attention can one pay? Can one pay too much attention? Is a 20 percent tip required for paying attention? These are not trivial questions. Americans already have to pay attention to getting enough sleep, healthy diets, driving safely, relationships, paying bills, showering and exercising.

And then there’s texting, Facebook, tweeting and Pinterest. That reminds me. I need to update my web page.

In order to make a significant contribution to society, or to feel accomplished and capable, one needs to become skilled at something. To become skilled at anything there needs to be a surplus of attention available. Of course, no one knows what a surplus is because no one knows how much is enough, or how much is too much to pay attention to. I think I’ll get some of my wife’s peach leather out for lunch. New scientific discoveries, new music, new technology and new ideas only occur when someone has given their attention to complex domains of information for the betterment of their own circumstances and society.

I know! We need to invent an attention scale. It will have to be three-dimensional with degrees showing how intent the attention is, how many items are being attended to and a scale of goodness so we can tell if we are on the road to ... good intentions. I really need to pay those bills that came yesterday. I personally think that the only way to pay close attention is to decrease the number of things we pay attention to.

Science is born of paying attention to scientific things. I have to assume the same is true of art, music, building, business and even civic responsibilities.  Americans have more free time than almost any people in any culture in history. However, there are also exponentially more things to pay attention to today than at any time in history. Oh look! There’s a chicken.

Do you have any time to pay attention to what you want to pay attention to when you don’t have anything else to pay attention to?

Or should we just watch TV?

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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