Attention Is Not A Neutral Force
I found this sentence in my Notes: “Attention is not a neutral force.”
There was no other information. I heard this in a podcast or read it in a book or saw it in a magazine and I wrote it down without any more details. I was, at the time, almost certainly thinking about blogging about it.
So I’m blogging about it.
If you’ve read this blog, you know that I’m mostly concerned with maximizing happiness and productivity. Attention is the key to both these things.
In fact, this sentence expresses the core of my beliefs about life. Where we choose to focus our attention gives us our life. I know, for example, that if I pay attention to the current political situation, I feel helpless and angry. If I pay attention to the people in my life that I love I feel happy and grateful. Here’s a better, more mundane example. In an hour or so I am going to drive to Pomona to teach my class. At 10:30 the drive takes about 40 minutes. If I concentrate on the traffic, (in Southern California there is always traffic, even at 3:22 in the morning) I will have a different experience than if I focus on the beautiful snow-covered mountains I’m going to be driving toward.
It’s not just happy horseshit “look on the bright side,” (or maybe it is, actually) it’s also a recognition that while pain and cruelty and inconvenience
Attention is also the key to productivity. We live in a distraction economy where the biggest companies in the world are spending billions to grab and hold your attention. It’s easy as hell to spend a day or a week or a year being entertained or distracted by Facebook, Youtube, Netflix and Words With Friends. If I want to get anything done I have to consciously DIRECT my attention.
This Is Water
Having said all this, I wanted to find out where this sentence came from so I Googled it and came across this amazing speech by David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books and I love Wallace’s writing. This speech is hands down the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard/read and a better explanation of my own way of looking at the world than anything I’ve ever written myself.
So read or listen to this. I’ve got a couple loved ones graduating from High School this spring and I know what I’m gifting them now.
The Fifth Vital Sign
But this is not where the sentence comes from. So being a super-sophisticated power user (;-) I went to Google again and did another search, this time with quotes around the sentence.
Then I found it! This comes from the first episode of the new season of Invisibilia. Co-host Alix
This episode is about pain. Specifically looking at how the elevation of pain to the “fifth vital sign” (alongside blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and breathing rate) in the 1990s changed attitudes about pain. Here is the context of
“What is beyond debate, however, is that conceiving of pain as the fifth vital sign and asking patients about their pain number meant that pain got a lot more attention than it ever had before. And here’s the thing about attention that most of us don’t fully appreciate. Attention is not a neutral force. It invariably changes the thing that it purports to observe. Often, it makes that thing bigger”Alix Speigal, Invisabilia
The episode goes on to follow a young woman suffering with chronic pain and the counter-intuitive therapy she goes through to get relief.
Again, I highly recommend that you listen to this episode and to the podcast in general. I always learn something from
So, the bottom line is to pay attention to what you pay attention to.
Now I’ve gotta go drive toward those snow-covered mountains. Talk tomorrow.