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Quotes on attention and focus

Jennifer Senior:

“There are biological underpinnings that help explain why young children drive us crazy. Adults have a fully developed prefrontal cortex, while the prefrontal cortexes of young children are barely developed at all. The prefrontal cortex controls executive function, which allows us to organize our thoughts and (as a result) our actions. Without this ability, we cannot focus our attention. And this, in some ways, is one of the most frustrating aspects of dealing with little kids: Their attention is unfocused.

But again: Children themselves do not perceive their attention as unfocused. The psychologist Alison Gopnik makes a distinction between a lantern and a spotlight: The spotlight illuminates just one thing while the lantern throws off a 360-degree glow. Adults have a spotlight consciousness. The consciousness of small children, on the other hand, is more like a lantern. By design, infants and preschoolers are highly distractible, like bugs with eyes all over their heads. And because the prefrontal cortex controls inhibitions as well as executive function, young children lack compunction about investigating every tangential object that captures their fancy. ‘Anyone who tries to persuade a 3-year-old to get dressed for preschool will develop an appreciation of inhibition,’ she writes. ‘It would be so much easier if they didn’t stop to explore every speck of dust on the floor.’"

Maggie Jackson:

Attention is an organ system, akin to our respiratory or circulatory systems, according to cognitive neuroscientist Michael Posner. It is the brain's conductor, leading the orchestration of our minds. Its various networks – orienting, alerting, and the executive – are key not only to higher thinking but also to morality and even happiness.

Yet increasingly, we are shaped by distraction. [William] James described a vivid possessing of the mind, an ordering, and a withdrawal. We easily recognize that these states of mind are becoming less and less a given in our lives.

* * *

If our three networks of attention – orienting, alerting, and the executive – are comparable to an organ system like digestion, then orienting is akin to a cognitive mouth, a gateway to our perception, the scout. Orienting is focus deluxe, the acrobat that allows us to perceive something new, swivel our attention to it, and determine its importance.

* * *

Alerting is the gatekeeper network, the caretaker who turns the lights on and off in our cerebral house. Simply put, alerting is wakefulness. It comes in many flavor,s from a coma to a coffee buzz, and is as necessary to life as the air that we breathe. Still, the study of alertness has long received short shrift, aside from focusing on how long workers can stay awake. "I don't think people have realized how difficult and complicated the alerting process is," Posner says. "It's a very complex state."

* * *

"Kids are always told to pay attention, but they don't know what that means," Tamm says. "One of the most critical elements is giving them a common language for what it means to pay attention." A language of attention. Only when we speak this language can we bestow on others the irreplaceable gift of our attention.

Jacob Needleman:

And here is the morally revolutionary point: the true, genuine initiator of all moral action is the attention. It is our attention that can free us from the thrall of our egoistic reactions, our fears, our fanaticisms, our paranoia, our delusions, our hatred. It is our attention that can master our reactions, liberate us from slavery to our opinions, enlist the service of our body beyond its cravings, its childishly impatient hungers and impulses. It is our attention that can love without having to 'like,' that can call for the sacrifice of our personal interests in the name of a greater good. It is not just that 'I am my attention'; it is that Man is conscious attention. In short, we are morally obliged to become a being capable of morality! We are obliged not simply to love, but to become able to love – which means to remember our attention and to care for it.

J. Allan Hobson:

If you lend any credence to the brain-mind paradigm...the idea that we can voluntarily alter our physiological responsiveness to pain should not seem that outlandish. We know full well that when we daydream, internal generated visions replace externally generated ones. With this simple act we are controlling perception. Why, then, should we not be able to redirect attention from external to internal so that pain stimuli are either cancelled or denied access to the higher levels of our consciousness?


“The parenting paradox.” From the book “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood” by Jennifer Senior. Ecco, 2014. Excerpted in the Week, April 11, 2014. p. 37.

"A Nation Distracted." Maggie Jackson. Excerpted from Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Reprinted in UTNE. March-April 2010. pp. 51, 52, 54.

Jacob Needleman. Why Can't We Be Good? New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2007. pp. 140-141.

J. Allan Hobson. The Chemistry of Conscious States: How the Brain Changes its Mind. (Originally 1994). p 245


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