An art student paints a picture for a school exhibition. 1961. Photo by Eve Arnold/Magnum
You are only as strong as your powers of attention, and other uncomfortable truths about the self
You have thoughts, feelings and desires. You remember your past and imagine your future. Sometimes you make a special effort, other times you are content to simply relax. All of these things are true about you. But do you exist? Is your sense of self an illusion, or is there something in the world that we can point to and say: ‘Ah, yes – that is you’? If you are familiar with the contemporary science of mind, you will know that the concept of a substantive self, separate from the mere experience of self, is unpopular. But this stance is unwarranted. Research on attention points to a self beyond experience, with its own powers and properties.
So what is attention? Attention is what you use to drown out distracting sights and sounds, to focus on whatever it is you need to focus on. You are using attention to read this, right now. It is something that you can control and maintain but it is also strongly influenced by the world around you, which encourages you to focus on new and different stimuli. Sometimes being encouraged to change focus can be good – it is good that you look up from your cellphone when a bike comes barrelling down the sidewalk, for example. But this encouragement can also keep you from completing tasks, as when you get caught in a spiral of mindless clickbait. You might think of your powers of attention as what you use to control the focus of your attention, away from distractions and toward your favoured point of focus.
This same power of attention – what you use in everyday life to stay on task – is what helps you in moments of conflict more generally – moments when you are caught between two (or more) options, both of which appeal to you, and you are torn on which option to choose. The philosopher Robert Kane has a way of talking about these life-defining moments: they are ‘self-forming actions’. Kane’s idea is that our truest expressions of ourselves come at moments in which our will is divided. At such moments, we could go either of two ways, but we go one way, and in doing so we help set in place some feature of ourselves – the feature that aligns with the chosen path.
Imagine that while job-hunting you receive two offers, only one of which is in your current field. The job in your field would provide security and good conditions, but you have come to find yourself more interested in the new field. The job in the new field would be risky, with less security and more challenging conditions, but you hope that it will lead to better opportunities in the future. What should you do?
For Kane, the effort of choosing between these two halves of yourself – the half that is concerned about security and the half that desires change – creates conflict in the brain that can be resolved only through a combination of quantum indeterminacy and chaotic amplification. While this might seem implausible on its face, Kane’s proposed mechanism has some evidentiary support. The result is a self-forming action in two respects. We are responsible for forming the action, whatever the outcome, by putting our efforts behind each of two opposing outcomes and forcing a resolution. And the outcome helps to shape our future self, in that it favours one of two hitherto conflicting motivations.
Although Kane does not explicitly mention attention, it is clear that attention is an essential part of this picture. When faced with conflicting options, we attend to them in turn. You turn your attention from the security of one job to the excitement of the other. Sometimes attention helps to determine the outcome, as when we focus more on either security or excitement. Other times our attention creates the conditions for indeterminacy, as we effortfully keep both options afloat. Either way, attention plays a crucial role…