Sunday, December 7, 2014

Directing Attention

Being a human having emotions of uncertainty and dissonance is like being a horse drawing a carriage down a busy street. As prey animals, horses find large, fast-moving objects frightening, and cars tend to send horses into a panic. Since a horse's visual field is about 350 degrees, streets provide constant opportunities to spook a carriage-drawing horse. Carriage drivers don't want their horses to panic, so they use blinders, reducing the horses' vision to what's right in front of them, which keeps them calm and controllable.

That's all good and well as long as there's a carriage driver holding the reins, directing every single turn, watching the road and the cars and the buildings and never letting anything bad happen to the horse. If you're a horse without a driver, though, blinders are a bad idea. You need all the vision you can get.

Human attention narrowly tracks our gaze most of the time. We don't notice much about our periphery unless there's some sudden unexpected movement. Then our attention snaps to that spot, and our gaze quickly follows. Our attention is like that for all sensations we can be aware of, not just vision. Like hearing your name at a cocktail party, or remembering you left the oven on. We evolved to turn our attention toward those things so naturally and easily that we can't help doing it.

Much of learning rationality, or at least the style I've so far studied myself, involves attuning your mind to new types of sensation, striving for the automatic snap-focus response when you encounter them. We want our attention to move toward confusion, rationalization, curiosity, and many other sensations we didn't evolve to care so much about. 

You can't flee from a motionless predator who remains dark and indistinct in your peripheral vision. You can't turn off the oven when your feeling that you've left it on stays quiet and fuzzy in the periphery of your attention. And you can't burn for investigation in response to peripheral sensations of curiosity when your brain hasn't fully integrated the knowledge that curiosity matters.

But we also seem to have evolved something like blinders for other types of sensations, as though the social structures of our tribes could act as carriage drivers to direct and protect us during times of near blindness. When we enter an argument with someone we consider an enemy, for example, not only do we become even more focused than normal on the mental activities associated with defeating her, but we raise shields against any internal stimulus that might lead to our defeat. So acting on confusion isn't as simple as promoting it from peripheral to foveal attention. You first have to take off the blinders.

That's what reflective attention is for.

Knowing the blinders exist, knowing when they're on, locating them, taking them off, knowing which internal sensations are worth extra attention, and installing snap-focus habits for them--all of that has to happen before you can get consistent practice with your chosen bias interventions, whatever they might be.

The exercise from the last post decouples vision from attention. I think that attuning your mind to sensations of deliberate control of attention is probably necessary for becoming reflective at will, especially on the human equivalent of crowded streets. I hope I've explained it better this time, so here it is again, if you want to take a shot at it.

  1. Look at the "A" in the title "Agenty Duck". Keep your gaze fixed on that letter.
  2. Without moving your eyes, try to read the word directly below "Agenty". Can you feel your attention prying itself away from your gaze?
  3. Try moving your attention around, still looking at the A. Move your attention to different parts of the screen, then off of the screen and around the room.
  4. Ok, now bring your attention back to the A, joining vision and attention once again. 
  5. This time, keep your attention on the A, but move your eyes around the screen. Your attention wants to follow, doesn't it? Don't let it. See how quickly you can look around without losing attentive focus on the A.

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