Habits of attention

The process of welling up can take quite different time courses. Sometimes it takes only a tenth of a second, in which case it is very difficult to catch the unfurling as it happens. And sometimes the development of a germ of an idea into a communicable train of thought can take seconds, or minutes, or even longer. We may have to “um” and “er” while we wait for the mot juste to come to mind. Sometimes the unfurling is blocked, as when our brain refuses to come up with the name of a dear friend when we are having a “senior moment.” In many of the familiar stories of creative insight, the solution to a problem can hang elusively just out of our grasp for months or years, until exactly the right set of triggers come together and the answer is propelled into consciousness like a circus performer shot from a cannon.

However, overlaid on these different time-scales there may be habits of attention that make us more or less sensitive to the unfolding dynamics within. We may develop a generalized habit of not paying attention to the early stages of the unfurling so that, whatever its intrinsic time-course, we do not become consciously aware of what is welling up until late in its development. We come habitually to notice aspects of experience that are already well-formed and elaborated, but do not notice the hazier or more undifferentiated precursors. Thus, instead of noticing the gradual clarification and differentiation of a thought or a feeling, we experience our own experience in terms of a step-wise distinction between things that are unconscious and those that are conscious. They appear to “pop into” our minds—or even, in a magnificent sleight-of-hand, to seem to spring, fully formed, out of the mouth of the “inner I” Thus—referring back to the earlier discussion about different metaphors for consciousness—what looks like a structural separation between conscious and unconscious can actually be a reflection of an acquired cognitive habit. We think we see a sharp distinction because we are inattentive to the slope that actually leads from unconscious to conscious.

We might also develop a habit of speeding up the unfurling process itself. We know that our embodied cognitive system is capable of registering regularities in its own processing, and therefore able to predict (with greater or lesser accuracy and/or confidence) what mental states are about to happen, on the basis of what mental states are already happening (Clark 2013). (The thought “I failed” becomes doom-laden, for example, as it has become a harbinger of an upsurge of negative self-judgments. Or, to use a more prosaic example, the glimpse of what looks like the tail of next-door’s cat disappearing round the corner of the house leads us to expect, were we to run and peek round the corner, that we would see the whole cat; or even just to assume it is Felix without bothering to check.)

This ability to predict future states of mind makes it possible for us to take short-cuts in unfurling, and leap to conclusions about what probably or usually follows the current state. When we have to respond fast, this “quick best guess” can be advantageous; it can even save our lives. But if leaping to conclusions becomes habitual, we are likely to miss detail and novelty. We construct our own world based not on the unprecedented particularities of the moment, but on what is normal and conventional. Thus we can come to see in terms of rather ghostly stereotypes and generalizations rather than the vivid, complex individuality of what is actually present. (We experience a shadowy stand-in for Felix. Were we to have checked, we might have seen that it was in fact an entirely different cat for which, we have just read in the local paper, a distraught owner has offered a substantial reward.) In effect we are trading vitality and inquisitiveness for normality and predictability.

Going too far in this labor-saving, top-down direction obviously incurs risks and costs. We might try to make the world conform to our expectations, and thus persist in applying methods of thinking and acting that worked once but are not, in a new situation, appropriate or effective. (Applicants for jobs at Google are often asked if they have a track record of success in their field. Those who boldly say “Yes” are unlikely to be hired, because experience has taught Google that such self-confidence often leads to people trying to replicate those successes by forcing new predicaments to fit old patterns; they are interested in people who can think from scratch and “flounder intelligently” in the face of quite new challenges (Friedman 2014).)

Language can certainly exacerbate this problem. There are many studies showing how a verbal label often leads to a kind of “functional fixedness” in which alternative ways of looking at or categorizing an object are rendered invisible by the label. In one classic study, Carmichael et al. (1932) gave subjects ambiguous pictures to remember with one of two suggestive verbal labels, e.g. “dumb-bells” versus “spectacles.” When asked to draw the shapes they had seen, the labels had a marked effect in skewing what they thought they had seen. This is one way in which creativity is reduced by leaping to conclusions. Creativity also suffers in other ways. We can become deaf to our own inklings and hunches, which recent research has shown are vital aspects of our creativity (Martindale 1995). Being able to access and tolerate what some researchers refer to as “low ego-control” or “low arousal” mental states—those that are uncertain, provisional, ambiguous, or vague—is demonstrably conducive to creative insight.

The process of unfurling can be slowed down as well as speeded up. As we saw earlier, the process of checking candidate actions or utterances for accuracy and completeness may be subject to strategic control. We can allow the “stream of consciousness,” or we can monitor and edit more carefully. When speaking a foreign language, for example, people may dive in and “give it their best shot” (especially in convivial company or after a drink or two), while on other occasions (or temperamentally more cautious people) we may self-monitor to the point of becoming tongue-tied (Krashen 1982). When candidate utterances are being held back for checking, the motor programs for producing the speech can be run “off-line”; that is, the sequence of articulatory muscle movements can be run in a way that produces muted versions of both the muscle movements themselves and their sensory consequences. (As part of children’s language learning, their brains develop a complex matrix of correspondences between “what it would take to produce a sound,” and “what the sound produced by those small movements would sound like.”) These muted effects are very often associated with conscious experience (though they may not be).

Before we come to the question of when, how, and why aspects of the unfurling message are accompanied by (or rendered into) conscious awareness, let me summarize the major branches of the developing “fern” of experience. One branch creates ramifications of internal, “interoceptive” body states: visceral, hormonal, immunological, and neural. A second alters the direction and acuity of incoming sensation, via modulation of the “exteroceptive” perceptual systems. A third branch begins to ready muscle groups for action. A fourth branch heads in the direction of linguistic and other kinds of symbolic outputs such as gestures. In meditation, we can focus on any or all of these facets.

Mindfulness can be viewed as a kind of psychological training that enables us to gain greater awareness of these habits of attention—speeding up or slowing down the perceptual process—and thus allows us to regain a great flexibility and control over our own ways of sensing. This in turn allows us to avoid some of the costs such as over-monitoring or leaping to conclusions.

One function of mindfulness, as we will see, is to enable us to separate awareness from judgment. We often avoid awareness of our inner process because along with awareness comes some kind of reflex judgment—we “like” it or we “loathe” it. A whiff of anxiety, and we may immediately tell ourselves we are being “stupid” for being anxious. An inconvenient feeling of tiredness in the middle of dinner with friends may leave us feeling angry with ourselves, or embarrassed, and inclined to “push away” the original feeling.

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