Psychologists study many aspects of attention including its selectivity and capacity. Imagine that you hear someone talking about you on the far side of a crowded room and that you seek to tune in to that conversation. That’s selectivity. Capacity concerns the sensory or sensory/motor limits to attention.
A dog hears much more than you do, and a rabbit has much greater peripheral vision than you. This means that these animals have a capacity for attention that is in some ways greater than yours. Obviously, in other ways these animals have less capacity than you do. You get the point, though. You are an instrument of your own senses.
The fact that you are not often conscious of the processes of selectivity and capacity makes them very intriguing indeed. If you are not organising your attention, then who or what is?
Michael Eysenck and Herbert Simon are amongst theorists who pointed to the concept of an ‘interrupt system.’ In short this describes your attention processes as being a constant negotiation. This negotiation is conducted between your current point of attention and other, alternative stimuli. If one of these alternative stimuli is capable of stirring an emotional response from you, then your attention will shift to it. Your focus will be lost but something else will be gained.
It follows from this that our entire understanding of the world can be understood to be partial and attenuated. In other words, we live according to a representation rather than to reality itself. This concept is encapsulated in the idea of a ‘mental model.’ The foundations of this idea lie severally with Kenneth Craik, Georges-Henri Luquet and Jean Piaget. Craik was a Scot who died in a bicycle accident in 1945. He was tragically young, just thirty-one years old and had published his ‘The Nature of Explanation’ just two years earlier. Earlier the Frenchman, Georges-Henri Luquet, had studied the drawings of children, associating them with the creation of models of their understanding. His work was published in 1927 and influenced Jean Piaget, the giant figure in research into the cognitive development of children.
In practical terms, we see our ‘mental models’ only when something refuses to conform to them. This is the business proposition of magicians and conjurers.
They exploit our cognitive limits. They learn to train our selectivity and to work around our capacity. More deeply, mental models can be understood as reflecting our entire understanding of complex things, like our work, friendships and family. Our social relationships sometimes stumble or fail when a person does not conform to a mental model that is held about them (‘I did not expect him to behave like that’). The representation is not the same as the reality. It is not just in psychology that we hear about the nature of attention
In Art and Literature, major figures have long ruminated upon it, often invoking their struggles to build creative attention in the artistic process. Here is Henry David Thoreau warning of the perils of that interrupt system: “Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify, simplify! … Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.” Walt Whitman wrote this tribute to that gift of exchange that comes between the poet and the attentive ear: “Whoever you are, Now I place my hand upon you that you may be my poem I whisper with my lips close to your ear I have loved many women and men, But I love none better than you.”
A final thought: the artist’s mission is to hold his or her own attention and to conduct it towards some creative outcome. In this way attention is the cradle to creativity itself. It then comes as no surprise that so many artists have much to say about the physical environs in which attention best sits. Virginia Woolf famously noted that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”
Roald Dahl trekked daily to his garden shed. Francis Bacon preferred dark and crowded conditions for his encounters with canvas. But is any room sufficient to guarantee the conduct of attention? Not according to Thoreau. All your energy must also lurch to it, he warned. Do not sit in your room for your mind can still wander. Instead, you must stride repeatedly over the boards so that the words come repeatedly into focus.
Attention is the key to our mental life. Think about it again and what it all means. Think about the artist finally settled and working in his room. Then think about the modern creative studio with its quiet desks and lamps. Widen your camera to other parts of the city and see the theatre, the cinema, the church, the hotel spa and the university quadrangle. Design too conducts attention. We design our best physical spaces and our best artefacts in order to settle and nurture attention. Contrarily, we also design for the benefit of that interrupt system. Think about all the neon in our cities, all the sounds, the zipwire effects of the electronic billboard, and the very smart light of your mobile phone.