Pay Attention, Pay Attention, Pay Attention: Five Ways to Reclaim your Attention in a Distracted World

(I’m a psychotherapist in Brooklyn, NY area. Please contact me at (347) 927-4856 or email me at atsheringlcsw@gmail.com if you’re interested in therapy.)

“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.”

Alan W. Watts


Early in Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond Your Head”  the author walks through an airport. Maybe for the first time, he notices the bombardment of advertising everywhere. There are the billboards and TVs. The signs of restaurants, the ads in his Forbes Magazine, the ads on the podcast he’s listening to or in front of the bathroom stalls. Even the backs of chairs have deals to the local hotels and clothing stores. Each is expertly designed to get his attention, designed by professionals who know just the right colors and sounds and fonts and pictures to get you to notice what they’re selling.

There is only one place to hide in the entire airport, he finds. He enters a business-class lounge, those lounges that only the upper classes can afford, and discovers something surprising: silence.  There are no tvs or ads on the walls.  Just the quiet drone of the air conditioning above. It seems as if silence itself has become a luxury good.

Increasingly ours is a world where our attention, that is where we place our concentration, is the province of profits. This is less a critique than a reality. Everywhere we are being sold to, sold a certain lifestyle, a certain image, a certain fantasy. If you buy this fancy Mercedes, people will admire and respect you. If you wear this deodorant, beautiful woman will like you. It’s silly in some respects, and most of us probably believe we’re immune to its effects. But the human brain is far more suggestible than most of us realize.

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Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s theories have gotten a lot of attention lately. (Even Michael Lewis wrote an article about them recently.) I think what surprises me most about their theories is how suggestible and irrational human beings actually are. It seems that outside forces have a much stronger hold on us than we realize.

In “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” Kahneman’s magnum opus, he writes about a multitude of experiments that he and Tversky worked on over the years. One experiment particularly fascinated me. In it, experiment subjects were asked whether they would opt for surgery if the ‘survival’ rate is 90 percent, while others were told that the mortality rate is 10 percent. Any cursory glance at the numbers tells you that they are the exact same thing. But when the experiment was done, the people who were told that their survival rates were 90% were far more likely to elect for the surgery than those who said 10%. The reason? A 10% chance of dying sounds a lot scarier than a 90% chance to live. Throughout the book, Kahneman goes through a number of similar experiments where people are repeatedly duped against making rational choices because of the inherent biases of the human brain. (Other examples include: voting in a school makes you more likely to vote for more funding for public education.) It seems we are all a lot less bright and independent of thought than we think. We can be seduced to make irrational choices without even knowing.

Thinking, Fast and Slow
$8.27
By Daniel Kahneman

I’d argue Kahneman’s ideas have a correlation to advertising. Advertising in many ways is priming our brains to value a certain lifestyle, to want certain things, to be a certain person, a happy consumer with all the right stuff. We are being signaled without our awareness to desire things we never wanted.  It’s what is called “affective capitalism,” a newer theory that shows how capitalism tries to bypass our rationality and affect our feelings.

Or to put it another way: what if we really respond to that aspirational Mercedes ad? Maybe because there is a beautiful woman in it or maybe it’s because you admire those who can afford such things or maybe that’s your favorite celebrity hocking the car. Suddenly you imagine you be happier if you had that car, imagine a different life from the drudgery of your own. It’s a fantasy, sure, but it’s a seductive fantasy. And it makes us feel good to imagine having it.  


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The question that comes up when I consider this is all is, how do if I know if my emotions are authentic? How do I know that I haven’t been indoctrinated by a lifetime of advertising seeking my attention? To put it another way: who am I really? The truth is a lot of the time, I don’t know.  And I’m often terrified by that prospect.

But over the years I’ve discovered a number of ways that have helped me sort out this mess and start to make sense of what I really, authentically feel. (of course, if you value wanting to make as much money as possible to buy a lot of nice things than this isn’t the blog post for you.):

 

  1. Mindfulness- As with most things, the first step is to be mindful of your feelings. Meditation can be extremely helpful in this regard as it can help you to let go of your thoughts but also examine them introspectively.   

  2. You are what you watch- Be mindful of what you consume: that is what you watch, read and listen to. When you see a tv show or ad, try and be aware that you are likely being sold something, an attempt to seduce you into a lifestyle that you never knew you wanted.

  3. The people you spend time with-  There’s the old cliche, “you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” There’s truth there, I think. What you value often comes from who you spend time with on a daily basis. If your friends are on the materialistic side, there’s a good chance you will be too.

  4. Psychotherapy- I mentioned earlier how Matthew Crawford equates silence as a luxury good in modern capitalism. In one respect that’s what a therapeutic session affords you, a chance to declutter your brain in an environment that is silent and attentive. It can help you clarify and reevaluate your own values, and point you in a direction of your choosing with a therapist who is nonjudgmental and supportive. It can change you. (I realize not everyone can afford therapy, but that’s a discussion for another blog post, which I plan to write in the future.)

  5. Beauty- As Crawford puts at the end of his book, “Only beautiful things lead us out to join the world beyond our heads.” Art, nature and other beautiful things may not change the world. But it can change how you view and feel about the world. It can reconnect us to a world beyond computer screens, advertisements and televisions. And just maybe it can lead you on a path to another way of living.