In any single moment of awareness, which may be as brief as one millisecond, attention is focused in only one sense field. But during the course of these momentary pulses of consciousness, attention jumps rapidly from one sense field to another, like a chimpanzee on amphetamines. In the blur of these shifts among the sense fields, the mind “makes sense” of the world by superimposing familiar conceptual grids on our perceptions. In this way our experience of the world is structured and appears familiar to us (Wallace, 2006, p. 37).
The mind compensates for the gaps in continuity by mechanically recalling our previous experience and conditioning. Spiritual teachers speak of this in various phrases: that we create reality; we are asleep; we do not see things as they are in their essence. The more the inputs we receive without attention from our part, the more the structures of our mind are unconsciously activated to make sense of the world.
Attention is one of the foundations of awareness. Without it, we have no protection against information which is poured into us. Without attention our real identities and human values have no role in transforming information into wisdom. Then without choice we ingest whatever is put in front of us.
Without attention we risk becoming servomechanisms of technology, clicking compulsively with no direction. An open mind without goals is very different from the lack of direction of a mind frenzied with the longing to be filled. Lacking attention we have no control over our intentions nor critical perspective for interpreting information.
Attention is an ingredient of mindfulness – the awareness of our inner state which includes our body, feelings, and sensations. Meditation techniques begin with focused attention and concentration.
With attention, awareness, mindfulness, “presence” and a quiet mind, we are nourished by our interiority instead of force fed by external stimuli. As attention is connected to our identity, weak attention produces a weak identity. A scientist of the Rational Psychology Association, studying changes in the brain from over-stimulation, defined “the new indifference” as the capacity to cope with contradictory stimuli without being concerned (Talbott, 1997).
If we add to this the pervasive difficulties with prolonged attention, the lack of inner awareness, the weakening of literacy, and the absence of strong ethical and ideological ground, we are easily manipulated by messages which simplify the world. We are then prey to fundamentalisms and populisms with their promise of rapid solutions and return to the “certainties” of the past. Without attention nothing makes sense and there’s no motivation to delve deeper.
“It is worth noting that Ted Nelson, the maverick who first coined the term ‘hypertext’ to describe our ability to navigate our own path through electronic information in 1965, has suffered since childhood from what later became known as ADD” (Harkin, 2009, p. 135). Attention disorders are expanding parallel to the expansion of information, leaving us vulnerable to unbalanced external guidance. Short attention span and lack of inner guidance work together to create a weak identity.