Friday, October 15, 2010


Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
© 2009 Winifred Gallagher
256 pages

 You’re sitting comfortably in your favorite chair, reading, when out of the corner of your eye your brain registers movement, and you automatically turn to look for its source. You spot a green anole lizard, which crept in through an open window. You try to pick it up, and it scurries from the arm of the couch onto the end table nearby.  When you focus on the lizard in an attempt to sneak up behind it, you realize that the lizard’s tail is brushing your lost keys -- keys which are sitting in plain sight, but which have escaped your passive gaze for hours.

Such are some of the curiosities of attention. The book’s title caught my eye while browsing the library catalogue, and such is my interest in the workings of the human brain that I checked it out. The author introduces the book by pointing out there are two different kinds of attention: “bottoms-up” attention, wherein your instinctive brain automatically focuses on an objects that may be a potential threat (as in the moving lizard) and top-down attention, which we ourselves consciously control what our brains are focused on (as when tracking the lizard and noticing the keys as they entered the sweep of attention).

Rapt is more a social science work than hard science, replete with studies but no neurological maps. Instead, the author addresses attention’s role in morality, creativity, personal relationships, and health. Buddhism and cognitive theory are present, and both Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are mentioned by name.  The author believes that people can move toward greater health and happiness by being mindful of what we pay attention to -- taking charge of our own minds --  and practicing mental focus through exercises like attention or by engaging in leisure activities that encourage it (painting, say).

This is easily one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year. I was disposed to enjoy it, of course, given my interests in Stoic philosophy. I know full how attention can alter our mental state, but the chapters on art and morality were pleasant surprises. Gallagher is quite readable, and if you're interested in psychology or mindfulness I recommend it.


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