Rapt: How Attention Distills and Refines Experience

Early in my college career, I was eager to find new ways to be a better student. This lead me to discover Cal Newport, a prolific computer scientist and professional advice giver who’s blog posts and books provided troves of practical wisdom on how to succeed as a student and as a lifelong learner. There are times, however, where Newport transcends practical learning techniques and “life hack” type productivity tips to offer some stunning insights concerning how to live and how to work. On a post titled “Treat Your Mind as You Would a Private Garden”, Newport responds to emails reflecting the chronic, stress saturated rumination and distraction that plagues the lives of many college students. What you pay attention to, and what you allow to fester in and occupy your mind, can make the difference between an anxious, neurotic existence and deliberate, effective one. He emerges with the final insight: training your attention is essential to building a good life.

This insight, that the quality of your life is largely dependent on what you pay attention to, is echoed by David Foster Wallace in his legendary commencement address, but this idea is no more eloquently developed than in Winifred Gallagher’s unappreciated gem of a book:  Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, a wonderful and insightful ode to focus.

Gallagher’s thesis, that attention is the filter through which we shape and determine our inner lives, inspires a sense of agency in every moment. If we can use attention to choose what information to pay attention to and what to ignore, we can distill reality and make it more manageable,and choose our responses to reality more carefully. The deliberate cultivation of one’s attention allows a more effective and deliberate way to extract meaning from experience.

At the beginning of the book, Gallagher says that this insight concerning attention was inspired by a personal adversity of her own: a cancer diagnosis. How she responded to such dire circumstances is remarkable. She writes:

“Through months of chemo, surgery, more chemo, and daily radiation, I mostly stayed focused on taking care of business in the present–suddenly all I could count on–and on the things that matter most and make me feel best: big ones like my family and friends, spiritual life, and work, and smaller ones like moveies, walks, and a 6:30 p.m. martini… Although that year was not my easiest, neither was it the hardest. Certainly, it was my most focused.”

This echoes the Stoic notion that human flourishing can exist entirely independently of external circumstances. While not a notion I completely agree with, it’s an idea that can be incredibly empowering in the face of adversity; that it is not external circumstances that determine wellbeing but how one interprets and responds to reality. Gallagher writes:

“If you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create: not a series of accidents, but a work of art.”

As an individual suffering from a mental illness, this idea that one can create a meaningful experience using the faculties of one’s own mind is a profound one. With a mind that is especially prone to rumination, anxiety, delusions, and thoughts and judgments that aren’t short of pure terror, it becomes a matter of life and death to be able to direct my attention to the aspects of my experience that are productive and useful. Attention is a tool through which the mind can make order out of chaos.

Throughout the book, through the lens of psychology and modern neuroscience, Gallagher goes on to describe the role of attention in relationships, work, creativity, and decision making. One of the most compelling passages involves the role of attention in creativity, particularly the kind that requires a persistent curiosity in the face of a subject of interest. Gallagher writes:

 “Observing that this ability to attend to and develop even the humblest subject is a cornerstone of creativity.”

This idea that creativity is the act of finding wonder in the mundane is one that is incredibly personal to me. A large reason I aspire to be a scientist is that a lens of curiosity and learning allows one to find intrigue and joy in humble, everyday physical phenomena. Through this mindset, one can find and an incredible impetus to learn and pay attention to the world, while attention provides the creative tool to craft meaningful experiences and understandings out of the reality we face.

In an era of perpetual digital distraction and ruthless multitasking, Gallagher’s book provides a compelling sense of clarity on the role of attention as we navigate the challenges of modern life. Gallagher ends her book paraphrasing John Milton: “Heaven or Hell? It will depend on what we focus on.”


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