But how exactly do we go about doing this? What is the most effective way for us to improve our attention in our world of fleeting knowledge and sporadic information? To recapture attention we must focus on how to think deeply. We must reverse the shallowness of understanding that the internet has brought about in recent years. As Eric Kandal says, we must pay attention.
Well, interestingly enough, the root of the word attention is derived from the Latin attendere, which can mean ‘to apply one’s mind to’ or ‘to take care.’ Indeed, we can see how this word has kept this dual quality in English: when we say, for example, a doctor is ‘attending to a patient,’ what we mean is that the doctor is taking care of his or her illness. He is giving the patient the attention necessary to cure whatever malaise may be affecting them. When we apply this etymological assessment of attention as a linguistic term it fits nicely into the neuroscience discussed in part 1. In other words, if we take the idea that the key to the formation of memories is attentiveness, it becomes clear that if we want to reclaim our memory we must take care of our minds.
However, we must not understand the question of attention as purely neurocentric. Indeed, if we look at the scope of recent memory studies, not just from the sciences but in the humanities too we find examples from the fields philosophy and literary theory that place large emphasis on the importance of attention. Bernard Stiegler sheds light on this point by describing that in French, to describe a person as attentionné is to be thoughtful or attentive:
‘To be thoughtful means to be civil or urbane (in the original sense of the word). Although we normally take attention to be a mental capacity for concentration, it is nonetheless a social phenomenon. Être attentionné, in English ‘to be thoughtful’, also means to be pensive or reflective. Attention has a significance at once psychological and social, and the one does not work without the other.’ (Stiegler, 2012).
To put it simply: a lack of attention leads to ignorance whereas to be attentive is to be compassionate. But not only this, without paying attention to another’s point of view, one loses the ability to empathise, and thus the ability to ‘take care’ of one another, and the society we live in.
We also find literary theorist Renate Lachmann’s theory of intertextuality provides an insightful framework for understanding books and literature as ‘culture’s memory.’ Lachmann suggests that literature is:
‘the mnemonic art par excellence. Literature supplies the memory for a culture and records such a memory. It is itself an act of memory. Literature inscribes itself in a memory space made up of texts, and it sketches out a memory space into which earlier texts are gradually absorbed and transformed.’
And if we combine this understanding with the findings Nicholas Carr describes in The Shallows we gain a truer understanding of how important sustained attention is. If literature and other such external mediums can essentially provide us with an external memory source, it’s imperative we re-learn, as a culture, how to access it.
So when it comes to understanding how to pay attention in general we must understand that our memory extends beyond the limits of the biological and into the cultural. As Hebb’s famous dictum goes: ‘cells that fire together wire together’. The plasticity of our neural networks means that synapses in the brain can be formed and unformed based on one’s social and cultural milieu, or lack thereof. Plasticity is thus our saving grace in the fight to recapture our attention and reclaim our memory. The very same characteristic that has allowed us to fall into a culture of shallow understanding and decreased attentional capacities can in fact bring back our memory i.e. the anamnesis that Plato describes in the Phaedrus. In other words if, on both an individual and collective level, we learn to balance out our internet browsing habits with techniques that can facilitate the deep concentration required when reading or writing, we can essentially rewire our brains to utilise the vast benefits of both these external memory forms.
Although throughout Plato’s dialogues we see constant reference to Socrates’ rejection of writing due to the dangers of memory exteriorisation, we must first note that it is only through this exteriorisation that we have been warned of these dangers. Socrates was an orator, but Plato was a writer. His legacy lives on through the books he left behind. In fact, neither Socrates nor Plato can justifiably condemn the practice of writing or of reading. Plato was himself arguably the most influential externaliser of internal memory in the whole of human history, and even though Socrates did not write, it is quite evident that he was very well read. The entire dialectic that Socrates engages in across each of the Platonic dialogues is based on the Greek cultural heritage which itself is founded through writing: in the Apology it was Socrates himself who was to ‘dine with Homer, Hesiod and Orpheus’ after his death.
So to summarise, the deep and sustained attention that is necessary when reading longer pieces of writing (books in particular) can thus be looked at as a way of taking care of our brains; but to do this it is first necessary to understand how to care of society as a whole. We must not limit our attention to ourselves but we must pay attention, in the strictest sense of the word, to our culture and the way in which it is developing if we are to regain the abilities that have started to be lost during the era of the internet.
The internet is still young, and we are still learning how to adapt to it, but its pharmacological and dualistic nature must be understood in order for us to make rational informed decisions, both as individuals and collectives, on how to interact with it in the future.
To conclude I’ll leave you with a quote from an author who foresaw these issues more clearly than most of his generation, the late David Foster Wallace:
“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience… The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people…