Our fourth and final excerpt from this P2P Book of the Week, preceded by an introduction and excerpts from Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Please see Mr. Goldhaber’s blog for more info and to download the complete chapters.
All the World a Stage
Michael H. Goldhaber
How Attention Works: Paying It Means Reshaping Your Mind (and Actions) (Excerpts)
We have been moving through the history of economies that grow until they reach their goals, then giving way to utterly new ones, which grow in their own direction. That story continues in Chapter 4.
Older economies depended on fighting, outward pledges of loyalty, or the production of things with an objective existence in the world. The new economy is based on something seemingly inward and subjective â€” namely attention. How can inbuilt human propensities in regard to it come to underpin an entire economy?
Some aspects of attention have little tie to any economic role. It is easy, too, to come to the wrong conclusions about just how attention does function in an economic sense. I now think of attention primarily as the aligning of minds. The best way Iâ€™ve found to explain this stems from a remarkable scientific accident in the early 1990â€™s in the neuroscience lab of Giacamo Rizzolatti in Parma, Italy.
The research group there was studying how certain nerve-circuits fire in rhesus monkeysâ€™ brains. Each circuit normally led to some type of intentional muscular action. One instigated a monkeyâ€™s arm and hand motions in lifting a peanut to its mouth. The researchers had rigged up a loudspeaker to the electrodes they had connected to that neuron chain so as to alert them whenever the monkey began to perform the peanut-to-mouth motion.
One day, a graduate student walked in licking an ice cream cone. Suddenly the speaker blasted. But why? The monkey was staring at the student, but not moving its own arm at all. Repetitions revealed the problem was not with the setup. Evidently, the chain of neurons in the monkeyâ€™s brain had responded to the motions of the human moving as the monkey itself would when feeding itself peanuts! The monkey had recognized the human act as like its own! That involved its activating same nerve chain as if it were moving its own paw, though without that occurring.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
This was a momentous discovery, because for the first time, the highly relational nature of monkeys â€” and by extension humans â€” was revealed at the neuronal level. Since then, using less invasive brain-imaging techniques, scientists have verified that humans have exactly the same kinds of reactions, though with considerably more precise distinction between different actions. For us too, the same chain of brain neurons we would use to instigate any muscular action, we also apparently activate â€”without actually moving ourselves â€” when we note someone else doing exactly the same thing. Neuroscientists now use the slightly misleading term â€œmirror neuronsâ€ to describe any connected brain circuit that has the dual functions of initiating an action and recognizing the same action when performed by someone else.
Intentions are part of what is mirrored. People move slightly differently, when, say, picking up a glass intending to drink from it than if their intent is to put the glass away or empty it out in the sink. The subtle differences in motion mean that different neurons are active in each case. Likewise, in a watcher, different chains of mirror neurons fire depending on the moverâ€™s purposes. We directly experience othersâ€™ intents along with their movements, almost as if they were our own.
So, suppose you are watching a football player, an acrobat or a ballet dancer. To let the appropriate mirror chain of your own neurons be activated so as to experience the performerâ€™s or playerâ€™s motions, you either can be moving a little in sympathy â€” say lunging upwards from your seat as the player leaps to catch the football â€”or you must be more or less still. Certainly you cannot be paying attention if you are simultaneously performing some complex but unrelated action of your own â€” say lining up a pool shot or building a structure out of dominoes. You could not pay attention to both even if your eyes could somehow follow both your own tasks and the performance at the same time. Thatâ€™s what the activation of mirror neurons tell us.
To do complex tasks of your own requires activating chains of neurons that will sometimes overlap with the chains you would use to pay attention to the watched complex activity. Clearly, the same neurons cannot both control your muscles and not control them at the same time. Just as you cannot throw a football with exactly the same muscular motions you would use to aim a pool cue, you cannot pay attention to the motions of someone doing the first while you do the second. And, by the same token, at any one moment you cannot simultaneously pay attention to two different people doing these two different acts â€” or any different acts of equal complexity.
A UNIFIED VIEW
Already, the implications of our neurons mirroring the neurons in othersâ€™ brains when we watch them move has led us to some important conclusions about attention. First, it has to be in limited supply. We simply cannot pay detailed attention to more than one person acting independently. Even to do that, we usually have to still our own movements. And when we do pay attention, we automatically come to identify at least a bit with the intents of the other person, if we can possibly decipher them.
One place where neural mirroring of a slightly different kind almost certainly does come into play, from extremely early in life, is in feeling othersâ€™ emotions. We all know people with â€œinfectiousâ€ smiles. When you see such a person smiling, even if a smile does not appear outwardly on your face you can feel a corresponding inner glow. An angry expression can bring out your own anger; someone laughing can make you mirthful; and so on. Likewise, a person who looks sad or depressed might pull your own mood down. Sometimes a down expression is hardly visible, consisting of very subtle arrangements of the facial muscles. It is only by feeling our internal response to these slight indications that we can gauge the otherâ€™s mood. Since it is impossible to feel opposite moods at once, this is another reason you cannot focus your attention on more than one independent person at a time.
When you are watching a tennis player, say, your activated brain circuits resemble some of the activated circuits in her brain. In terms of mind, you are adopting her emotional intent and actions, and thus, indirectly, her viewpoint as well. One could say you are shaping or aligning your mind to hers at the moment.
At the same time as watching her in the here and now, you are laying down memories of what you are paying attention to. The more we watch, the have easier it gets to focus in on her particular motionsâ€¦.We also continue to retain the desire that she win that we originally picked up by watching her. We have no sharp separation in our minds of her own desire to win from our own desire that she do so.
We can be set up for mirroring that same tennis player by such disparate cues as her name, face, voice, her idiosyncratic tennis togs, stories about her we happen to be reminded of, and much else. How all these elements form a unified gestalt of a person remains mysterious at the neural level, but we know they do.
WORDS AND LANGUAGE:
Perhaps the first thing to notice about paying attention to words is this: It is natural to assume that all words we hear or see have been spoken or written by someone or other. I wrote these words, for example, and you have no difficulty knowing to whom â€œIâ€ in this sentence refers. Say you were to hear words spoken, and yet not have any idea who spoke. You would still assume it was someone in particular.
Quite often, words are used for the sole purpose of getting and holding the attention of another person or persons. An entire conversation might consist of nothing but â€œHi!â€ â€œHello!â€ â€œHow are you?â€ â€œFine. Yourself?â€ â€œGreatâ€ â€œBeautiful day, isnâ€™t it?â€ â€œLovely.â€ To keep at it, the speakers might settle on some subject to banter about, but then veer off to other topics repeatedly. Like a parent cooing or babbling with a pre-verbal infant, each partner in such an exchange is both tightening a bond with and mirroring the other. It is rather as if they were playing some simple and non-competitive game such as â€œcatch.â€
Often too, you listen a narrative. It has a story line, a path through which the events and actions and feelings flow, which entails a kind of deliberate pushing forward with the story. Even though only the muscles in the speakerâ€™s vocal tract may be actually moving, to follow the story, the listener has to do something very like mirroring the force and flow of the narrator as the story unfolds. The listener also has to take the viewpoint of the speaker to see what elements of the story amount to.
The way I like to summarize this is that you reshape or align your mind â€” temporarily â€” to hers at the time. The better you know the person, that is the more often you have paid attention to her in the past, and the better you have been paying attention to her story as she tells it in the present, the easier it is to shape you mind to follow along.
THE DESIRABILITY of ATTENTION
Speaking of desire, what about the desire for the attention itself? What is the inner benefit of attention from other people? Does everyone have the wish for it? Can it be fully satisfied? Might the extent to which we can acknowledge and seek to satisfy this desire be greater in our contemporary culture than in others?
Again, consider watching our tennis player. Call her â€œSonya.â€ She is in a tournament and we are part of large audience, many of whom, like ourselves, have already become her fans. We see her play, we feel her wanting to win, and we too want her to win. Even if we do not cheer aloud, we make subtle sounds and intakes of breath in sync with her. Even though she is mostly focused on playing, Sonya can pick up the crowdâ€™s wish that she win, a wish that emanates from mirroring her. To some degree, she can mirror that mirroring, amplifying her own will to win.
Whatever you may be doing, the sense that it is echoed and repeated in other minds, which control other bodies, enlarges you. You gain a sense of added power and strength. Now you are not just one person among many. You are, for that moment anyway, the whole crowd.
CAN THE DESIRE FOR ATTENTION BE SATED?
Attention is different from material things. Our need for it is about as basic as for food, drink, air, shelter, and so forth, but with those physical needs, our finite bodies set limits on the satisfaction of desire. You might want to eat all the food in a well-stocked refrigerator at one sitting, but you would probably burst. You can only sleep in so many beds in a night or a lifetime, wear so many clothes, or visit so many spots. But if you were able to get all the worldâ€™s attention, it would not cause you any direct bodily harm. In fact, from what we can gather, it could feel terrific.
These days the largest known audiences are over a billion people, which seems immense. But why stop there? If there were a trillion people we could somehow reach, why not get that amount of attention? For most of the existence of human beings, attention could come from no more than a tribe or village â€”a couple of thousand people at the outside. Modern technologies permit going after much more, and nothing seems to inhibit many of us from doing so.
PAYING ATTENTION MEANS DOING WHAT IS ASKED OR WANTED
So far, I have been discussing paying attention as primarily a mental act, which is mostly how it has been studied scientifically. But in our common use of the term, paying attention to someone quite often has a physical component in terms of satisfying a personâ€™s wants. That is â€œpaying attentionâ€ and â€œbeing attentiveâ€ seem linked, at least via the common root of the words.
Imagine that in talking to someone you make a request like one of the following: â€œListen to this;â€ â€œLook over there;â€ â€œConsider this;â€ â€œLet me introduce you to Mr. Smith over there;â€ â€œHave a taste;â€ â€œHold this for a moment;â€ â€œHand me that thing over there, please;â€ â€œWait a minute until Iâ€™m through;â€ â€œWait here for me for a few minutes;â€ or maybe, â€œPlease stand.â€ Surely you have had endless occasions to make requests of this kind, if not in these exact words. If you know the person well, that is if she has paid you attention in the past, and vice versa, you could even ask her to share something that she is eating, get you a drink, give you a ride, or possibly fill other very personal wants. In addition, you sometimes make negative requests, such as â€œplease donâ€™t do that; itâ€™s annoying me.â€ If, without explaining why, she does not comply to requests such as these, you might well conclude she is not paying attention.
As a rule, the more attention we feel we are being paid by someone, the more substantial the wants of ours we can expect them to try to fill. That is, normally, attentiveness does come with attention being paid. We can easily understand this in terms of the aligning of the attention payerâ€™s mind with our own. That connection leads to the following way of formulating things: To the extent someone is paying attention to you, she wants to do for you what you want; and, conversely, she does not want to do (to or for you) what you do not want.
It is one thing to be right next to someone, but quite another to be talking by phone, say. In that case, no use asking for a glass of water, or for most other things that would require immediate bodily motions. Another variant situation is when the one doing the asking or demonstrating some wants is in front of a large audience.
A FEW MORE STROKES FOR SONYA
To see what happens in the case of someone before a live audience, it helps to change perspective. Imagine now that you are witnessing a performance of some sort by a star you already have paid some attention to. It could be our favorite tennis player, â€œSonya,â€ in a tournament setting. You have watched for a while and are quite hooked on wanting her to achieve her goal of winning, probably not just this particular match, but maybe the whole tournament, or even beyond that. Say you sense that Sonya is suffering from the heat of the day, is in pain, tiring, thirsty or in despair over what appear to be bad calls by the umpire. You want her to have a chance to cool down, alleviate her pain, quench her thirst, and so forth. You want her to leave the tennis match happy, for then so can you.
Sharing Sonyaâ€™s desires in this way doesnâ€™t imply that you will actually try to fill them. You most likely will just sit with seeming calm in your seat wishing that her needs be taken care of. Outwardly, to go from wanting Sonyaâ€™s wants to be fulfilled to trying to fill them yourself would be a big step. Still, the more you pay attention to her, the more you are likely to make the effort when you believe you might succeed. If you happen to see her walking through a doorway or gate you are near, you quite probably would hold it open longer and more graciously for her than for someone unknown to you. Beyond extending the normal courtesies further than you would to someone not known to you, there are many possible further steps. You might start following the tennis news to learn the progress of Sonyaâ€™s career. If she has a website, a blog or a vlog, you might frequently tune in to see how she is doing. The more you would pay attention to her in these slight ways, the larger she would loom in your life, and the farther you would go to pay still more attention in ways that you believe will accord with her desires.
Should Sonya appear in a tournament you could travel to, you well might go, dropping other plans and priorities in the process. At the event, you would wait patiently in line, maybe even for hours, to watch her or greet her. You could try to get your friends to be fans too. You might send her encouraging fan mail or sincere hints on how she might improve her game. Should she make public requests â€” say to give to a certain cause or a certain charity, or even directly to herself â€” you would be prone to accede to them â€” provided doing so does not violate other values you hold.
WHAT IT MEANS ECONOMICALLY
Two major points follow from this connection between paying attention and being attentive to wants. We can better see why people can desire a great deal of attention, that is, can want to be stars. While we often hear that having a great deal of attention can be annoying, it is not actual attention that is. As long as people really pay attention to the star, they will not intentionally do anything she would dislike. When we wish to be noticed and have attention paid us, we quite reasonably assume our needs and wants will be met, not the reverse.
What are the limits to this sort of attentiveness? Clearly, no sane person would lay down her life so that Sonya, the tennis player, could get new shoes, or for some trifling whim of hers. On the other hand, most people would risk their lives to save anyone they really pay a lot of attention to â€” their closest friends, parents or children and so forth â€” if the horrible circumstances arose that put their lives in danger. Sometimes devotion, even to stars, as well as intimates, goes still further.
This thought plunges us into what amounts to the â€œdeep endâ€ of absolute attentiveness. We commonly speak of a state of paying rapt attention as being â€œenthralled.â€ Literally, a thrall is a slave. Being enthralled then means being enslaved, though not in the usual way, which is by force. Paying absolute attention to someone would imply totally aligning your mind with hers. Quite unthinkingly, you would take up â€” as if your own â€” her desires, feelings and wants of all kinds. With perfect and complete attention, the boundaries between you drop, and you are in symbiosis with that other. Your body and your actions are as much at their disposal as their own body is. You will do virtually anything for them. It is complete harmony, total love.
This is the feeling a parent has for a baby, at least in the most intimate moments. It is the feeling an enthralled lover has for the one she loves. It is also to be seen in very compatible, long-married couples, in the ways doting grandparents act towards their grandchildren, among extremely good friends, between outstanding teachers and their pupils, and in many other situations. With that absolute degree of attention, people have made every kind of thing, fixed anything, cooked thousands of meals, waited constantly and attentively on the other, made themselves always available, at times almost literally enslaved themselves. Sometimes people in the thrall of attention to another go to still further extremes, violating laws, devoting years to someone who in reality gives very little attention back, prostituting themselves, murdering others or gladly giving their own lives â€” all to satisfy the wants of the person who had their attention.
Further, if indeed paying attention entails a desire to do what the recipient wants, then receiving enough attention almost automatically offers one a chance to live well. (This second point starts us on the path to understanding how an economy based on attention can subsume most of the benefits of the old economy based on industrially produced things, though on a very different footing.)
(At present, money tracks attention. That is, it is one of the things that flows to attention-getters. But not necessarily the other way round. You cannot normally buy attention if you already have money. Increasingly the attention rich will be money rich, but not the other way round. )