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Book Review: Effortless attention

Book Review: Effortless attention
9/2/14 5:09 PM
Effortless attention: A new perspective in the cognitive science of attention and action - Edited by Brian Bruya

Here are the highlights:

  • Research has indicated that success at self-control contributes to subjective well-being, satisfying interpersonal relationships, and high levels of academic achievement.  Success at self-control is also commonly associated with resisting temptation, breaking bad habits, and performing well under pressure.  Conversely, failures of self-control are associated with intellectual underachievement, interpersonal conflict, irrepressible appetites or addictions, and many other adverse outcomes.
  • If the person has recently exercised self-control, then strength may be temporarily depleted and hence the capacity for further self-control may be diminished.
  • Moving attention away from attention-grabbing events exacts a psychological cost because this entails the self-control of attention.
  • Attention control exacts a cost when it entails counteracting or resisting what one is compelled to do by internal (Eg. Motivational) forces or by powerful external stimuli that automatically capture attention.
  • When attention is threatened, performance monitoring and motivational systems are recruited and integrated, manifesting as attentional effort.
  • Selective attention refers to the act of focusing attention on one subset of the environment while avoiding or ignoring other attention-grabbing aspects of the environment.  Some stimuli capture attention effortlessly and automatically.  To ignore such stimuli or to divert attention away from them requires selective attention.  Divided attention is a second form of attention control.  This refers to attending and responding to multiple streams of information simultaneously.  Insofar as the dominant mode of attention is to follow one stream of information at a time, attention control is required to split attention between two or more information streams.  A third form of attention control is sustained attention, which refers to focusing attention on a stimulus or activity for an extended period of time.  Generally speaking, novel stimuli capture attention.  To sustain attention on the same well-worn stimulus or activity, then, requires an element of effortful persistence and attention control.
  • A large body of evidence shows that our behavior can be driven by thoughts and actions to which we have no conscious access.
 What does effortless attention look like:
  • The defining feature of autotelic experiences is the intrinsically rewarding experiential involvement in moment-to-moment activity that is accompanied by a positive experience quality.
  • Diffuse attention – what Buddhists call “monkey mind”, jumping from one stimulus to the other – is generally experienced as a less desirable state.
  • For optimal experience, one fundamental finding has been that when people enjoy most what they are doing – from playing music to playing chess, from reading good books to having a good conversation, from working their best to trying to beat their own record in sport – they report a state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems.
  • Effortless attention is most likely to be achieved under domain-specific conditions: clear, sequential, short-term goals; immediate feedback; and a balance between opportunities for action and the individual’s ability to act.  In circumstances of high attention experienced as effortless (as opposed to high attention experienced as effortful), subjects feel more involved, in control, unselfconscious, relaxed, and as if they are putting their skills to more use.
 How to develop effortless attention:
  • In the development of overlearned action, the same level of physical effort is subject to decreasing amounts of mental effort.
  • Making attention control more automatic, such as by forming specific intentions (how and when) to exercise attention control, helps to reduce the psychological cost of attention control. With practice, self-control may become less effortful and less depleting to perform.
  • Lower glucose levels reduce self-control performance.  Glucose replenishes what has been depleted by effortful attention control and thereby attenuates the psychological costs of “paying attention.”
  • With enough practice, overriding a response tendency may itself become the predominant tendency.  Limited resources for self-control can then be devoted to other, more difficult, challenges.
  • In many problem solving situations, the more working-memory capacity individuals bring to the table, the better they perform.
  • Having less ability to maintain complex information in the focus of attention may, in some situations, lead to more inventive problem-solving approaches than would be discovered if attention were more stringently controlled.
  • Experts have been shown to fixate on problem solutions that are activated by their extensive prior knowledge, leading to errors.
 Challenges to effortless attention:
  • Testing situations that elicit pressure to perform at a high level oftentimes lead to worries about performing poorly.  These worries have been shown to consume attention and working-memory resources needed to successfully solve difficult math problems.
  • Effortless attention is a state in which people’s skills are in accord with the challenge presented by the activity.
  • Those who show negative perfectionist tendencies – that is, are overly self-critical, preoccupied with mistakes, and feel that a discrepancy exists between expectation and result – often fail to perform at their best.  Their frequent inability to enter a state of effortless action, especially when the stakes are high, informs our understanding, in mechanistic terms, of how personality characteristics and individual differences influence the brain processes that control the execution of a skilled movement.
  • The more automatic system can be interrupted by conscious direction.  For example a tennis player will need the automatic system to work on his/her serve but consciously adjusting it (like switching arms) will reduce the performance.
  • Experiments on experts – skilled athletes, in most cases – have shown that once a motor skill is perfected, directing attention to a motor task is detrimental to its execution.
  • Optimal performance requires that an optimal amount of attention be allocated to a task, and the optimal amount of attention for a novice is, apparently, as much as possible.  Thus, optimal performance, by an expert, of a well-learned, real-time, sensorimotor integration task is associated with maximal implicitness of the task’s execution.  Put another way, effortless attention is an inherent feature of superior performance in such situations.
  • Comparing a group of tennis players with high levels of burnout with a control group on dimensions of perfectionism, it was found that burned-out players reported higher levels of concern over mistakes and lower personal standards than players in the control group.  As concern over mistakes is a core aspect of the self-critical dimension of perfectionism and personal standards a core aspect of the positive-striving dimension, the results suggest that only self-critical perfectionism is related to athlete burnout, while positive-striving perfectionism is not.
  • Athletes who strive for perfection without preoccupying themselves with failure or mistakes experience lower levels of anxiety and higher levels of confidence in competitions.
  • During the acquisition of a new task, everyone is a novice, and a new task is not yet controlled by the implicit system because it has not had the exposure to the task demands to build a mental representation of the task’s requirements, which can only be done by doing the task.  As a consequence, extraneous factors cannot as readily mess up performance because the acquisition of a new motor task is heavily controlled by the explicit system anyway.  In this situation, some positive perfectionist tendencies can be outright beneficial.
  • Any interference by explicit mental processes in implicitly controlled action decreases the smoothness of the performance.
  • Some flow characteristics directly influence performance because they are inherently performance enhancing.  For example, high concentration and a sense of control have often been cited as facilitators of performance.
  • When individuals are fully involved in an activity, they tend to find the activity enjoyable and intrinsically rewarding.  Because activities that have been rewarded are more likely to be performed again, the experience of effortlessly performing a task is likely to have a strong positive effect on motivation.  As the activity is performed again, individuals find greater challenges in the task, which results in further skill development, more competence, and greater performance.  In other words, the positive experience quality of flow has an indirect effect on performance by first influencing the motivation to perform an activity again, which then, in a second step, directly enhances the performance itself.
  • Individuals with a positive disposition of perfectionism, on the other hand, are intrinsically motivated, and their action is driven by a focus not on ultimate objectives but rather on the quality of the activity itself.  Because these cognitive processes concern themselves with the action per se, they cannot be regarded as metacognitive processes about the task.  In other words, the cognitive processes are not superfluous to the motor plan; indeed, they represent the very features that characterize the flow state.  As such, they do not decrease the efficiency of a skilled movement and might even have the potential, in a novel task that is not yet implicitly executed, to enhance its acquisition.
  • For individuals with negative perfectionist thinking patterns, the problem is compounded by the following set of circumstances.  As explained above, to enter a state of flow, explicit metacognitive processes (thinking about thinking) have to be inhibited.  This necessitates that the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in their computation, be down-regulated.  This, however, is more difficult for individuals with perfectionist personality traits because they have, as it is, an elevated baseline activity in prefrontal regions compared to others, which is, of course, the very source of their perfectionist thinking habits.  In people suffering from full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder, this hyperactivity in prefrontal regions is particularly pronounced.  This excessive prefrontal activity acts like a double whammy for them.  First, they have a longer way to go, so to speak, before the prefrontal cortex is sufficiently inhibited to keep thoughts extraneous to the activity from entering consciousness.  Second, in those all important moments during competition, when everything is on the line, the predisposition to worry, to be anxious, and to think about the possible consequences of one’s action is more readily reactivated because these are just the situations that tend to generate such thoughts in the first place.
  • To work well in a diversified environment, the brain needs to be fairly flexible and, to a certain extent, must have its own self-directing capacity.  Too much built-in software would be a detriment under the rapidly changing conditions typical of lifestyles based on culture – that is, on knowledge and technologies that change at rates many orders of magnitude faster than our physical environment and biology change.
  • School study: It is evident that academic activities depress teenagers’ moods.  For example, when doing schoolwork, the average levels of intrinsic motivation (which to be doing the activity) and enjoyment do not get better than average in either attentional condition.
  • The ESM results confirm the fact that, on the whole, when people say they are concentrating their attention and also report that doing so is hard, their quality of experience is generally unpleasant.  This is in part due to the fact that high levels of concentration typically occur when a person is doing something that he or she would not voluntarily do absent constraints.  For young people, this occurs in school, often in math or science classes, when taking tests or doing difficult homework.  Adults also focus their attention most often under compulsory situations – high-stakes situations at work.  Not surprisingly, such moments are not particularly happy ones.  The focus of attention is maintained with effort, and it would be relaxed immediately if the external conditions were to change.  Just visualize what happens to a classroom full of schoolchildren after the bell sounds: The silent concentration on their books explodes into a riot of liberation.
  • In fact, some of the highest levels of concentration are reported to be effortless.  These tend to be moments when a person is engaged in a freely chosen activity – a hobby, a sport, playing music or chess, and so on.  However, often people also report such effortless concentration in their work, or when studying, or when engaged in other activities that are normally experienced as obligatory and, therefore, effortful.
  • These moments are relatively rare but tend to be intense and memorable.  They are the moments when we feel most alive, engaged with the world, and in harmony with ourselves.  When concentration is effortless, even difficult and obligatory activities – such as studying – can become significantly more enjoyable.  Clearly, our quality of life could be greatly enhanced by learning to devote effortless attention to what we need to do in everyday life.
  • What makes the experience effortless is not that there is less attention expended but that investing more attention is experienced as requiring less effort.  How is this possible?  Here again, the phenomenology of the flow experience can help explain this paradox.  The conditions that make flow possible are also the ones that facilitate effortless attention.  Studies of flow during the past three decades have found that three conditions are generally present in activities that result in deep and effortless concentration.  These are: clear goals, immediate feedback, and a balance between opportunities for action and the individual’s ability to act.
  • The process in front of the piano player is the goal that facilitates flow, not the end goal.
  • Clear goals do not sustain attention unless the activity also provides immediate feedback.  If, for instance, I cannot hear myself playing the piano, my attention is likely to wander.  Why pay attention if I can’t tell what difference my actions make?  Of course, one can train oneself to act without feedback, but acting in this way requires ongoing effort – whereas if we get information about how well we are doing, attention will focus spontaneously on the ongoing action.  The feedback to the climber is seeing that every move brings him or her higher up the rock face; the feedback to the chess player is seeing the strategic position on the board change as a result of the last move.  Surgeons say that one reason operations are so enjoyable is that they provide immediate information – if there is blood in the cavity, the scalpel must have slipped.
  • Attention is most focused when environmental challenges are in balance with the person’s skills.  In this condition every additional investment of attention can have the most immediate effect.  If the challenges are much greater than skills, the person either has to produce an extraordinary effort to overcome the odds or will give up trying and, thus, diffuses attention.  In the opposite case, where skills outweigh challenges, the person does not need to pay much attention and gets distracted for that reason.  Phenomenologically, these three alternatives translate into flow, anxiety, and boredom, respectively.  Experiences that one believes are in the neighborhood of a 50/50 balance are experienced as enjoyable; the other two are stressful.
  • The first approach is what we might call the direct path to effortless attention.  It consists in any of a variety of mental disciplines, ranging from Zen Buddhist practices to mindfulness meditation, that were developed in the Far East over the centuries and are now pursued all around the world.  These approaches have the advantage of providing viable methods for focusing attention, and disciplines for controlling it.  Although at first requiring great effort, with continued practice these direct methods become relatively effortless.
  • The downside of the direct path is that it risks taking over the person’s entire supply of attentional energy.  Instead of being a means to an end, control of attention may become the very goal of existence.  A person who learns to live in a more or less continuous state of effortless attention is likely to have a very high quality of experience.  However, one might question whether such a life would be meaningful in the long run if all the person achieved was a detached serenity of experience.
  • Alan Wallace claims it takes six months to a year of full-time meditation practice, under conducive conditions and with appropriate preparation and instruction, for a person to achieve a state of sustainable effortless attention.
  • The second, or indirect path, focuses on doing something as well as possible and producing the serenity of effortless attention as an indirect consequence.  People who love what they are doing, who are interested and involved in their work or their hobby, get the domain-specific benefits that meditation provides.  Of course, the indirect path can also lead nowhere: If a person dedicates his or her life to master a trivial task, the resulting life will be trivial, too.  Effortless attention will improve the quality of experience but not necessarily its value. Whether one invests attention directly or indirectly, it is the object of attention that determines whether one’s life is meaningful or not.
  • We can now disentangle a bit the effects of perfectionist tendencies on effortless action.  Individuals with a negative disposition of perfectionism are extrinsically motivated, and their action is driven by a focus on outcomes and consequences (worrying about failure, ruminating, outperforming others, comparing themselves with others, experiencing competitive anxiety, having negative reactions to imperfection, being overly self-critical, etc.).  Because these are factors external to the actual action, they, when activated, interfere with the quality of the execution.  In other words, they are metacognitive (thinking about thinking) processes that are computed in the explicit system and, as such, undermine the smoothness of a well-learned, implicitly controlled sensorimotor task.