Can We Control Our Attention?

My answer to this question in Your Brain and You is, briefly, “Partially, sometimes”. Jonah Lehrer takes a rather different view in a January 18, 2011 post, “Control the Spotlight”, on his blog at .

In the background is some work by psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues. 4 year old children got to identify two items, both desirable but one preferred to the other. They were told that the experimenter would leave the room for a while and that they could have the preferred item if they waited for the return, but they could end the waiting period at any time by ringing a bell. If they did ring the bell, the experimenter would return immediately but, they were told, they would then get only the less preferred item. The measure of interest was how long a child would hold out before ringing the bell. The children were unobtrusively observed during the waiting period.

Many of the children rang for the experimenter’s return in a relatively short time, but some (“high delayers” in Lehrer’s phrase) held out for upwards of 10 minutes.

Among many interesting results of this work, two especially stand out. One is that when followed up more than 10 years later, high delayers were found, on average, to have fewer problems and significantly higher S.A.T. scores than those who ended the waiting period relatively early. The other is a point of strategy: instead of merely gritting their teeth, the high delayers distracted themselves with some activity, e.g., singing a song, or playing some sort of game.

It’s this last point that seems to lead Lehrer to statements like the following. What is often thought of as “willpower” is “really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory”. . . . “When we properly control the spotlight, we can resist negative thoughts and dangerous temptations.” . . . . “Our decisions are driven by the facts and feelings bouncing around in the brain – the allocation of attention allows us to direct this haphazard process, as we consciously select the thoughts we want to think about.” . . . . “And yet, we can still control the spotlight of attention, focusing on those ideas that will help us succeed. In the end, this may be the only thing we can control.”

But “consciously select[ing] what thoughts we want to think about” attributes to us more than we can reliably do. Evidently, we cannot select what thoughts will occur to us in the first place – for to select something requires that we already are thinking of it. And we often cannot continue to think about a topic we want to think about: We have all experience finding ourselves thinking about X when we should be, and want to be, thinking about Y.

An alternative take on the kids’ behavior is suggested by the following reflections. (1) It may not so much as occur to a child to engage in a distracting activity. (2) Even if the idea of doing something distracting occurs, it might happen that no particular activity comes to mind. (3) It could happen that some activity comes to mind, but proves insufficiently engaging – i.e., the child’s thoughts might keep returning to the immediately available reward.

The high delayers did not have any of these possibilities happen to them. But that fortunate fact is not the sort of thing anyone can control by controlling their attention. For the first two cases, the reason is this: They depend on having something come to mind, and you cannot bring something to mind intentionally unless you’ve already thought of it – in which case it has already come to mind. And in the third case, as noted,  we know that sometimes we just “can’t keep our minds on our work”, and that’s a way of saying that our control is only partial.

The high delayers are children whose genetic endowment, developmental circumstances, experiences, parental treatment, and resulting habits have already put them into a state that distinguishes them from their peers. It should not be surprising that being in an advantageous state when young is correlated with having desirable characteristics years later.

It seems to me that Lehrer is on firmer ground when he says that “The unconscious mind, it turns out, is most of the mind”. This remark applies to the factors that cause the spotlight of attention to be upon whatever it is highlighting at a particular moment. The operator of a nonmetaphorical spotlight in a real theater consciously directs the spotlight to the featured performer. But it is not a helpful use of the spotlight metaphor to imagine that behind our ‘spotlight of attention’ we are consciously deciding where to point it. The things we are in a position to decide about are things that are already in the spotlight of our attention.

[For background see Mischel, W., Shoda, Y. and Rodriguez, M. L. “Delay of Gratification in Children”, Science 244:933-938 (1989). This article reports many interesting manipulations that neither Lehrer nor I have attempted to summarize. These variations of conditions (with consequent differences of outcomes) seem to me to support the view that what is attended, and how what is attended is thought of, is highly dependent on many circumstances external to the participating subject.]


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