Attention, intention and consciousness are intricately associated with one another in more ways than one. The word consciousness is derived from the Latin word ‘conscius’, (con-together, scio-to know). The origin of the modern concept of consciousness can be traced back to John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) which defines consciousness as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind”. Over the course of time, human perception has been fine-tuned to order information in a way such that it ‘makes sense’. Connecting the dots, consciousness, therefore, can be best described as “intentionally ordered information” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 26).
When we talk about consciousness, the term may seem loaded with associations to a mystical paradigm. However, when the term ‘consciousness’ is referred to from here on, we will be acknowledging that consciousness is a result of biological processes and is intricately formed as a result of genetic instructions (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In terms of its functioning, it is not completely controlled by biological instructions. Instead, consciousness works in a way that it has the ability to be ‘self-directed’, i.e. one can choose their course of action, and consciousness will facilitate the process of screening in stimuli from the environment to the individual (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
But what is the self? Surely, it must be me! Am I the self? Whose intention? Am I setting the intention? The ‘self’ can be described as the sum of contents of one’s consciousness (thoughts, feelings, emotions, stimuli, memories, and so on), along with one’s goals, aspirations, and dreams. Now that the self and consciousness have been operationalized, we shift our attention to…. Attention. As mentioned before, consciousness can be self-driven and is not completely captive to biological instructions. Therefore, attention can be perceived as psychic energy, i.e. the tool that the self directs, or channelizes into a specific activity, or specific sources of stimuli. This direction can be created by setting intentions. Intentions create a goal for the self, towards which the self can progress by directing one’s attention.
For example, if I am at a party, and I set my intention as to pick up information about how people behave in social settings when put in an uncomfortable situation, my ‘self’ will direct my attention towards clues and cues that shed light on the social behavior of the people that, at this point, I am apparently hanging out with. However, diving deeper into the relationship between the self and attention reveals that the selective investment of attention is in turn, the driving force that builds the contents of one’s consciousness. Therefore, in the same scenario of the awesome pool party that I had been hanging out at, when I come back home the newer contents of my consciousness will now be including some insights into social behavior and idiosyncrasies of my friends, specifically in awkward and uncomfortable situations as my intention had been set as such. Were my intention to solely get drunk off my high horse, my attention would have been directed towards all the alcohol at the party, and the contents of my consciousness would now have included a hazy evening and a splitting headache the next day. It is important to note here that one must not forget how to enjoy at parties, and can save some research questions for the day after the party, rather than at the party.
The amount of information that we are able to process is finite, be it per second, minute, hour, or year. Imagine yourself in an extremely loud atmosphere, where the music is blaring, conversations are rampant, the glasses clink in celebration, and occasionally one can hear bursts of laughter, followed by a turning of heads in the loudest direction, before the situation equilibrates back to its order of chaos. Surely, we can be aware of our experience, from sight to sound to smell and further. However, if we are to fully concentrate on one particular source, we can feel the rest dampen, or take the background for the duration that we have directed our attention towards said source. Switching back to open awareness and being mindful, one can again see the whole range that presently creates the experience. The differentiating factor here between mindfulness and attention is the breadth of experience, per se. This breadth is mediated by the presence, or the lack of, intention. If we do not set an intention as to what we want to focus on, the breadth of input is wider, irrespective of whether we’re actually being aware of this experience or not. On the other hand, setting an intention on one’s awareness towards a particular source of stimuli, task, or activity channelizes our psychic energy in the form of attention and thus, we pay attention to something. As information regarding this particular task or activity starts to enter the stream of one’s consciousness, the intention behind the investment of attention structures the information into a coherent pattern such that the activity ‘makes sense’. Thus, it can be said that intentions are the the driving force that order information in one’s consciousness (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
As we mentioned before, the amount of information that the brain can process at one instance is limited. At first glance, this may seem like a drawback. “But.. what about all these things that I want to pay attention to?”, “Do we, as humans, have limited potential?”, “Are we entities with limited resources?”, “But what about looking for cues that may contribute to ending world hunger while I drive from work to home, thinking about the next day’s workload and what I want to have for dinner?”, “Well, at least we have multitasking!”. As multi-tasking involves switching one’s attention rapidly between different tasks, one never really engages with either of these tasks. Rather, the whole process ends up revolving around getting things done, as half-heartedly as it may be possible to do so. However, the constraints on attention can be perceived as a tool to fully engage with an activity as well.
Let us take the example of driving. Usually, you probably unlock your car and drive back home on auto-pilot, a plethora of thoughts filling up your consciousness. In a different scenario, if you were to set a firm intention of focusing on the act of driving, you may start to notice how it feels every time you turn the steering wheel by a couple of degrees, or how the white strips differentiating lanes on the freeway start blur into oblivion the faster you go. You may also find yourself paying close attention to what the side and the rear view mirrors provide, how others on the road are currently driving, or even that ordinary looking car with that hilarious license plate that says “IMAYBL8”. As more information regarding the same activity starts to fill up your consciousness, and there being only so much that the brain can process, there is now really little room for random thoughts to take over your mind to throw your brain into a state of entropy. As intention of attention orders the information in your consciousness, driving takes over the stage of your life’s experience.
There are two things that must be kept in mind here. One is that setting an intention is a necessary, but not a sufficient condition to channelize one’s attention effectively and consequently, enter a flow state. Attention must be trained to be regulated at will, such that one can concentrate on something when one wants to. With increasing amounts of information via television, social media, advertisements, loud speakers, the radio, pamphlets, brochures, billboards, and even flying blimps, the task of attention regulation may be easier said than done, but with a firm intention to regulate attention, one can craft their own way of doing so. One who learns how to channel one’s attention is able to enjoy the everyday experiences of life (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).
The second thing to note here is that entropy does not necessarily have a negative connotation associated with it. Although a state of order in the mind has its own perks, it may not have its intended benefits if one was to insistently attempt to create order all the time. Entropy, thoughts buzzing around your head, can be mindfully acknowledged and accepted as they are, without any judgment. Sometimes, it is these thoughts that reveal to us our worries and insecurities. When the entropy has been acknowledged and accepted, one can again engage themselves in what needs to be done.
Archimedes’ principle states that any object, whether fully or partially immersed in a fluid is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object, i.e. the downward force on the object when immersed in water is simply the object’s weight. It is claimed that this discovery was made when one day, Archimedes was getting into his bath tub and some water was displaced out of the tub onto the bathroom floor. This gave him a new way to look at the problem of water displacement that he had then had on his mind, and consequently, Archimedes’ principle of water displacement was created. Were it not for Archimedes setting an intention to look for information that would fit in his theoretical jigsaw puzzle, as well as paying close attention to his experience, we may have been set back by many years in building functional and feasible industrial ships and submarines!
Now that you may have a fresher perspective on how attention works, it is time to actively practice regulating your attention. You may want to set up challenges for yourself such as paying really close attention to something mundane that you’ve done many times before and count the number of things about the activity that you’ve never noticed before. While doing the dishes one day, I noticed that once the dish has been scrubbed with dishwashing soap, the bubbly froth would go away after the 3rd time it was rinsed. Although it did not lead to a marvelous discovery, it was indeed something that I had never paid attention to, despite having done the dishes a countless number of times before.
To compound the challenge of attention regulation for Week No. 2 of Finding Flow, this week’s awareness game involves Expanding and Contracting Awareness (O’Connor, 2016). Contract your awareness down to one thing (e.g. a leaf, a thought, a sound etc.) Now, gradually include more and more of what you are aware of. Once you feel like you have enough in your awareness, start to contract it again, letting go of sources of stimuli one at a time. You can then create variants of this game by challenging yourself as to how fast or slow you can play this game, or how small you can contract to and how large you can expand to. Once again, all you need to play this game is your awareness!
Your homework for next week includes playing the awareness game and challenging yourself to regulate your attention at your will. Also, we would like to ask you to set aside a journal for yourself as it will be your go-to guide week 3 onwards. We would also like to ask you to think about an activity that you have been longing to engage yourself in, or a mundane activity that you do not necessarily enjoy doing, but still have to and might as well start enjoying it. This activity will serve as the training ground for you as your progress through this challenge course.
Until next Wednesday, may the Flow be with you!
Ajit Mann is Master’s candidate in Positive Developmental Psychology and Evaluation at Claremont Graduate University.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Locke, J (1690). “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Chapter XXVII)”. Australia: University of Adelaide. Retrieved August 20, 2010.
O’Connor, B. T. (2016). Awareness Games: Playing with Your Mind to Create Joy. Slippery Mind.