Jun 252007

Recently, I happened on an obituary in the NY Times for Rudolph Arnheim, who died at 102. It turned out he had done interesting work on the psychology of visual thinking and visual attention. Since, I have been reading some of his essays. One point he makes [New Essays in the Psychology of Art, p. 78] is that when we are fully absorbed in something, we do not notice time passing. If you are particularly engrossed by some text, it may take you less time to read, not more. Only when we are bored do we normally notice time.

This is very relevant to many attempts to equate time and attention. As I have argued before, there is no clear relationship. But boredom, in my view, is usually the attempted theft of attention: We are bored because someone else tries to determine what we can pay attention to, with no easy escape, except into our own minds or imagination, or looking at a clock impatiently.

If you want someone to pay attention to you, and they don’t, or they keep you waiting, you can also feel bored. To get the attention you want, you have no obvious choice but to pay attention to the other person, even if only in the form of waiting. That is a common predicament for small children, who have limited ability to move or choose ways to pay attention on their own. It is also the experience in waiting rooms.

Boredom by attention theft is also whenever you are keenly interested in some TV or radio program but are forced to listen to ads or announcements that interrupt. Spam is similar. Even something you want to pay attention to, like a novelist’s creation, can have boring passages that you might be afraid to skip over lest they contain something that you will want to pay attention to.

When someone asks for a certain amount of your time, and you agree, you may feel forced at least to pretend to pay attention. If the person has specific power over you, you may be obliged even more strongly to do this. They are forcibly stealing your attention, unless you find what they say or do makes you want to keep attending.

Of course, “attending to someone” often means doing their bidding, waiting on them. Who wants to be an attendant? It’s great only when you feel enthralled by the person you are attending, perhaps by love, perhaps because she is a star you want to be connected with; in paying her attention, you have come to want to see that her desires are satisfied. If you feel you can achieve that, then might eliminate any boredom. Or maybe, at times, you are bored then too, but accept it on the grounds that you will get some attention from her audience and fans just because of your closeness to her.

In world in which the competition for attention is ever-more intense, attention thievery, that is, forced boredom, can only rise. It is only when you don’t stay attentive that time duration matters.

A final note: there are other instances when we are concerned with the passage of time when attention is at stake. When you want to pay attention to something that starts at, say, two o’clock, you may have to pay keen attention to clock time. This takes you away from attention to whatever else might occupy you at the moment. If you have to rush, and that takes focus, then much of your attention is already on what will occur at two. You are already in the future, in effect.

Techniques to escape this time constraint are often highly valued. With the Internet and recorded sounds, videos and movies, we have removed much of the necessity. Still , live events have a special value, often. We want to see the star in person, we want to hear and see a live performance, we want to experience an event as it actually takes place. That gives us either a special chance to be directly noticed by a star or an opportunity to get attention later ourselves, for being there in the moment it happened. Even watching sports on TV is more momentous when it is live as we watch. So we cannot sever time beyond our control entirely from when we pay attention.

  3 Responses to “Garland of Attention Terms, 6: Boredom, Time and Attention”

  1. The idea of attention theft seems to introduce a sense of someone having authority over us as if there is an issue of power or power struggle. Sometimes the struggle is internal, no one is taking anything away, we are struggling with an internal conflict. I can be bored even when I fully give my attention, and find some facts interesting but also boring. Can’t we both be bored and interested at the same time. Our attention to something can serve a function that may well be unconscious Ie; boredom can be anger yet unknown. Why can’t our interpretation of attention be multidetermined and multileveled? Karen

  2. Great post! I’ve written a partial response to this from a social justice perspective here:
    Keep up the great work!

  3. Interesting framing. I wonder though about situations in which someone has poor “attention budgeting” and wastes their attention as if a spendthrift, or can’t hold their attention on what they are interested in.

    In this case, the framing emphasizes individual control and self-discipline of attention, rather than others “stealing” our attention in a power dynamic.

    Perhaps both frames are of use.

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