Today I begin the serialization of the latest draft of my book The Emerging Attention Economy. We start with the first part of Chapter 3; subsequent parts of the chapter will follow at weekly intervals or less. The Preface and Chapter 1 introduce and summarize the book. Chapter 2 is a history explaining how feudalism grew, what it was, and why it gave way to what I call the Market-Money-Industrial system.
You can read the current installment here on the blog, or may download it as a pdf (probably better).
Questions and comments are welcome. (I may answer many simply with “Wait,” or words to that effect, indicating that I deal with the subject in later installments.)
Michael H. Goldhaber
How Attention Works:
Paying It Means Reshaping Your Mind (and Actions)
September 8, 2006
We have been moving through the history of economies that grow, eventually reach their implicit goals, and then ultimately give way to utterly new ones. These then proceed to grow in their own direction. That story continues in Chapter 4 with the ways in which Market-Money-Industrialism has opened up spaces that are rapidly being filled by the new kind of system —the Attention Economy.
To make sense of that recent history, though, we need to know better what about it matters. Older economies depended on fighting, outward pledges of loyalty, or the production of a great many different kinds of things that have an objective and clear existence in the world. In contrast, the new economy is based on something seemingly inward and subjective — namely attention. How does this evanescent, hard-to-grasp aspect of mind work? How can inbuilt human propensities and potentialities in regard to it come to underpin an entire economy?
What we have to get right is: how attention connects people; how when one person pays attention to another it changes both of them; why getting other people’s attention is so necessary for us and often so desirable; why there is not enough attention to go around; and why there can never really be much more. These are the kinds of issues that matter for an economy, but they are not the kinds of questions that come first for most people who have studied or thought seriously so far about what goes on inside us when we pay attention.
Not everything about attention matters for our purposes; some aspects have little tie to any economic role. Without considerable care, it is easy, too, to come to the wrong conclusions about just how attention does function in an economic sense. I have had to develop my own approach to all this. I now think of attention primarily as the aligning (or reshaping) of minds. For a long time, however, I had trouble finding a persuasive way of explaining this.
AN ITALIAN ICE CREAM CONE
Fortunately, a few months ago I learned that in the early 1990’s, a remarkable scientific accident occurred. It happened in the neuroscience lab of Giacamo Rizzolatti in the University of Parma, Italy. The research group there had been studying the pattern of nerve-circuit firing in rhesus monkeys’ brains. Each circuit of interest corresponded to a particular type of intentional muscular action. One such circuit normally seemed to instigate one monkey’s arm and hand motions in lifting a peanut to its mouth. The researchers had happened to rig up a loudspeaker to the electrodes they had connected to that neuron chain. Whenever the monkey began to perform the peanut-to-mouth motion, everyone around would be alerted.
One day, a graduate student insouciantly walked into the lab licking an ice cream cone. Suddenly the speaker blasted. But something was wrong. The monkey was staring at the student, but it wasn’t moving it’s own arm at all. Why was the loudspeaker sounding? Enough repetitions revealed that the problem was not with the setup. Evidently, the chain of neurons in the monkey’s brain had responded to the motions of the human doing the same sort of thing that the monkey would normally be doing when feeding itself peanuts! Somehow the monkey had recognized the act as like its own act. That recognition 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 — and by extension humans — 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 —without actually moving ourselves — when we note someone else doing exactly the same thing. Neuroscientists now use the slightly misleading term “mirror neurons” 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, it appears that in a watcher different chains of mirror neurons get activated depending on the mover’s purposes. Thus, we directly experience others’ intents along with their movements, almost exactly as if they were our own.
MIRRORING TAKES OVER
Numerous actions are so familiar to you, so automatic, that you hardly have to think about them when performing them. These include putting food in your own mouth, walking, sitting down, standing up, screwing in a light bulb, along with hundreds of others. You can usually recognize others’ doing the same things with equally little focus or thought. You do not interrupt your own stride when you notice that someone else is walking near you, as long as they are walking normally and not about to bump into you
However, you might pay closer attention to a child taking its first insecure steps or to a friend when re-learning walking after a serious illness or injury. Then, the standard sort of neurons for walking will not be the only ones activated, for this novel locomotion involves unusual muscles, moved in unusual ways. It is much easier to pay attention to that unusual motion if you stand still, so that the brain circuits you normally use to walk won’t be confused with the different circuits in your own brain that would correspond with the unusual ways of walking. Watching from your own stillness, you are very much experiencing —from the inside— what it would feel like to be this person. You can feel all the purposefulness, the focus on avoiding the ever present effects of gravity, the sense of precarious balance, and the triumph of each step successfully taken.
Something similar occurs when you watch actions of greater complexity that would require a fair deal of focus if you performed them yourself — say acrobatics, ballet dancing or football playing. To let the appropriate mirror chain of your own neurons be activated so as to experience the performer’s or player’s motions, you either can be moving a little in sympathy — say lunging upwards from your seat as the player leaps to catch the football —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 — 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. That’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 — or any different acts of equal complexity.
It is worth noting here that you can mirror activities, such as somersaulting on a trapeze or sumo wrestling, that you have not and could not actually perform. The muscles used still are roughly the same as your own. So you can imagine commanding your muscles to do those things, even if you would fail dismally in reality. You can probably even imagine and thus mirror, to a degree, moving muscles you don’t have, soaring like an eagle, being an elephant curling up its trunk and then squirting water, or wagging your non-existent tail like a dog. Even mirroring the motions of a mythical creature such as a centaur seems doable.
ONE SIDE OF THE NET
To come back closer to earth, suppose you are watching a singles tennis game. As the ball passes over the net you can shift your focus from one player to the other, but while one is going after the ball and hitting it, it would be extremely difficult to see the details of what she is doing and why, while also taking in what the player across the net is up to and why. They are both moving arms and legs, but not in sync with each other. Your own neuron chains would have to fire differently for paying attention to one than the other.
Even switching attention completely from one tennis player to her opponent every time the ball crosses the net is not easy. As you fully pay attention to the first player — let’s call her “Sonya” for short — you are caught up not just in her actions but their intent, which includes wanting to win the point. If you are normal person you do not change your goals or intents as frequently as a tennis ball crosses the net. A strong desire usually stays with you for a time — and often a long time. Any time we have allowed ourselves to be in one person’s shoes, it is a bit of a wrench to move into another’s, especially when the other is presented as acting at least in part against the wishes or goals of the first.
It takes a huge effort to stay completely neutral when watching a contest of some kind. Easier by far is to want one player — say Sonya — to win the point. You start by letting her take over your feelings for considerably longer than the few seconds she is getting set to hit the ball, Soon you become in effect her fan. That is why sports events, plays, or other types of complex actions to which we pay attention call up our loyalties so completely.
A UNIFIED VIEW
Already, the implications of our neurons mirroring the neurons in others’ 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.
In drawing these conclusions, I should admit, I have already taken us significantly beyond where neuroscience has yet gone with any reliability. To find out how a volunteer reacts at the neural level to what she is experiencing, neuroscientists have to get her to accept being placed in a big, unwieldy scanner. This greatly limits what can be learned about typical experiences of daily life. However, though I am extrapolating considerably from what has been shown in lab settings, the kinds of reactions I am describing are ones we all experience countless times, almost every day. So these extrapolations seem quite safe. We really know a great deal, just from our own experience, outside any lab, as to what paying attention is like.
We also can draw on a huge body of additional systematic knowledge, collected over millennia. There are: students of attention as practiced in meditation or Zen; experimental psychologists; neuroscientists who work on different aspects than mirror neurons; cultural and evolutionary anthropologists; sociologists and social psychologists; philosophers of cognition or mind, specialists in animal behavior (ethologists); traffic engineers and auto designers trying to make sure that drivers focus on driving; literary critics and theorists, rhetoricians, and scholars (and practitioners) of media. There are educators, deeply interested in how to get and hold attention in the classroom, as well as how teachers can pay adequate attention to each pupil. There are those who study attention to help out advertisers or product designers. Everyone from fashion designers to book illustrators are concerned with how to draw attention, sometimes very explicitly. Various schools of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy are deeply interested in the flow of attention in the therapeutic session, and also in the ways infants and small children get attention from parents and vice versa.
Clearly, no one person can possibly come anywhere close to mastering and integrating what all these fields (along with others I’ve not even mentioned) have to offer. What I have done is try to glean some insights from many of them and then try to fit those insights into a fairly unified framework. That framework, while it can draw in part on what is known about activity in our brains at the neural level, is easier to express at the level of mind. In the brain, chains of neurons are active or inactive; in the mind, we have thoughts, feelings, imagination, understanding, and a sense of what words, actions, and things mean. And it is the mind that experiences consciousness. So, too, it is through our minds that we pay attention. To my best reckoning, we are far from anything approaching an exact science of mind. To proceed we shall have no choice but to adopt a mixture of metaphor, analogy, introspection, examples and reflection — plenty of ingredients, if used judiciously, for a satisfying dish.
Minds depend on active brains, and also on being in a moving, sensing body. We are not born with developed minds, each developing one as she develops a sense of self. This never happens in complete isolation but rather through hundreds of thousands of interactions with others —paying attention and being paid attention to. It happens in a specific cultural setting, or sometimes in a setting combining several cultures at once.
One place where neural mirroring of a slightly different kind almost certainly does come into play, from extremely early in life, is in feeling others’ emotions. We all know people with “infectious” 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 other’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.
For human infants —even more than for other mammal or bird newborns — this emotional connection is the only way they have to take care of themselves. They must enlist older children or adults to do almost everything for them, or they will certainly perish. At an extremely early age — perhaps under an hour after birth — a normal infant responds to a smile by smiling back, which instantly creates a bond. And, of course, babies cry.
In our culture, at least, we interpret a baby’s cry as indicating that something is wrong, or that the baby wants something, but often, especially for a new baby, we can only guess as to what. Does she want be fed, burped, have her diaper changed, be held, be rocked, or what? At first, at least, most parents are unable to figure out what a particular instance of crying means — if indeed it means anything. It may be an exaggeration at that stage to think a baby knows what it wants or what is wrong. Yet the pain associated with the cry comes through.
At this point begins a complex awakening of meaning in the baby and her caretakers as well. As they find out what seems to stop the crying in different circumstances, the parents or other caretakers see themselves as learning the meaning of this baby’s different cries. Meanwhile, the baby is learning the different possible responses and how to elicit them. Baby and caretaker are both shaping or reshaping their minds to correspond to the workings of the other’s. Just as parents of more than one child have to reshape their responses and imaginations to each child individually, so the infant soon learns to feel different depending on which particular parent or caregiver is present. This is what mutual attention is: a reshaping or realigning of one’s mind to the mind of the other.
When you are watching Sonya the tennis player, your activated brain circuits resemble some of the activated circuits in Sonya’s 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 Sonya in the here and now, you are like the parent or infant, laying down memories of what you are paying attention to. Most likely, our capacity to activate neuron chains that capture the motions of others has an added use. It allows us to decompose those motions into units in our own mind so as to try to imitate them or learn them ourselves. Were we to practice those ways of moving over and over again, such motions would be easier and easier to perform, or to imagine performing. In the same way, if we simply pay attention to Sonya repeatedly, we have an easier and easier time focusing in on her motions. The more we watch her, the easier it becomes to activate the neural circuits that mirror how she plays. 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.
It is not only her characteristic motions that can ready us to mirror Sonya another time. We can be set up for that 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 something of a mystery at the neural level and probably will for many years to come. Still we can consider all these extra elements as of a piece with the various bodily motions of Sonya —or whomever— that we tend to mirror in a combined package.
(Thus ends the first installment of my serialization of Chapter 3. The next will appear in the next week. Other chapter will come out soon as well.)