- Mental health requires a balance between multitasking attention and slow attention.
- Slow attention is essential for perspective-taking in morality and art.
- Slow attention is critical to regaining a deeper contact with nature.
The previous post discussed the proceedings of the Order of the Third Bird, interpreted in accordance with proposals by Charles Sanders Peirce on attention. A file containing potential or hypostasized attentional objects was introduced, and some of its potential implications for creativity were explained. Our attentive capacities allow us to generate many objects, perspectives, and properties that become new targets of our attention, abstract and concrete. We can jointly attend to them in literature, fiction, and mathematics. But besides this capacity for the endless creation of objects of our attention, the proceedings aforementioned invite us to enrich our mental lives through attentive absorption and perspective-taking.
Perspective-taking is an essential part of our social skills, imagination, and empathy. We engage in perspective-taking all the time: when we read a book of fiction, play a video game, listen to a grieving friend, or imagine where will we be 10 years from now. But we can go beyond, much farther than these daily kinds of perspective-taking. Think about the process a tree goes through to make a leaf, or take a leaf’s “perspective.” First the tree emerges and the leaf is there in potentiality, before the tree branches off; then it grows and several seasons must pass for it to be produced and become a perfectly symmetrical leaf that falls, multicolored, in autumn. You can also attend to its shape, its beauty, and how its color changes with time. These are invitations for you to take her perspective, through time. This is slow attention, made possible by in-depth perspective-taking.
Slow, in-depth attention is the foundation of all that is transcendental—a kind of familiarity and empathy with the world that surrounds us. But in our attention-demanding informational environments, it is difficult to slow attention down. Attentiveness drags along with its deeper meaning, while a busy kind of attention-switching tries to keep track of many sources of informational salience, such as emails, texts, plans, meetings, and so on. Fast and greedy attention takes over, turning the proverbial “time is money” into “attention is money.” Under these conditions, the slower kind of attention that lags behind the frenzy of attention-switching during our daily tasks starts to produce suffering. The slower kind of attention starts sending messages against this frenzy, but they are answered by overall demands that come from the fast and greedy kind. A superimposed multitasking self asserts cognitive dominion. “Don’t slow down, you will fall behind! Be this person, who multitasks while smiling. Be this person!”
How to make our attention less “seeking” and greedy? Perspective-taking is the best remedy, but only if it is done rightly, and not for greedy reasons. Attention can open up in unexpected ways when one engages the perspective of any of attention’s objects. When we engage in one of our oldest practices, we take the perspective of an animal through an object in order to see how effectively it will work as a trap. If one digs a hole and covers it, one can take its “perspective” from below and imagine the kind of animal that could fall in it.
Let’s take a more recent, but similar, example. In a commercial, the advertiser takes the perspective of customers as if they were prey, at least in the sense that the advertiser wants to keep their attention for as long as possible. Social media also seeks to keep our attention captive. But this kind of perspective-taking belongs in the category of seeking and greedy attention. Attending to perspective can easily go beyond hunting or being captive. Attention is more spontaneous and liberating when we are not trapping, either animals or one another.
One can take the perspective of another human being, as we frequently do, but it is also possible to take the perspective of animals and even objects, as the example of the trap illustrates. In a dramatic example of animal perspective-taking, J. A. Baker follows a peregrine falcon’s journey, blending with the bird’s perspective at various moments, during several months. The peregrine’s perspective is superior, by far, in an even intimidating way, to the earthbound reality of Baker. The book is an astonishing reminder of how magnanimous attention can be when perspective-taking is done correctly. Part of the secret is to look with care and openness, simply for the sake of looking and without concrete practical interests. In the lovely and detailed section of the book called “Peregrines,” Baker writes: “The hardest thing of all to see is what is really there.” Seeing what is really there takes slow and deep attention, and that has indeed become very difficult to do. This has broad ramifications in our lives, from personal to political. We need to restore attention to its grandest purpose in order to confront the many problems that our greedy attention has caused.
Of course, we cannot spend our busy lives pretending to be peregrines. But the point is that we need balance in our attentive lives. Slow, deep attention for perspective-taking is incompatible with distracted or addicted attention. Perspective-taking is an immersive attentional skill. To the extent that perspective-taking is fundamental for the development of our moral and aesthetic capacities, the way in which we use our attention can have direct beneficial or detrimental effects with respect to how we treat other people, and also other living organisms. As Baker reminds us, this is very hard, but if we don’t try we may be losing some of our most basic capacities for empathy and imagination.
–Carlos Montemayor and Harry H. Haladjian
Baker, J. A. (1967|2005). The Peregrine, New York Review Books, New York.