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William James on Attention, Multitasking, and the Habit of Mind That Sets Geniuses Apart

“My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

William James on Attention, Multitasking, and the Habit of Mind That Sets Geniuses Apart

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” Simone Weil wrote. Decades later, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz observed in her marvelous inquiry into our everyday blinders: “Attention is an intentional, unapologetic discriminator. It asks what is relevant right now, and gears us up to notice only that.”

More than a century earlier, in his masterwork The Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1 (public library), pioneering psychologist William James (January 11, 1842–August 26, 1910) examined the interplay of generosity and mercilessness in this greatest of human superpowers, which shapes our basic experience of reality.

James offers a wonderfully precise yet alive definition of attention:

Attention … is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought, localization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatter brained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.

Long before contemporary psychologists came to examine the self-referential base of consciousness, James writes:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.

It’s a notion at once commonplace and utterly radical for us today — somehow, mesmerized by the glowing rectangles we carry everywhere, we seem to have relinquished this most elemental form of agency shaping our experience of life. There is a striking similarity between James’s vivid description of inattentiveness, predicated on the now-endangered phenomenon of boredom, and the mind-body state induced by the vast majority of our device use, portending to ward off boredom but effecting the very same result:

Most people probably fall several times a day into a fit of something like this: The eyes are fixed on vacancy, the sounds of the world melt into confused unity, the attention is dispersed so that the whole body is felt, as it were, at once, and the foreground of consciousness is filled, if by anything, by a sort of solemn sense of surrender to the empty passing of time. In the dim background of our mind we know meanwhile what we ought to be doing: getting up, dressing ourselves, answering the person who has spoken to us, trying to make the next step in our reasoning… Every moment we expect the spell to break, for we know no reason why it should continue. But it does continue, pulse after pulse, and we float with it, until also without reason that we can discover an energy is given, something we know not what enables us to gather ourselves together, we wink our eyes, we shake our heads, the background-ideas become effective, and the wheels of life go round again.

[…]

The abolition of this condition is what we call the awakening of the attention.

Illustration by Sydney Smith from Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, a lovely wordless ode to living with presence

James offers a similarly sobering lens on multitasking. To the question of how many things we can attend to at once — how many “entirely disconnected systems or processes of conception can go on simultaneously” in our consciousness — he answers:

Not easily more than one, unless the processes are very habitual; but then two, or even three, without very much oscillation of the attention. Where, however, the processes are less automatic … there must be a rapid oscillation of the mind from one to the next, and no consequent gain of time.

[…]

When expectant attention is concentrated upon one of two sensations, that the other one is apt to be displaced from consciousness for a moment and to appear subsequent; although in reality the two may have been contemporaneous events.

The act of paying attention and the way in which it is performed, James argues, is what sets geniuses apart from ordinary people:

Sustained attention is the easier, the richer in acquisitions and the fresher and more original the mind. In such minds, subjects bud and sprout and grow. At every moment, they please by a new consequence and rivet the attention afresh. But an intellect unfurnished with materials, stagnant, unoriginal, will hardly be likely to consider any subject long. A glance exhausts its possibilities of interest. Geniuses are commonly believed to excel other men in their power of sustained attention… Their ideas coruscate, every subject branches infinitely before their fertile minds, and so for hours they may be rapt.

But the ultimate measure of genius, James notes in a sentiment that echoes Goethe, isn’t so much the mental style of how attention is paid as the disciplined discernment of what we attend to:

When we come down to the root of the matter, we see that [geniuses] differ from ordinary men less in the character of their attention than in the nature of the objects upon which it is successively bestowed.

The Principles of Psychology, which is in the public domain, remains a foundational text of understanding the human mind. Complement this particular portion with Mary Oliver on what attention really means and Annie Dillard on the two ways of looking, then revisit James on how habit works, what our emotions really are, and the psychology of the second wind.

BP

The Genes of the Soul: Amin Maalouf on Belonging, Conflict, and How We Inhabit Our Identity

“A person’s identity … is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.”

As a teenager in Bulgaria, the great joy of turning sixteen was finally qualifying for a passport. But this long-awaited event also marked my first brush with the violence of bureaucracy. One Friday morning, I stepped into a municipal office to apply for the coveted certificate of identity and lined up behind — or, rather, herded with, as is customary in Eastern Europe — a large lot of my fellow humans also in need of some government document. Across the mass of dejected strangers, resigned to countless hours at the mercilessness of bureaucrats, I spotted a boy from my high school. “It takes a lot to wrest identity out of nothing,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their extraordinary conversation on identity and belonging, and yet wrest we do when we must: The boy and I locked eyes in relieved recognition of affinity amid alienating otherness. Although we had never talked or otherwise acknowledged each other’s existence in the two years of sharing a campus, we suddenly felt that we belonged to the same tribe, united along this slim axis of affiliation as we faced a shared Other in the municipal bureaucrats and surrounding strangers.

As philosopher David Whyte aptly observed, “our sense of slight woundedness around not belonging is actually one of our core competencies.”

We spent the remainder of the day — Eastern European bureaucracy, for those fortunate enough not to have experienced it, operates on a wholly different time-scale — as the best of friends, talking about everything under the setting sun.

Illustration from ‘Pool’ by JiHyeon Lee, a parable of how kindred spirits find one another. Click image for more.

Upon returning to school on Monday, we never saw or spoke to each other again — we had both resumed our respective tribal affinity amid the larger nation of the school. As the sameness of our shared predicament dissolved, each was once again an Other to the other.

Almost everyone has experienced some form of such disposable affinity — with an airplane seat mate, with a fellow patient at the dentist’s waiting room, with the other stray Dresden Dolls fan at a science conference. But the strange psychology undergirding our morphing sense of belonging is also the root of the destructive impulses that Tolstoy and Gandhi contemplated in exploring why we hurt each other. All violence requires an Other as its target, and the shifting boundaries of our own identity are what contours that otherness.

We each live with what pioneering psychologist Jerome Bruner called an “internal clamor of identities,” out of which spring both the bonds of belonging and the violence of difference, inflicted upon those whom we perceive as a threat to any one of our multiple identities of gender, race, religion, nationality, class, political affiliation, favorite sports team, and so forth.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from Waterloo and Trafalgar

These fascinating, shape-shifting complexities of personhood are what Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf explores in the superb 1996 book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong (public library), translated by Barbara Bray — an immensely insightful exploration of difference, allegiance, and the underlying commonalities of the human experience, timelier than ever in our culture of divisive Otherness. What emerges is a reminder that only by acknowledging the multiplicity of our identity can we begin to simultaneously own our uniqueness and fully inhabit our ties to our fellow human beings.

Maalouf, who carries a number of such clamoring belongings within himself — born in Lebanon to Christian parents and raised with Arabic as his mother tongue, he emigrated to France in his twenties — writes:

Each individual’s identity is made up of a number of elements and these are clearly not restricted to the particulars set down in official records. Of course, for the great majority these factors include allegiance to a religious tradition; to a nationality — sometimes two; to a profession, an institution, or a particular social milieu. But the list is much longer than that; it is virtually unlimited.

[…]

Not all these allegiances are equally strong, at least at any given moment. But none is entirely insignificant, either. All are components of personality — we might almost call them “genes of the soul” so long as we remember that most of them are not innate.

While each of these elements may be found separately in many individuals, the same combination of them is never encountered in different people, and it’s this that gives every individual richness and value and makes each human being unique and irreplaceable.

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Click image for more.

To underscore that identity is a dynamic interaction with life mores so than a static trait passed down from our ancestors, Maalouf adds:

It can happen that some incident, a fortunate or unfortunate accident, even a chance encounter, influences our sense of identity more strongly than any ancient affiliation.

In fact, he admonishes, adhering to a static and absolute framework of identity is the seedbed of trouble:

In every age there have been people who considered that an individual had one overriding affiliation so much more important in every circumstance to all others that it might legitimately be called his “identity.” For some it was the nation, for others religion or class. But one has only to look at the various conflicts being fought out all over the world today to realize that no one allegiance has absolute superiority.

[…]

While there is always a certain hierarchy among the elements that go to make up individual identities, that hierarchy is not immutable; it changes with time, and in so doing brings about fundamental changes in behavior.

Illustration from ‘The Sea’ by Marianne Dubuc. Click image for more.

Reflecting on his own belonging to a minority as a Christian Arab, Maalouf considers the dance between uniqueness and shared belonging:

I sometimes find myself “examining my identity” as other people examine their conscience. As you may imagine, my object is not to discover within myself some “essential” allegiance in which I may recognize myself. Rather the opposite: I scour my memory to find as many ingredients of my identity as I can. I then assemble and arrange them. I don’t deny any of them.

[…]

Any person of goodwill trying to carry out his or her own “examination of identity” would soon, like me, discover that that identity is a special case. Mankind itself is made up of special cases. Life is a creator of differences… Every individual without exception possesses a composite identity.

Maalouf emphasizes this point as an important antidote to the perilous and prevalent attitude that demands of us to declare our identity along a single dimension — say, female or Bulgarian or queer or yogi — which becomes a violent constriction of our expansiveness. To further complicate the equation, personal identity changes over the course of life, and it is this enigmatic evolution that seeds the mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person.

Maalouf writes:

Identity isn’t given once and for all: it is built up and changes throughout a person’s lifetime… Not many of the elements that go to make up our identity are already in us at birth. A few physical characteristics of course — sex, color and so on. And even at this point not everything is innate. Although, obviously, social environment doesn’t determine sex, it does determine its significance. To be born a girl is not the same in Kabul as it is in Oslo; the condition of being a woman, like every other factor in a person’s identity, is experienced differently in the two places.

The same could be said of color. To be born black is a different matter according to whether you come in to the world in New York, Lagos, Pretoria or Luanda… For an infant who first sees the light of day in Nigeria, the operative factor as regards his identity is not whether he is black rather than white, but whether he is Yoruba, say, rather than Hausa… In the United States it’s of no consequence whether you have a Yoruba rather than a Hausa ancestor: it’s chiefly among the whites — the Italians, the English, the Irish and the rest — that ethnic origin has a determining effect on identity.

[…]

I mention these examples only to underline the fact that even color and sex are not “absolute” ingredients of identity. That being so, all the other ingredients are even more relative.

Photograph by Martine Franck, 1965

Maalouf considers the crucible of our identity:

What determines a person’s affiliation to a given group is essentially the influence of others: the influence of those about him — relatives, fellow-countrymen, co-religionists — who try to make him one of them; together with the influence of those on the other side, who do their best to exclude him. Each one of us has to make his way while choosing between the paths that are urged upon him and those that are forbidden or strewn with obstacles. He is not himself from the outset; nor does he just “grow aware” of what he is; he becomes what he is. He doesn’t merely “grow aware” of his identity; he acquires it step by step.

[…]

But it is just as necessary to emphasize that identity is also singular, something that we experience as a complete whole. A person’s identity is not an assemblage of separate affiliations, nor a kind of loose patchwork; it is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.

Only by understanding the complexities of identity can we begin to understand what transforms this drum from a celebratory beat of belonging into a menacing rhythm that powers militant marches of violence. Echoing Margaret Mead’s assertion that “we’ve started to worry about identity since people began losing it,” Maalouf writes:

People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack. And sometimes, when a person doesn’t have the strength to defend that allegiance, he hides it. Then it remains buried deep down in the dark, awaiting its revenge. But whether he accepts or conceals it, proclaims it discreetly or flaunts it, it is with that allegiance that the person concerned identifies. And then, whether it relates to color, religion, language or class, it invades the person’s whole identity. Other people who share the same allegiance sympathize; they all gather together, join forces, encourage one another, challenge “the other side.” For them, “asserting their identity” inevitably becomes an act of courage, of liberation.

In the midst of any community that has been wounded agitators naturally arise… The scene is now set and the war can begin. Whatever happens “the others” will have deserved it.

[…]

What we conveniently call “murderous folly” is the propensity of our fellow-creatures to turn into butchers when they suspect that their “tribe” is being threatened. The emotions of fear or insecurity don’t always obey rational considerations. They may be exaggerated or even paranoid; but once a whole population is afraid, we are dealing with the reality of the fear rather than the reality of the threat.

Such complex problems, Maalouf is careful to point out, merit only befittingly nuanced solutions:

I no more believe in simplistic solutions than I do in simplistic identities. The world is a complex machine that can’t be dismantled with a screwdriver. But that shouldn’t prevent us from observing, from trying to understand, from discussing, and sometimes suggesting a subject for reflection.

That’s precisely what Maalouf goes on to do in the remainder of the wholly excellent, urgently relevant In the Name of Identity. Complement it with Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s forgotten conversation about identity and Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personhood.

Thanks, Jacqueline

BP

Proust on What Art Does for the Soul and How to Stop Letting Habit Blunt Our Aliveness

“Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.”

“There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness,” philosopher Alain de Botton writes in the opening sentence of the intensely rewarding How Proust Can Change Your Life (public library). Among the key culprits in our spiritual doldrums, he argues, are “the deadening effects of habit” — something Kierkegaard had also arrived at a century and a half earlier in contemplating our greatest source of unhappiness. Indeed, although habit may be how we give shape to our lives, it can also lull us into a mindless trance in which we glide across the surface of existence.

How Proust can help us snap out of our habitual unhappiness is what De Botton explores in this animated essay chronicling how the events of Proust’s own life translated into the “systematic exploration of the three possible sources of the meaning of life” in his great novel In Search of Lost Time (which, at 1,267,069 words, is officially the longest novel of all time, twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace).

For Proust, the great artists deserve acclaim because they show us the world in a way that is fresh, appreciative, and alive… The opposite of art, for Proust, is something he calls habit. For Proust, much of life is ruined for us by a blanket or shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters. It dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work and our friends.

Children don’t suffer from habit, which is why they get excited by some very key but simple things — like puddles, jumping on the bed, sand, and fresh bread. But we adults get ineluctably spoiled, which is why we seek ever more powerful stimulants, like fame and love.

The trick, in Proust’s eyes, is to recover the powers of appreciation of a child in adulthood, to strip the veil of habit and therefore to start to look upon daily life with a new and more grateful sensitivity.

This, for Proust, is what one group in the population does all the time: artists. Artists are people who strip habit away and return life to its deserved glory.

This film is part of a wonderful series of animated meditations by The School of Life, founded by De Botton, exploring such facets of our quest for meaning as what great books do for the soul, how to find fulfilling work, what philosophy is for, and what comes after religion.

Complement How Proust Can Change Your Life with De Botton on harnessing the seven psychological functions of great art and what Nietzsche can teach us about true fulfillment.

BP

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