Attention as intention

How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy (Melville House) by Jenny Odell.

Cognitive psychologists have studied attention and parsed this vital, but fleeting and elusive, faculty that underlies all of human activity. Be it selective attention, sustained attention, inattentional blindness or disorders of attention, psychologists have tried to understand this mental construct along with a broader set of cognitive skills, termed ‘executive functions’. More recently, with the advent of positive psychology, researchers of mindfulness have focused on the benefits of paying attention or cultivating awareness of the present moment. A number of studies have found salubrious effects of mindfulness for mental and physical wellbeing.

Unlike cognitive psychologists and mindfulness researchers, who study attention within the confines of their research silos, artist and writer Jenny Odell examines and critiques our ability (and inability) to pay attention through a holographic lens that spans personal, social, ecological, cultural and economic dimensions. How to do nothing is a thoughtful and thought-provoking treatise that informs and inspires.

Unlike other books that spell out the perils of our 24/7 networked lives, this body of work doesn’t just prescribe a ‘digital detox’ for us to recharge and reboot. Instead, it runs far deeper and questions the very premise of our engagement with the world. By questioning capitalist notions of productivity that have permeated even our leisure hours, Odell motivates us to re-evaluate our choices, which boils down to how we choose to pay attention.

Using her example of bird-watching, she illustrates how our attention can become more fine-tuned and granular based on how we decide to wield it. As Odell grows increasingly familiar with birds and their calls, her superordinate category of ‘birds’ evolves into recognising and discriminating song sparrows from robins and chikadees. Additionally, as she begins to notice how these creatures are intimately linked to their surrounding ecology and climatic shifts, a new appreciation of the connectedness of things and phenomena emerges within her.

Even as Odell marvels at her inner transformation, which literally makes her more observant and disembodied, she recognises that the shifts she experiences are counter to how market forces view and shape personhood. In fact, attention-enhancing experiences, like bird-watching for its own sake, don’t register as ‘productive’ exercises in today’s metric-obsessed world. Odell makes an impassioned plea for us to pause and examine the myriad assumptions we live with, but fail to even notice. Further, she does not advocate band-aid solutions like taking a digital retreat or even fleeing from our current lives.

Instead, she exhorts us to ‘stand apart’ and view ourselves as outsiders. Ironically, this ‘ongoing training’ is likely to lead us to a new relationship with our own interiority. To ‘pay attention’, Odell reminds us, is to ‘act with intention’ so that we enhance this ability and ‘improve its acuity’. How and what we attend to needs to be a deliberate act. Odell admits, ‘I came out of this book different than I went in’. As a reader, I did too.

-  Reviewed by Aruna Sankaranarayanan, Director, PRAYATNA, a centre for children with learning difficulties in India

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