A threesome of inner, other, and outer focus. Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A well-lived life demands we be nimble in each. Attention works much like a muscle--use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.
The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go--or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry. Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can, for example, leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.
Our brain has two semi-independent, largely separate mental systems. One has massive computing power and operates constantly, purring away in quiet to solve our problems, surprising us with a sudden solution to complex pondering. Since it operates beyond the horizon of conscious awareness we are blind to its workings. This system presents the fruit of its vast labors to us as though out of nowhere, and in a multitude of forms, from guiding the syntax of a sentence to constructing complex full-blown mathematical proofs. "Bottom-up" has become the phrase of choice in cognitive science for such workings of this lower-brain neural machinery. By the same token, "top-down" refers to mental activity, mainly within the neocortex, that can monitor and impose its goals on the subcortical machinery. It's as though there were two minds at work. Voluntary attention, willpower, and intentional choice are top-down; reflexive attention, impulse, and rote habit are bottom-up.
The bottom-up mind (System 1) is:
faster in brain time, which operates in milliseconds
involuntary and automatic: always on
intuitive, operating through networks of association
impulsive, driven by emotions
executor of our habitual routines and guide for our actions
manager for our mental models of the world
By contrast, the top-down mind (System 2) is:
the seat of self-control, which can (sometimes) overpower automatic routines and mute emotionally driven impulses
able to learn new models, make new plans, and take charge of our automatic repertoire--to an extent
The bottom/top systems distribute mental tasks between them so we can make minimal effort and get optimal results. As familiarity makes a routine easier, it gets passed off from the top to the bottom. The way we experience this neural transfer is that we need pay less attention--and finally none--as it becomes automatic.
The downside of a life lived bottom-up, on automatic: we miss the moment as it actually comes to us, reacting instead to a fixed template of assumptions about what's going on. Active engagement of attention signifies top-down activity, an antidote to going through the day with a zombie-like automaticity. We can talk back to commercials, stay alert to what's happening around us, question automatic routines or improve them. This focused, often goal-oriented attention, inhibits mindless mental habits.
Open awareness creates a mental platform for creative breakthroughs and unexpected insights. In open awareness we have no devil's advocate, no cynicism or judgment--just utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind. But once we've hit upon a great creative insight, we need to capture the prize by switching to a keen focus on how to apply it. Serendipity comes with openness to possibility, then homing in on putting it to use.
There are two major streams of self-awareness: "me," which builds narratives about our past and future; and "I," which brings us into the immediate present. The "me," as we've seen, links together what we experience across time. The "I," in stark contrast, exists only in the raw experience of our immediate moment.
An inquisitive nature, which predisposes us to learn from everybody, feeds our cognitive empathy, amplifying our understanding of other people's worlds. One successful executive who exemplifies this attitude put it this way: "I've always just wanted to learn everything, to understand anybody that I was around--why they thought what they did, why they did what they did, what worked for them, and what didn't work."
To help physicians monitor themselves, they learned to focus using deep, diaphragmatic breathing, and to "watch the interaction from the ceiling" rather than being lost in their own thoughts and feelings. "Suspending your own involvement to observe what's going on gives you a mindful awareness of the interaction without being completely reactive," says Dr. Riess. "You can see if your own physiology is charged up or balanced. You can notice what's transpiring in the situation."
"Keeping your attention up during a highly exhausting and stressful time means you have to be methodical and well practiced, so you make the right decisions under duress."
Hours and hours of practice are necessary for great performance, but not sufficient. How experts in any domain pay attention while practicing makes a crucial difference. Learning how to improve any skill requires top-down focus. Neuroplasticity, the strengthening of old brain circuits and building of new ones for a skill we are practicing, requires our paying attention: When practice occurs while we are focusing elsewhere, the brain does not rewire the relevant circuitry for that particular routine. Daydreaming defeats practice; those of us who browse TV while working out will never reach the top ranks. Paying full attention seems to boost the mind's processing speed, strengthen synaptic connections, and expand or create neural networks for what we are practicing.
At least at first. But as you master how to execute the new routine, repeated practice transfers control of that skill from the top-down system for intentional focus to bottom-up circuits that eventually make its execution effortless. At that point you don't need to think about it--you can do the routine well enough on automatic. And this is where amateurs and experts part ways. Amateurs are content at some point to let their efforts become bottom-up operations. The experts, in contrast, keep paying attention top-down, intentionally counteracting the brain's urge to automatize routines. They concentrate actively on those moves they have yet to perfect, on correcting what's not working in their game, and on refining their mental models of how to play the game, or focusing on the particulars of feedback from a seasoned coach. Those at the top never stop learning: if at any point they start coasting and stop such smart practice, too much of their game becomes bottom-up and their skills plateau.
Smart practice always includes a feedback loop that lets you recognize errors and correct them--which is why dancers use mirrors. Ideally that feedback comes from someone with an expert eye--and so every world-class sports champion has a coach. If you practice without such feedback, you don't get to the top ranks.
A focus on our strengths, Boyatzis argues, urges us toward a desired future and stimulates openness to new ideas, people, and plans. In contrast, spotlighting our weaknesses elicits a defensive sense of obligation and guilt, closing us down. The positive lens keeps the joy in practice and learning--the reason even the most seasoned athletes and performers still enjoy rehearsing their moves. "You need the negative focus to survive, but a positive one to thrive," says Boyatzis. "You need both, but in the right ratio." That ratio would do well to flip far more to the positive than the negative.
To be sure, dreams alone are not enough: you have to practice any new needed abilities at every naturally occurring opportunity. In a given day that might mean anything from zero to a dozen chances to practice the routine you're trying to master on the way to your dream. Those moments add up.
Wandering minds punch holes in comprehension. The antidote for mind wandering is meta-awareness, attention to attention itself, as in the ability to notice that you are not noticing what you should, and correcting your focus. Mindfulness makes this crucial attention muscle stronger. Mindfulness develops our capacity to observe our moment-to-moment experience in an impartial, nonreactive manner. We practice letting go of thoughts about any one thing and open our focus to whatever comes to mind in the stream of awareness, without getting lost in a torrent of thoughts about any one thing. This training generalizes, so that in those moments at work when we need to pay attention to this and drop our stream of thought about that, we can let go of the one and focus on the other.
The mind's executive, the arbiter of where our focus goes, manages both the concentration that exploitation requires and the open focus that exploration demands. Exploration means we disengage from a current focus to search for new possibilities, and allows flexibility, discovery, and innovation. Exploitation takes sustained focus on what you're already doing, so you can refine efficiencies and improve performance. Those who exploit can find a safer path to profits, while those who explore can potentially find a far greater success in the next new thing--though the risks of failure are greater, and the horizon of payback is further away. Exploitation is the tortoise, exploration the hare.