William James on Attention, Multitasking, & the Habit of Mind That Sets Geniuses Apart – Maria Popova

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

“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.

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.

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.

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

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