on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Attention and Creativity

Flow State vs Leaky Attention

Guy Tal

Professional photographic artist, author and speaker working primarily in the Western US.


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Everyone knows what attention is. It 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. Focalisation, 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, scatterbrained state which . . . is called distraction.~ William James

All of us, I’m sure, would be upset if someone stole our belongings, invaded our private spaces, or siphoned away our hard-earned savings. Even the most generous among us, who give willingly to those in need (or just to make someone happy), who welcome visitors into our homes, who share our knowledge and art freely, insist on doing so by choice, not by leaving our doors open, allowing anyone to help themselves to our property and resources. Oddly, we consistently fail to exert such control and to protect ourselves from rampant theft when it comes to one of our most valuable possessions: our attention.

According to psychologist Darya L. Zabelina, citing a study by Michael Posner, “the main function of attention amounts to the selection of relevant information, and rejection of irrelevant information.” Paying attention is, therefore a process of distillation and simplification. The term “paying attention” is appropriate since attention is a finite and valuable resource. Our brains are limited in their capacity to generate attention—to select relevant highlights from the torrent of information generated by our minds and senses. The more attention we “spend” on one thing, the less of it we have left for other things. By the same analogy, paying is a conscious, willful act. When our resources are taken from us without our explicit consent, terms like stealing, hijacking, or sapping, may be more apt.

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