We text while we’re driving, check our email in meetings, post photos of meals before we eat them. Americans are now known around the world—well, to waiters in France, at least—as the people who are “glued to their personal devices.” Does all this digital engagement compromise our ability to focus on what’s really important in life? What’s it doing to—and for—our kids? How does our brain keep us from seeing the big picture? Can meditation offer us relief?

These are the kinds of questions considered by psychologist and longtime Buddhist practitioner Daniel Goleman in his latest book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. Like his runaway best seller Emotional Intelligence, this one was inspired, he says, by “a burst of new findings, particularly in neuroscience.” In this case, the science provided a “framework for understanding, for instance, what mindfulness is doing for us,” along with a wealth of evidence for attention’s vital role in our success and well-being. And in a neat coda to bothFocus and Emotional Intelligence, Goleman discovered that the neural networks for empathy, self-awareness, and attention are interwoven in the brain. Therein may lie the key to the promise of the new book’s title and subtitle.

What follows are highlights of two phone conversations between Goleman and Tricycle’s editor-at-large, Joan Duncan Oliver. “Dan’s focus was unwavering,” she says. “Our connection kept breaking up, but he never lost the thread, even with me continually braying, ‘Can you hear me now?’”

—Joan Duncan Oliver, Editor-at-large

<i>The Hill</i>, 2006 © Julie Blackmon. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery
The Hill, 2006 © Julie Blackmon. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery

You seem to use focus and attention interchangeably. Are they the same?“Focus” is the word I’m using to cover attention in all its aspects. Mindfulness is one variety of attention, one way to focus. Concentration is another. Open awareness is another. Sensory awareness is another. Daydreaming is another. Each is a discrete way to apply focus, a different way that focus can manifest.

For example, when we’re being mindful, we’re using our mind to monitor our mind, in order to keep our attention in a particular stance—noting with an equanimous awareness what is arising in the mind. If we start to be too concentrated, then mindfulness reminds us to break that trance of absorption and become mindful of what’s arising in the mind. If we start to daydream, which is another attentional stance, then we can bring back our awareness into the mindful mode of paying attention. So knowing the different modes of attention can help us maintain mindfulness itself.

In the book, you describe three different kinds of attention—inner, other, and outer. What are the characteristics of each? Inner focus is self-awareness, which is the basis of not only insight into our mind in Buddhist meditation, for example, but more generally, insight into problems we may be having in our lives. It is also the platform for self-management. Take, for instance, kids who are able to manifest what’s called good cognitive control—cognitive control means you ignore the distractions and keep your mind on the goal; you can ignore impulses and be patient. Cognitive control is a better predictor of a child’s financial success and health in their 30s than their IQ or the wealth of the family they grew up in. It’s a very powerful factor in how you navigate life.

The classic test of cognitive control is the marshmallow test, which was done at Stanford. A 4-year-old is brought into a room and seated at a small table with a marshmallow on it. The experimenter says, “You can have the marshmallow now, if you want, but if you don’t eat it until I come back, you can have two.” Then the experimenter leaves the room. This is a test of impulse and delay of gratification. Some kids grab the marshmallow right away, and some can wait it out and get two. The ones who can wait it out use attentional strategies: they intentionally distract themselves, putting their attention somewhere else and ignoring the marshmallow. That helps them reduce temptation. And it turns out that the neural wiring for ignoring distraction and deploying attention somewhere else is the same as for managing upsetting emotions and resisting impulses.

Cognitive control is a manifestation of self-awareness. So inner awareness is extremely important in life and, it goes without saying, in dharma practice, in meditation.

What about the second kind of attention, other awareness? Other awareness is absolutely essential. This is empathy and deploying empathy for cooperation, for social skill, for surfacing things that need to be dealt with. Empathy has a developmental course that starts in childhood, and should be cultivated in children.

And the third type, outer awareness? Outer awareness manifests, for example, as understanding systems. Every child starts out as a pretty brilliant systems analyst: you see a 2-year-old controlling a family very artfully with its crying, for instance. But then we go to school and tend to lose that sensitivity to systems, because the mental models taught in schools aren’t arranged in terms of systems; they’re pieces, rather than wholes. So most of us tend to end up what’s called “systems blind.” This is a huge problem, because we don’t understand the ways in which our daily activities, including the things we buy, are slowly and inexorably degrading the global systems that support life. We’re facing a species-level crisis—that the planet may no longer sustain our species in the future because of the way we’re acting—yet we’re blind to our own day-to-day role in that.

But in the book you suggest that the circuitry for systems thinking is not inbuilt in the way the brain is wired for things like eating and self-defense and sex. There may be some primal circuitry for family dynamics, but there isn’t dedicated circuitry for understanding larger systems like the ecological system or the economy—the macro systems that create the larger realities that we have to inhabit. So we need to make a dedicated effort to understand these systems. There are now websites that can help us get the information to tell us what our carbon footprint is, or our total ecological footprint—the environmental, health, and social impacts of the things we buy. For example, goodguide.com evaluates the ecological footprints of tens of thousands of consumer products. If we could make a sustained effort to look at all the things we buy and make better choices in terms of their impact on the climate—and do this as a collective—it would create a market force and incentivize companies to look at their own supply chains and do things in a way that has fewer harmful impacts. Right now that consumer pressure doesn’t exist, because so many of us are systems blind.

Flying Umbrellas, 2007 © Julie Blackmon. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery
Flying Umbrellas, 2007 © Julie Blackmon. Courtesy Robert Mann Gallery

You refer to “the impoverishment of attention” today. How much of our attention deficit can we blame on digital engagement, on our obsession with our electronic gadgets? Nobody has a good metric to say that this much of our growing attentional deficit is due to digital media, but we can make some educated guesses. We all have the experience of the last 15 to 20 years, for example, that the collective attention span seems to be shortening. And we each have our stories. For me, the big irony is that when I told my publisher I wanted to write a book on attention, the response was, “That’s great. Just keep it short.”

In general, I think what’s happening is that we’re paying less sustained attention to complex ideas, and we’re simplifying everything. It’s a little bit like what George Orwell described in 1984, with the propaganda ministry enforcing Newspeak, where on the one hand words meant something other than their conventional meanings (that’s already happening in politics: for example, “pacification” for “war”) and on the other hand, words disappeared. Words are disappearing—think of texting and Twitter—and with them the ability to pay sustained attention. People have more interruptions and distractions than was ever the case in human history. And it’s because of the seduction of our digital media and digital devices. They have their upside, definitely, but we also need to pay attention to this downside, because it has serious implications, particularly for children. We now have a first generation of kids growing up with this barrage of distractions as the new normal. We don’t know what it will do to their attentional capacity. Some of it may be good, some may be bad, some may be disastrous.

When I told my publisher I wanted to write a book on attention, the response was, “That’s great. Just keep it short.”

We’ve also all had the experience you describe in the book of being with someone who suddenly turns away to read a text message or answer their cell phone. I find it very disturbing. It’s very disturbing to have the person you’re with suddenly tune you out as though you were a nonentity and didn’t exist. It used to be that people apologized for that. Now they just do it.

So is the idea that we should just suck it up and say, “This is the new reality,” and not be offended by it? No, I think it’s to recognize how destructive it is to our interactions and our relationships. Now, because of digital media, the line between the office and home has disappeared. You can get an email, a text, a phone call at any time about work. And it intrudes on what used to be private time. But I know a couple—they’re both busy professionals—who have a pact that when they’re together, they put their smart phones in a drawer and ignore them. I think we probably need to get more intentional about setting boundaries for something that so insidiously slips into the midst of the most enriching part of life, which is our private, rich connectivity with the people we care about the most.

Speaking of threats to meaningful connectivity, what about the artificial intimacy social media foster? We’re spilling our guts online to people we’ve never seen and will never see, yet we have difficulty maintaining one-to-one connections in person. The power of something like Facebook is that it expands the range and frequency of being in touch with people we care about. But at the same time, social media also expose us to a large number of interactions with people we don’t actually know and may never know, who are kind of secondary relationships. They can be very important in, for example, finding a job or finding a girlfriend or boyfriend, because they expand our network of information gatherers. But they have nothing like the emotional importance of the people we care about and love who are in our primary circle of friends and family. So what happens is that the relationships online become very diluted. And being online itself dilutes a relationship.

The emotional brain and the social brain are designed for face-to-face interaction. You want to be able to hug the person, to hear their tone of voice, see their facial expression, understand their posture. This is what the social brain does in an instant: it creates a sense of simpatico, of rapport, that is almost impossible to duplicate in social media.

And email—you point out how prone to misunderstanding it is. When we sit at our keyboard writing an email, the social brain thinks that our tone of voice and our facial expressions and so on are going along with the message. But when you hit SEND, all of that stays behind. And those are the emotional signifiers that give connotation and context to what you’re saying. This means that the receiver understands something different than you meant to send.

Usually it doesn’t matter. But there is a negativity bias to email: If you ask someone if the email they sent was positive and they say yes, and then you ask the receiver if it was positive, they tend to say it was neutral. If the sender says it was neutral, the receiver is likely to say it was negative. So we need to be aware of this. Some people recommend that if you have an important email to send, send it to yourself first and read it as though you were the receiver, to get a feel for the emotional tone. You may well rewrite that email.

Or you may pick up the phone and call that person. [Laughs.] You might actually have lunch with them.

Let’s talk about the myth of multitasking. The myth of multitasking is that it saves time. The truth of multitasking—and there are some very good research studies on this at places like Stanford—is that people who multitask actually perform worse than people who stay concentrated on one thing and don’t get distracted. Meditators know this: The more you stay focused on one thing, the deeper your concentration becomes. And the more your mind wanders off to other things—let alone, you go off and do other things, like check your email—the poorer your concentration becomes.

The other part of the myth is that you can actually focus on two different things at the same time. In the brain, what you’re actually doing is switching from one thing to another. And when you switch focus, it takes what’s called “cognitive effort” to get back to where you were before. Cognitive effort means (a) to be mindful, to notice that your mind has wandered; (b) to disengage from where it’s gone; and (c) to put it back where it was. A famous study by Clifford Nass at Stanford showed that when people were focused on a task and their mind wandered off—“Oh, I’ve got to check that text; I’ve got to check my email”—it took them many, many minutes to get back to full focus on that task.

Yet we persist in thinking multitasking is the way to handle all the various distractions today. It’s very seductive, with all the nice little dings and pings and pop-ups calling to us like Sirens.

So what’s the solution? Is meditation a good strategy for improving our ability to focus? The capacity for attention is like a mental muscle, and it’s getting flabbier and flabbier in most of us. We have more distractors than ever. Distraction means that rather than us taking control of our attention and deploying it as we wish, we’re letting the external world grab our attention and take it where it wants. So the fundamental tension is between having attention guided by the world around us rather at random and having attention within our control, which is what all meditation training helps us do. Whether it’s concentration or visualization or mindfulness or open awareness, we are taking control of our attention and cultivating the capacity to manifest a particular attentional strategy. Every kind of meditation, no matter what it is, reduces to a kind of training in maintaining a specific attentional stance.

The Value of a Mind Adrift

Every variety of attention has its uses. The very fact that about half of our thoughts are daydreams suggests that there may well be some advantages to a mind that can entertain the fanciful. We might revise our thinking about a wandering mind by considering that rather than wandering away from what counts, it may well be wandering toward something of value.

Cognitive scientists see a wandering mind as the brain’s “default” mode—where it goes when it’s not working away on some mental task. The circuitry for this default network centers on the medial zone of the prefrontal cortex. But recent brain scans have revealed that during mind-wandering two major brain areas seem to be active. The other—the prefrontal cortex’s executive system—had been thought to be crucial for keeping us focused on tasks. Yet the scans show that it, too, was activated.

That’s a bit of a puzzle: mind-wandering takes focus away from the business at hand and hampers performance on cognitively demanding matters. Researchers tentatively solve that puzzle by suggesting that the reason mind-wandering hurts performance may be that it’s borrowing the executive system for other matters.

A mind adrift lets our creative juices flow. We become better at anything that depends on a flash of insight. Among positive functions of a wandering mind are generating scenarios for the future, self-reflection, navigating a complex social world, incubating new ideas—and giving our circuitry for more intensive focusing a refreshing break. People who are adept at mental tasks demanding cognitive control and a roaring working memory—like solving complex math problems—can struggle with creative insights if they have trouble switching off their fully concentrated focus.

The brain systems involved in mind-wandering have been found to be active just before people hit a creative insight and are unusually active in those with attention deficit disorder (ADD). Adults with ADD show higher levels of original creative thinking and achievement. When challenged by a creative task— finding novel uses for a brick, say—those with ADD do better, despite zoning out. Or perhaps because of it.

We might learn something here. When people who had a creative accomplishment to their credit were tested for screening out information to focus on a task, their minds wandered more frequently than other people’s, an open awareness that may have served them well in their creative work.

Since the brain stores different kinds of information in wide-reaching circuitry, a freely roaming awareness ups the odds of serendipitous associations and novel combinations. Freestyling rappers, improvising lyrics in the moment, show heightened activity in the mind-wandering circuitry, allowing fresh connections between far-ranging neural networks.

But for those associations to bear fruit in a viable innovation, something more is required: the right atmosphere. We need free time where we can sustain an open awareness. The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay—life’s “full catastrophe”—throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where creative discoveries thrive.

Adapted from Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, by Daniel Goleman. Copyright © 2013 by Daniel Goleman. Reprinted with permission of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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