By Dr. Kevin McGrew - May 2, 2012

RAPT: Attention and focus


I have been reading Winfred Gallagher’s 2009 book “RAPT:  Attention and the focused life.”  In many of my blog posts I maintain that Interactive Metronome (IM) training requires controlled attention—focus.  I have further suggested that “on demand focus” is a potentially powerful tool.  By this I mean one wants to train your brain to invoke focused attention when facing cognitively demanding tasks.  However, 100% laser beam focus is not attainable, nor would one want to constantly be super focused.   The mind wandering of the default brain networkneeds to be shut down to focus.  However, unfettered mind wandering can allow for creative thought (and also the flip side—ruminations of irrational or bad thoughts).

It is with this background that I find RAPT to be of considerable interest.  I do not agree 100% with all Gallagher suggests, as with any single prescription for the ultimate way to live one’s life, it tends to overreach at times.  Also, the laser like focus on the most critical information in your working memory (which is what IM is about) is a much narrower concept than a more global philosophy of life (“your life is the creation of what you focus on—and what you don’t”) .  Nevertheless, the book does include important insights regarding the more narrow focus I write about as an outcome of IM training.

RAPT is on target in confirming the link between controlled attentional focus and some forms of meditation.  Achieving intense focus or flow-like states can enhance cognitive performance, and perhaps (as the author suggests) a more rewarding life.  RAPT is correct in indicating that the development of laser-beam focus, where one shuts down the spontaneous private talk directed by the attentional capturing pirates, is a difficult skill—but it can be trained.

The author has a way with words and metaphors to explain constructs and research-based findings that is not in my repertoire.  The following select quotes are consistent with my reading of the mental timing/attentional control research literature and my conclusion that IM can train on demand focus.  I wish I had written them (italics is the emphasis I have added).

  • “Everyone knows what attention is.  It is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.  It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.
  • Attention is a “cobra feeling:  an almost muscular albeit mental bearing-down on a subject or object, which you rise above, hood flaring to block distractions, and hold steady in your unblinking focus”
  • “There’s no tidy ‘attention center’ in the brain.  Instead, an ensemble ofalerting, orienting, and executivenetworkscollaborate to attune you to what’s going on in your inner or outer world in a coherent way”
  • “…when you focus, you’re spending limited cognitive currency that should be wisely invested…your attentional system selects a certain chunk of what’s there, which gets valuable cerebral real estate
  • “…research increasingly shows that with some reflection, experimentation, and practice, all of us can cultivate this profoundly attentive state and experience it more often”
  • “…the mastery of focus is a skill, which like any other takes discipline and effort to develop
  • Quoting Dr. David Lykken…“Many extraordinary achievers are distinguished by their ability to pay RAPT attention…these individuals have vast stores of ‘mental energy…to shut out distractions, to persist in search of a solution’ for a challenging problem over long periods without tiring”            

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