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Paying Attention

For many years, I have argued that our greatest challenge in this age of distraction is simply paying attention.

Here is a piece from The Atlantic about a physician who prescribes the practice of paying attention for healing and happiness.


After years of practicing medicine in a more traditional Western sense left him feeling like he was missing the bigger picture in his doctorly goal of minimizing human suffering, Sood decided to dedicate his career to mindfulness. Through his work cultivating attention, among other facets of intentionality, the demands for his time from new patients have outstripped his availability. The approach is predicated on understanding and restructuring "neural predispositions": the ruts in which our brains have gotten used to operating. In the era of intensive medicalization of attention deficits, Sood is finding an audience for his approaches (which I'm inclined to describe as "alternative," but also annoyed at my inclination, because, alternative to what? Millions of kids prescribed amphetamines as the standard? Sood also carries the title of director of research and practice at Mayo's complementary and integrative medicine program, which may be better descriptors.) He's clearly an experienced and vetted doctor, and there is a growing body of research to substantiate the mindfulness practice, despite the suspicious new-age vibe.

"We have multiple set exercises throughout the day where you basically bring intentionality to your attention," he told me over the phone. They involve no newfangled brain-training software, or really anything at all new to neuroscience or philosophy—which may be why it's easy to dismiss them. For example, he might tell a patient to take on little tasks like, when they wake up in the morning—instead of ruminating on the day ahead or idling on their phone—thinking about five people in their lives for whom they're grateful. Maybe even send those people a little note. That strengthens relationships and makes those people feel appreciated, sure, but the real point of it, Sood explained, is that "by choosing where to deploy your attention and what you're processing, you're basically strengthening your attention."