I have taken to liking this new--or maybe not so new--genre of trade books I referred to last night at dinner as "pop neurology." It's kind of like pop psychology, but with more attention to neurons and chemicals. This week I read a book called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher.
The book itself has multiple commitments. At times Gallagher sounds like an English major, quoting from Poe, Emerson, and Milton. At others, she sounds like a philosopher, hewing closely (very) to the writings of William James. At still others, she sounds like cross between a buddhist monk and the master on Karate Kid. And often she sounds like the researcher she is--or used to be (does one every really stop being a researcher?). At any rate, Gallagher does a nice job synthesizing other studies related to attention and the mind, many of which (like the nuns doing puzzles) you will have heard or read about.
But more than that, while the book is a trade book, it manages to maintain its integrity in a way that trade scienc-y books seem to me to struggle to do, lapsing into hyperbole that often begins with the title. But this book, like the title, is elegant and even spare. The length of chapters even seem to take into account what Gallagher has learned about human attention these days. Which is a lot. This book is valuable because it encourages its readers to slow down and focus. There's a touch of technophobia lurking in some chapters, but by and large Gallagher gives people good tips to manage our networked lives. The best part though is that the book isn't simply about developing a machine-like focus, but it urges an almost magical approach to attention, one that combines attention with appreciation, advocates for an eastern way of giving one's self over to the moment, combined with a western way of choosing--very deliberately--what those moments will be, or what will get our attention. The word "rapt" works well to capture that part of the book's mission.
Toward the beginning of the book, Gallagher uses the parlance of bottom-up vs. top-down attention, where bottom-up is the chaotic kind of attention that I often practice during a day at the office, letting an email or a drop-in structure what I'm doing or derail what I'd planned to do. Top-down attention is more commanding in that it refuses to be sidetracked. It struck me while reading that this book would be particularly useful for graduate students who are trying to structure their lives and days around large, looming writing projects and smaller, yet still important duties. And I recommend it confidently because it is both demanding and forgiving, which is what we might all aspire to be as researchers, writers, teachers, and advisors.