Everyone has experiences of being “in the zone.” These usually occur while engaged in some challenging but enjoyable activity, like playing basketball or ballroom dancing. When the challenges presented by the activity are matched by our skills, they are perceived as opportunities rather than obstacles, and our mind enters a groove of exceptionally focused and yet effortlessly maintained attention. During such episodes, awareness merges with action so that we “lose ourselves” in the activity. We feel secure and in control, not because the activity has become predictable, but because we are able to stay engaged, spontaneous, and “in the moment,” responding to challenges as they arise. Such experiences are richly rewarding, partly because they accompany our highest levels of performance. But more importantly, we enjoy such experiences for their own sake: their extraordinarily rich texture constitutes its own reward, regardless of objective measures of performance. Brian Bruya’s new book, Effortless Attention: A New Perspective on the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010), brings together an impressive collection of essays that explore these experiences within the context of contemporary cognitive science, focusing especially on the implications of effortless attention for current models of attention and action control.
Until recently, studies of effortless attention have been largely confined to the field of qualitative psychology, where they are gathered under the rubric of flow. Since the early 1970s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his colleagues have accumulated a wealth of qualitative data describing the characteristics and conditions of flow, but despite the high public profile of this research few neurocognitive models of its underlying mechanisms have been proposed, let alone tested.
In his introduction, Bruya suggests that the reason for this neglect may be that flow does not fit well with current models of attention and action control, for which effort increases in direct relation to the demands for the control of attention. Within this framework, highly focused and selective attention to the task at hand is presumed to be effortful, not effortless. Indeed, as described in this volume, the effort required for focusing attention on a difficult task – especially when this task involves the selective inhibition of salient pieces of information – can be measured in a number of ways.
A common tool for inducing this kind of effortful attention is the Stroop Test, which requires subjects to report the colors in which displayed words are written while ignoring their meaning. This task is made especially difficult when the words displayed are the names of colors. So, for example, if the word green is displayed in red letters, it takes considerable attentional effort to ignore the word’s meaning and report the correct answer (red). This effort is indicated by the fact that such tasks take longer than tasks that do not require selective attention, by the fact that they deplete the subject’s ability to exert self-control in subsequent tasks, and by the fact that they are attended by measurable declines in blood glucose levels (see pp. 29-49). Accordingly, the deliberate focusing of attention is generally understood as a species of inhibitory self-control, enabled by an energy-hungry executive control mechanism.
In addition, experimental evidence shows that the most effortless and effective kinds of sensorimotor performances are those to which we pay no attention at all (e.g. walking), relying instead on implicit or automatic control. When we pay attention to activities that we normally do without thinking, performance is often impaired. Thus cognitive scientists have tended to divide action control into two discrete and antithetical processes: a top-down, general-purpose system of explicit and deliberate control, and bottom-up, domain-specific systems of implicit and automatic control.
According to this “dual-process” model, action control slides between effortless inattention and effortful attention. Moreover, the former is required for optimal sensorimotor performance, whereas the latter is required when learning new sensorimotor skills or when a task requires the selective inhibition of sensory information, as in the Stroop Test described above. While this model fits well with experimental data, it has one major weakness: it makes effortless attention, especially effortless attention in the midst of a skilled sensorimotor performance (a.k.a. “flow”), a theoretical impossibility!
Nevertheless, evidence of effortless attention is simply too large to dismiss, and Bruya’s book provides a tantalizing glimpse of the ways in which cognitive science models of attention and action control might grow to account for its existence. The main hurdle is the role of consciousness, which cognitive science has largely side-stepped, dismissed or, at best, redescribed in terms of special cognitive functions, such as the executive self-control function that constitutes half of the standard “dual process” theory of attention and action control. No doubt some modes of consciousness function in ways that interfere with fine-tuned action control. But as I have just pointed out, such a narrow functional account of conscious attention precludes other modes of conscious awareness that enhance rather than hinder sensorimotor performance. As long as cognitive scientists hold fast to a binary system of conscious attention and fine-tuned sensorimotor activity, they not only fail to account for the phenomenon of flow, they disregard the most obvious interpretations of their own experimental data.
For example, in their chapter on effortful attention control, Brandon J. Schmeichel and Roy F. Baumeister (pp. 29-49) note that the energy costs of the Stroop Test can be reduced if attention is directed toward specific cues – e.g. the second letter of every word – so that competition between the meaning of the word and the color of its lettering is minimized. Because they subscribe to a highly compartmentalized, dual-process view of attention, they attribute this difference only to increased automaticity, and neglect the possibility that this increase is enabled by the direction of conscious attention toward helpful cues. Likewise, when Gabriele Wulf and Rebecca Lewthwaite (pp. 75-101) interpret evidence that attending to external rather than internal cues during difficult sensorimotor tasks – e.g. orienting toward external reference points rather than the angle of one’s feet – can increase performance while reducing mental effort, they also conclude that the difference is simply an increase in automaticity, disregarding the feedback provided by attention to external cues. In both cases the authors seem reluctant to consider the possibility that sensorimotor performance can depend not just on the degree of conscious involvement but on the way in which conscious attention is directed. This is because they have compartmentalized attention and action control into two discrete and functionally antithetical processes and have identified conscious attention with one side.
In contrast, speaking from the perspective of qualitative studies of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeanne Nakamura make it abundantly clear that conscious attention is more engaged, not less, during performances of effortless skill:
While flow experiences often rely on automating sequences of action, this happens so as to allow more attention to be invested in the essential aspects of the activity…. Thus, effortless attention is rarely fully automatic. In fact, it is likely that in flow a person is more open, more alert and flexible, within the attentional structure of the activity…. While all the extraneous information disappears from awareness, their attention is processing a stream of complex and often ambiguous information that must be interpreted online, so to speak, and that must be responded to appropriately (p. 186, italics added).
No doubt there are many occasions when explicit and implicit systems of attention and action control are at odds, so that there is a trade-off between conscious awareness and fine-tuned sensorimotor performance. But the phenomenon of flow suggests that there are also occasions when explicit and implicit control systems achieve a synergy that is mutually enhancing, such that experience attains the optimum balance of flexible awareness and automatic efficiency. Cognitive scientists would do well to extend their models to account for this possibility, and Brian Bruya’s book is a promising first step in that direction.
For more information about Brian Bruyan see here.
For more on Effortless Attention see here.