Paying Attention – The Ultimate Currency
Everybody at some point in time had somebody – a parent, a stern teacher, an irritated spouse – who would point their finger at you and say “pay attention!” Little did that person know that they were actually requesting a payment. A deposit that in a lot of ways is no different than a dollar, a nugget of gold, or wampum. A currency by definition is something that can be exchanged for goods and services which is a measure of value on the market. Generally, there is a finite amount of the money in the world. If it was unlimited it would have no worth (and hence the reason you can not buy anything with dirt or air). Human attention, like anything of value such as currency, oil, and diamonds, is also a limited commodity.
Attention I would define as the selective cortical processing of information to something specific in either our external environment or internal world which limits or prohibits processing of other elements in one’s lived experience. The neurologic system of attention is essentially a filter which will let some information in and exclude other information. If we think about our brains akin to a bank, an oil well, or a mine, just as one can only get so much out of them; there is only so much attention a human can give. There are certain regions in our brains, namely, the parietal lobes primarily, that can only handle so much information at one point in time. The question then becomes “what information is going to get prime time and which is not?” That is where we choose what to let in and what not to let in. These attentional systems which act as the information gateways to our minds are the neurological currency which defines our lives, our relationships, society, politics, and, yes, real work monetary economies in a very meaningful way. Just as we have to balance our accounts and make decisions about what to spend our money on, we have to decide what we are going to let our brains process. These attentional payments go on at every moment of our lives and how we choose to make those allocations can effect every level of our existence.
Lets think of some examples. Driving requires a certain degree of attention so that we can stay on the road, avoid hitting people, and stop for red lights. When we choose to reduce our attention by texting or drinking alcohol we place ourselves and others in danger. Additionally, a marriage requires that each person devote some amount of processing to their spouse’s needs to ensure that the relationship remains happy and healthy. If the guy spends all his time watching sports, hanging out with his buddies, and staying late a work; then that becomes a problem – it’s a fundamental lack of attention to the marriage. In extreme examples, people can give too much attention to the wrong thing. Think of the crystal meth addict neglecting her child for another high, the patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders who are socially isolated because of their preoccupation with germs, or the anorexic who starves herself because she is solely focused on her appearance. Finally, let us not forget about the politicians, news agencies, and marketing firms who are attempting to steal our cortical resources at every opportunity. Whether it be one of those irritating pop-ups on a web page or a Maxim cover showing a dew covered woman in a sheer dress, they are all trying to divert our brain processing even if for only a moment. Because every company selling anything knows that, without a person giving some level of attention to a product, a sale is never going to happen. Never. It’s the reason marketing commands billions. Its why Lindsey Lohan - a drug addled tacky imbecile - still appears on magazines; she grabs people’s attention, even if it is because of disgust.
The rules and value of attention go beyond the individual. Societies are collective organisms that are also governed by the attentional resources of their individual human components. As a result, where those attentional resources go dictates real world allocation of value (i.e. money, human resources, and political will). Like the individual, these resources are also limited. Thus nations, corporations, and societies of every size are subjected to the same book keeping rules to determine where this precious resource will be directed. With the profusion of media at every conceivable level (internet, cable, etc) a society’s ability to process important from unimportant information can often get confused and watered down. For instance, it strikes me as inappropriate that the death of Michael Jackson or Paris Hilton’s latest arrest should trump and distract the American populace from more important issues such as the Gulf Coast oil spill or an ongoing national financial crisis - but it does. Additionally, one thing that should be kept in mind is that attention precedes action and conversely inattention guarantees lack of action. Thus, where attention is collectively directed will predict the movement of money, the likelihood of votes, and the direction of social development. On the flip side, distractions such as Paris Hilton, reduce our ability to collectively deal with problems that affect our society and thus predict inaction.
All that being said, attention is a slippery thing. To date, it is hard to quantify. We don’t have any attentional units or currency– we cannot say that when you need to pay attention to driving, a loved one, or to a natural disaster how much is the right amount. Right now its measured indirectly with polling, interviews, and various behavioral statistics. With the advent of neuroprosthetics, however, we may get closer to a time when we can measure the amount of attention much as we can measure the amount of gas in one’s tank. Just as we are beginning decode the cortical signals associated with movement and speech, we are also beginning to get a handle on the cortical processes that underlie attention. In so doing, we may have the ability to have a handle on this commodity and in turn be better at figuring out how to use it for ourselves and our society. So in the future, when people say that “time is money,” the currency with which it is paid is in attention.