2/08 2019

The Value of Attention Tristan Johns

Coordination is one of those concepts that generally evades rigorous inspection purely because of its abundance in our life-experience. Coordination could be defined as "the harmonious functioning of parts for effective results". Under this definition, it almost appears to describe the entire known universe. That's not very useful as a definition; a good definition puts concepts into new categories that are separate from other concepts. This "creation of parts" through separation allows for parts (words) to be combined in harmonious ways to create effective results. Do you see what I mean by how pervasive the concept of coordination is? The cells composing my body are in harmonious function for the goal of effective results --- in this case existence across time. The distinct cellular parts may be destroyed every 7-10 years, but the harmonious coordination allows the organism as a whole to live on. And clearly there are more commonly identifiable forms of coordination such as playing a team sport, working in a company or business, and even walking in a building. The flowers coordinate with the bees in mutual benefit, trees produce oxygen for humans and subsequently we store their genetic material in advanced seed vaults. Coordination is all around us and may even be the fundamental substrate of our existence.

A specific aspect of coordination that I will be analyzing is authority. There emerges the requirement for a "center of gravity" in sophisticated coordination, a center that has the authoritative power to wield the effective energy that the total-coordination produces. Generally this authority will have the responsibility of maintaining the coordination over time. The lion must use its attention to hunt prey to acquire energy and create more cells in the pursuit of raising children. Why this center of gravity emerges is in essence a strategy to save time. The foot does not have to be concerned with sensing obstacles in the coming path, nor does the hand have to think about where it should be located in space. The foot and the hand are in optimal coordination when they respond to the center of gravity and its decisions. This is because the center of gravity doesn't have a separate job such as sense or movement, the center of gravity has the sole function of interpreting senses, predicting outcomes and sending orders to the body. Again, being this "conscious center of gravity", we aren't always aware of this process, because it's all we know and it can't really be separated from other experience.

It is generally assumed that the organ responsible for consciousness in Homo sapiens is the brain. While it may be postulated in the future (or presently) that consciousness comes from a specific region or structure of the brain, I think it would be more accurately described as a coordinated product of the whole. I personally believe we are incredibly limited in our knowledge of the brain. To quote Douglas Hofstadter in 'I Am a Strange Loop', “We don't want to focus on the trees (or their leaves) at the expense of the forest". Even if limited in understanding, one thing we are fairly certain of is the idea that the brain makes many changes to itself. This may even be its primary function. Even when we are asleep, our brains remain very active, coordinating electrical signals over pathways that are strengthened and weakened based on the amount of neural activity. In other words, our environment and actions are continuously making changes to our brain structure. This is apparent in the adage "practice makes perfect". An action repeated often will develop stronger neural pathways, enabling faster response time and greater chance of activity. This isn't true for just sports, but applicable to every function of our brain, from having a positive outlook to creating art. With this in mind, let's evaluate the value of harnessing attention.

Consciousness, or the previously named "center of gravity", as understood by us is a constant stream of experience. Senses give us feedback on our environment, and we get to change this sense-feedback through the direction of attention. For most of us, we have the freedom to decide what to spend our time doing (our limited time, mind you). We can read a book, watch a video, play a game, socialize with friends, or any other diverse activity at our disposal (in this essay, we are assuming that free will is a valid part of the organism's reality and not an illusion. This is mainly because consciousness experiences free will as a part of its existence, and analyzing free will would detract from the coordination of the article). This guidance of attention is a powerful tool for the center of gravity, as previously demonstrated, what we spend our attention on influences how our brain builds itself. This is also partly responsible for why a habit is such a powerful concept. As the position of authority, we must use our attention in the way that we believe is most harmonious for the sustained coordination of our cellular body. This may be operating a financial budget, thinking about long-term objectives, or even remaining aware of how safe our immediate environment is. In a sense, we (the conscious agent) are in a mutually beneficial coordination with the genetic material that gave us this life-experience. If we deem this experience worthy of continuation, either because we enjoy the sense-pleasure or some other aspect, we can work (in coordination) to raise children, thus sustaining the genetic information that allowed this life-experience to emerge in the first place across time.

From this perspective, it may make more sense as to why death is such an important feature of nature. We as conscious awareness have a sense of urgency bestowed into our actions by the looming threat of death. This gives seriousness to how we direct attention and live our lives, it creates skin in the game. For the center of gravity that has a goal and understands the stakes, every minute is an opportunity to get closer to that goal. This makes our decision as to where we put our attention extremely valuable; we only have so much, for every day is, as they say, a "once-in-a-lifetime experience".

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