Winifred Gallagher’s RAPT: Attention and the Focused Life provides a fascinating, multi-faceted look at attention—a term we often use as though it is a simple construct, when in reality it is complex and beautifully pervasive, touching every aspect of our lives. A blurb on the back cover implies that RAPT might be part of the self-help genre. It is not. While the book’s insights may inspire readers to strengthen aspects of their attention, perhaps through mindfulness or meditation practices, RAPT is far more than a series of suggestions about changing our lives. Based on science, written with compassion for the human condition, Gallagher’s book invites us to better understand ourselves, our relationships, and our communities, through an exploration of attention.
The book progresses steadily and coherently, seamlessly weaving together well-researched information and implications for living. In my “reviewer” role, I set out to mark pages that might be of interest to readers, imagining that I might find a few jewel-like comments. When I finished reading, I had marked at least 172 out of 222 pages, an unprecedented number. Part of this is due to the fact that RAPT talks about everything I want to know. It details the roles of nature and nurture in attention, and unpacks attention’s relationship to interpersonal and romantic relationships, productivity and work, decision making, creativity, focus, aging, ADHD, motivation and success, health, cultural perspectives, and meaning-making.
The book’s compelling nature is also due to a sensible, accessible approach to its topic. RAPT begins with a scientific overview of attention and how it works.For instance, we operate in both bottom-up and top-down modes of attention. “Bottom-up attention” refers to what our brains are hardwired to notice, such as brightly colored birds, bad smells, or other things that can “threaten or advance” our survival. But “top-down” attention operates differently, asking us what we want to concentrate on. Our ability to shift between these modes contributes to our ability to survive and thrive. Gallagher builds from here, illuminating how information enters us, how shining the spotlight of attention differently can change our relationship to that information, and how changing that relationship can change our lives.
RAPT reveals that when we’re in a positive frame of mind, our attention literally widens. We notice more. We more readily identify a near-stranger of another race; we take in more of the “big picture;” we have expanded our peripheral vision regarding what we can identify or remember seeing. It is no accident that if we are depressed, we cannot see beyond our problems, for feelings do impact our attention—and vice-versa. Attention has many biological components, linked to our biochemistry.
But when it comes to actualizing our lives, optimizing our use of attention, we do not have to be limited by hardwired responses. A study of Tibetan monks indicates that building a “focusing regimen,” a practice of “rapt attention over many years,” can create “striking differences in…neurophysiology and daily experience….” Even “average subjects who had completed an eight-week meditation course showed significantly increased activity in the left prefrontal regions that are linked to…optimistic, goal-oriented orientation.” (72) In other words, our brains are not static. By attending to attention, we can alter the extent to which we remain at the mercy of trials and tribulations.
This is good news for the depressed, the anxious, the despairing—and the average person who wants to improve his or her quality of living. Perhaps more than anything, RAPT is a lyrically written argument for the fulsome enjoyment of life. Rapt refers to that state of being “completely absorbed, engrossed, fascinated, perhaps even ‘carried away’—that underlies life’s deepest pleasures, from the scholar’s study to the carpenter’s craft to the lover’s obsession. Some individuals slip into it more readily, but…all of us can cultivate this profoundly attentive state and experience it more often.” (10) When we are in this state, we are happier and more productive, more likely to succeed—however we measure success.
More than anything, I love Winifred Gallagher’s compassion for humans. She shows us how aspects of ourselves that we might judge negatively also have positive attributes, while offering ideas for how to change those aspects, if we wish to do so. Perhaps this compassion, like her book, was inspired by her own experience during a course of treatment for a particularly difficult kind of cancer, during which she “cleaved to the principle that your life is the creation of what you focus on—and what you don’t. Whenever possible, [she] looked toward whatever seemed meaningful, productive, or energizing and away from the destructive, or dispiriting.” (4) In RAPT, Gallagher opens a window into the ways that we may do so, as well.
Book Title: RAPT: Attention and the Focused Life
Author: Winifred Gallagher
Publisher: Penguin Books
222 pages; Paperback