Henry James has a grand passage in The Wings of the Dove in which a "great man" grants a young woman his ear, a "great empty cup of attention that he set between them on the table." Now there is a metaphor for attention.
I'm putting the last touches on my book. Combine that with four years of working on this blog and I feel like I have come a long way. At least I now understand language origins as the emergence of a cooperative system for directing joint attention to topics and their details. No part of that definition was included in my thinking when I began the project, so Babel's Dawn has either taught me aplenty or driven me mad.
None of the articles distinguish between reflexive attention—the kind of thing, like a loud noise, that automatically attracts attention—and deliberative attention in which an individual stays focused on a task, such as picking fruit from a tree. (See: How the Brain Supports Conversation) Since they are controlled in different parts of the brain and have different developmental histories, the distinction is important.
Mystery I: How attention works
I have already mentioned one of the Times stories on this blog. It's a piece titled "Bats Gauge Sounds with Neural Teamwork," and it got me wondering (again) about how attention, in any form, works. Normally, we think of neurons as working individually. The brain is a giant population without a leader, each neuron doing its own thing, and coherence somehow coming from all those individual actions. Attention, on the other hand, works "like a basketball team," says Bridget Queenan, a neuroscience graduate student. The reporter explains, "In different instances, depending on the particular signal that urgently needs to be processed, the neurons act in different ways." Thus, one neuron handles the signal, another quiets distracting noise, while a third boosts the signal.
It sounds very similar to the experience of attention on the conscious level. Something happens out there in the world and we turn a spotlight on it (reflexive attention) to study it in detail (deliberative attention). We can imagine a reflex that responds to a sudden noise that way, but humans wonder about so many things. An example is my own interest in speech origins. Long ago, I got to wondering casually about the question and very quickly stumbled across a few paradoxes that couldn't be resolved. So instead of putting the matter aside I returned to it off and on for many years.
At this level of narrative there is not enough to model the activity with a computer. Why did I start thinking about language? How did I happen to notice paradoxes about its start? Why did I persist with this question when other paradoxes I noticed—such as the one about what happens if I go to the edge of the universe and stick my hand out—made me fear for my sanity and turn away?
The neuron account in the Times suggests that so far we aren't getting any closer to answering that kind of question. How do neurons know—dumb little cells that they are—to boost a signal or quiet one? In cases of joint attention we have a better idea of how it works. The speaker directs attention, so the listener knows what to boost and what to hush. But we can't really expect a kind of wise neuron who knows.
In other words, we haven't gotten rid of the little man in the head problem yet. It is not a problem for speech origins because attention is older than the human lineage. We can grandfather it in to the story. We had a power of attention. We found a way to use it cooperatively. Many stories about language origins say, in essence, we were apes, then there was a miracle, and we became speaking humans. I don't think I have to rely on miracles for speech origins, but is that because I say the miracle came much sooner?
Mystery II: Where do topics come from?
The three other stories in the Times all have to do with wandering attention. One was a column by John Tierney, When the Mind Wanders, Happiness also Strays. Then there was a front page story on an old theme, Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction. Finally there is a story in the Sunday magazine titled The Attention Span Myth which attacks the underlying assumption of the previous two articles. But each story makes the point that some things interest us more than others.
Tierney's column includes this statistic, "On average…minds wander 47 percent of the time." They wander least (10% of the time) during sex and most (67%) of the time during personal grooming. Paying prolonged, deliberative attention is not so common, although humans are unusual in having many things to contemplate.
At this point I've noticed that the two mysteries are the same one. Topics are the thing out there we pay attention to. So if you focus on the tip if the speech triangle, you notice the mystery of the topic. What is it about this topic that makes it worth contemplating? Or if you focus on the other end of the triangle, you notice the mystery of attention. How do we focus our attention? We can see by the answers that the questions are the same. A topic is worth contemplating if it captures our attention. Something captures our attention if it is worth contemplating.
I might really go mad if I spend too much time traipsing down that path. Fortunately I know enough history of philosophy to know these are very old questions and no good has ever come from facing them head on. I'll stick to the side issues like the origin of speech, where can roll back the mystery, but the mystery is there.
In an earlier post I quoted William James, "Whoever studies consciousness, from any point of view whatever, is ultimately brought up against the mystery of interest and selective attention. … [Consciousness's role is] always to choose out of the manifold experience presented to it at a given time some one for particular accentuation, and to ignore the rest." (See: Going Stronger)
He is still right.