Bookmarks Issue: 

Attention and the Focused Life

A-RaptWinifred Gallagher has written several books on human psychology, including The Power of Place: How Our Surroundings Shape Our Thoughts, Emotions and Actions (1993) and House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live (2006).

The Topic: "Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time," argues Gallagher. "Life is what you focus on." Because we can attend only to a small fraction of our surroundings, what we choose to notice has grand implications for our lives, our relationships, and even our health. While some people are prone to distraction and need medical treatment to help them concentrate, others are overloaded by the American lifestyle: high-speed multitasking, bad habits, and intrusive technology. Citing scientific research and psychological studies, Gallagher explores the nature of consciousness, the benefits of sustained focus, and the techniques by which we can all discipline our attention spans.
Penguin. 256 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1594202109

Time 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Gallagher does an admirable job of getting attention’s attention from every angle—relationships, work, play—using both science and philosophy. … While Gallagher’s theme may ultimately be nothing more than a familiar ‘70s message [of ‘Be here now.’] repacked in prestigious new millennial clothes, it bears repeating." Gilbert Cruz

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Rapt is a fascinating discussion of how consciousness works, and Ms. Gallagher offers much helpful advice on how to lead a ‘focused life.’ We should remember, though, that there is a realm where the mind functions not only beyond the reach of chirruping cellphones, BlackBerrys and laptops but also beneath our own awareness." David G. Myers

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Gallagher devotes much of this engaging book to reviewing the psychology and neuroscience of attention. … Like many proponents of unified theories, though, Gallagher tries to do too much." Paul Bloom 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Ironically, for a book about focusing, Rapt can be frustratingly scattered, self-contradicting and platitudinous; do we really need more hand-wringing about families who don’t have dinner together or reheated summaries of scientific studies demonstrating the power of positive thinking? … Gallagher’s exhortations to scrutinize and redirect our attention could not be more timely, but actually accomplishing such a feat increasingly feels beyond our control." Laura Miller

Critical Summary

Gallagher’s fascinating book, which analyzes the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, easily translates difficult concepts into layman’s terms. She includes contemporary and historical examples of men and women, including Mozart and Tiger Woods, whose ability to concentrate led to their successes. Gallagher’s writing is engaging and accessible, and her suggestions for a more focused life range from the mystical (meditation) to the ordinary (separating oneself from distractions.) Critics did, however, have a couple of complaints: her focus on the conscious mind overlooks the subconscious and the veiled effect it can have on thoughts and feelings, and she sometimes tries too hard to relate all of life’s experiences back to her topic. However, readers who choose to concentrate on Rapt will not be disappointed.