Paying attention costs WAY more than you think

It’ll cost you energy in every sense of the word

Last week we started to talk about paying attention, and I asked you to consider these questions: 

  • what do we pay with?

  • how much of it are we paying?

  • do we have enough left over after paying?

  • what do we get in return?

  • is it a good bargain?

(You may have noticed too, that my Friday email was about attention.) 😉 

So let’s talk about the first question: what do we pay attention with?

There’s two ways to answer that: the psychological and the philosophical. I think the philosophical is more interesting, of course, and more useful. The psychological certainly enriches it, though, so let’s start with that.

Psychologically, attention carries what’s known as a cognitive cost. (Cognition is the name for our thinking faculties — what we generally mean when we use the word, “mind.”) A simple way to think of it is, your mind is constantly running — even when you’re asleep, it’s running your dreams, for instance. Since it has to run all the time, that means it runs the larger proportion of thinking activity in the background.

(I’m only focusing on thinking activity, so I’ll stick to using “mind” for this part of our brain — the part that deals with physical processes like digestion, managing chemicals and all — that part isn’t our concern here.)

This background thinking is where things like intuition come from, or when you just “know” stuff, or when some people say things like, “my mind/spirit was telling me such-and-such.” The important thing about this is that it’s effortless: you’re mostly not even aware of its being at work, only of the results of its activity. Those results can stress you (story for another day), but the process itself does not.

But the thinking we are aware of, the kind we do consciously, that takes effort. To give you some context: your brain at rest (as in you’re just chilling) is using up to 10% of your oxygen — the thing takes an actual tithe! When you’re actively using it, that goes up to 25% — that’s a whole quarter of your actual source of physical energy going to that thing between your ears that’s just the size of your fist!

Now you why you get tired and hungry from thinking — you gotta feed the machine, haha! 🧠 

So when we say cognitive cost, that’s a very real thing that can actually be physically measured. And when you’re paying attention, and the more you are doing so, the more that cost goes up. It’s why you can’t keep paying attention without getting a bit tired. And it’s why you can only pay attention to so many things before losing track.

Paying attention is hard because it costs you.

That’s the psychology of it. The scientific part.

But the philosophy is where it gets interesting: because there’s another way to measure the cost of paying attention, besides oxygen required and energy levels.

Paying attention requires time.

And that’s one pretty finite resource: we only get so much of it per day, and an unknown quantity to live on.

At this point I’m just over 500 words into this letter, which means if you’re an average 250 wpm reader and you’ve been paying attention so far, you’ve given my words maybe two minutes of your lifetime (which I don’t take for granted).

So when we pay attention, we are paying in more ways than one: with oxygen and therefore physical energy, with emotions and therefore psychological energy and with time, and therefore metaphysical energy.

When we pay attention, we are paying with our very lives, with all that we are.

So I ask you: what is worthy of your valuable attention today?

I hope this letter has.

Please feel free to share it, and any bits you like, on your social media — and tag me so I can thank you!

Attentively yours,
Doc Ayomide

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