Positive thinking and the neuroscience of attention and attentiveness

By William Seidman

Last week, the New York Times ran an interesting article on attention, specifically on Winfred Gallagher’s book Rapt: Attention on the Focused Life.  Some conversations I subsequently had got me thinking about attention. One discussion I had was about a teaching technique that spends a lot of time focusing on what people are doing wrong. A reasonable challenge to that theory of learning is, “If you’re focussing on what you’re doing wrong, how will you learn to do it right?” A more complex and complete response has to do with the neuroscience of attention – which magicians/performance artists Penn and Teller know quite a bit about.

Are any of you golfers? Have you ever gone to the tee and said to yourself, “Don’t slice, don’t slice!” What do you immediately do? You slice. It is the same idea for a well-known expression: “Playing the game not to lose.” In sports, and, it turns out, in inherited wealth (check out Lee Brower’s  work), when you play a game defensively, you usually lose.

Why is this? When you spend most of your mental resources on what’s wrong, you are getting better at the wrong thing. Instead, we need to focus on the positive – or, how to do the job right.


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