'Attention is a mental muscle'
Every time I leave for a holiday, I tell Daniel Goleman, I think I have forgotten my alarm clock. Goleman leans forward in his chair. "And do you go back for it?"
No, I say. I assume it is just pre-holiday anxiety. I have probably not actually forgotten it. And, if I have, I can always buy a new one while I am away.
"You see?" Goleman says. "That's you managing the situation."
Goleman, an American psychologist and science writer, is best known as the man who popularised the idea of emotional intelligence as a counterbalance to IQ. His new book, Focus, discusses the science of attention: how we pay attention, why we pay attention and how to pay better attention.
In the book, he argues that we often fail to pay attention to the messages that the brain is sending us. To illustrate this, he gives the example of a marathon runner on her way to a race. She feels a tug at her brain, telling her that she has forgotten something, but she ignores it. Finally, she realises what is nagging at her: she has left her trainers at home.
The moral, Goleman writes, is that "our 'gut feelings' are messages from the (brain) that simplify life decisions for us by guiding our attention towards smarter options". (He actually writes "insula" rather than "brain"; more on that later.)
This analysis, however, depends on the infallibility of that brain tug. What if the feeling that you have forgotten to pack your alarm clock - or left the gas on, or whatever your niggling fear of choice is - is nothing more than displaced anxiety?
"The tug? No, it's usually wrong," Goleman says. "I don't know if it's usually wrong. But it might be wrong. It might just be saying, I'm nervous about going on holiday."
So the key factor, then, is the ability to parse your own fears. It is the ability to tell the difference between the time when you think you have left the gas on because you are worried about going on holiday and the time when you have genuinely left the gas on.
"There's something called the work of worrying," Goleman says. "If you do the work of worrying successfully, the tug will end, because you'll come up with a way to manage the anxiety. But if it keeps going and you find yourself still worrying at 2am, you're probably not being very successful at it."
Goleman pauses and leans back in his chair. Although he is a former science journalist for The New York Times and author of 10 books, he neatly fits the stereotype of a US academic: trim beard, crow's-foot smile, tweed jacket. He sits sideways at the table in the office of his London publisher and sips from his soy latte. "My wife has written a very good book on this," he says. "I often recommend it to people who bring up this point ... We've strayed from teaching now, haven't we?"
Well, yes and no. It is all part of Goleman's overarching theory of attention. He claims that measuring children's ability to focus attention - and then maintain that attention - on an activity or piece of work is a much more effective way of predicting success in later life than measuring exam performance. Even better: he believes that the ability to pay attention can be taught and, with it, life chances improved.
"Basically, what the science shows is that attention is a mental muscle," he says. "And that it can be strengthened with the proper exercise, just like any muscle. In a gym, when you're lifting weights, every time you repeat the lift, you strengthen the muscle a bit.
"There's a similar basic movement of the mind, strengthening attention circuitry. This occurs when you're focusing intentionally on one chosen object, such as your breath."
Such techniques, he says, encourage mindfulness: when your mind wanders away from the breath, as it inevitably will, you notice that it has wandered and gently encourage it to return to the breath once more. Mindfulness is about focusing on the responses of the mind: paying attention to attention.
It is also a key component of many forms of meditation. "I prefer the term 'attention training'," Goleman says. "Meditation is in a religious context. We're bringing to the classroom what makes sense from the point of view of cognitive science.
"But it has long been known that meditation enhances attention skills. What you're actually doing is strengthening the brain circuitry. Research shows that this movement strengthens the attentional circuitry. Neurons become more richly connected."
Recognition and rewiring
Regular attention training, he says, teaches children to concentrate. It gives them the ability to finish their homework without checking Twitter or updating Facebook. It enables them to work in a group without conversational drift. And those same concentration skills allow holidaymakers to run through a pre-departure checklist - to think about packing an alarm clock or turning off the gas - without getting distracted and instead checking the weather forecast for their destination.
But that is only half the problem. There are two types of distractions: sensory distractions - covering noises, sounds, web pages - and emotional distractions. "Sensory ones are very easy to handle," Goleman says. "Emotional ones are quite difficult.
"The way the brain is wired, when there's something that's upsetting you, it means your attention is involuntarily held to that thing, no matter where you want to pay attention. The stronger the emotions, the more your attention is going to be hijacked."
Schoolchildren, he says, are particularly vulnerable to such emotional distractions. "The biggest distractions for kids are melodramas with other kids," Goleman says. "He won't play with me; she didn't invite me to the party. The kinds of things that kids obsess about. These are the things that distract attention from their studies."
He therefore advocates a strong programme of social and emotional learning, incorporated into the school curriculum. A good programme of this type - and here Goleman reiterates the importance of it being fully integrated into the curriculum, rather than taught in two or three add-on lessons - can teach children to manage external fears and worries.
If children are taught how to express their frustration when they feel shut out of their friendship group, he says, then they will not be distracted by that frustration during lesson time. If you learn the skills to identify what is bothering you, then you can give it the attention it is due, when it is due.
Recognise that going on holiday makes you anxious and you will be able to dismiss holiday-related fears as part of that anxiety. Fail to acknowledge that anxiety and you could genuinely believe that you have forgotten something, that your aeroplane will crash or that your house will burn down while you are away.
"If you are mindful of those worried thoughts, that mindfulness itself changes your relationship to them," Goleman says. "You can see them as just those thoughts again. It's when you're trapped by them, when you believe them, that they are most compelling.
"If you step back from them, you've already changed that part of the brain that's active, and you can challenge the thoughts. You can say, 'I can do something about them.' "
This self-awareness, he says, is as valuable for teachers as it is for their students. "A lot of teaching is done through modelling: when a child sees an adult doing something, or being something, and unconsciously takes that in as a model for life. If you have a teacher who's very empathic and caring, it helps you to become empathic and caring. If you have a teacher who's utterly agitated and self-absorbed, that's not a good model. But to be empathic and caring, you have to first manage your own worries, because when you're distracted, you can't pay full attention to the students."
Are teachers, then, as much in need of attention training and social and emotional lessons as their students? "I never thought of that," Goleman says. "But, yes, I think teachers should demand it, absolutely. With meditation, your ability to concentrate increases at a neuro level. And it turns out that that circuitry is entwined with your brain's capacity for managing emotion."
This final sentence highlights a fundamental problem with Goleman's book. Rather than dwelling on the emotional rationale behind his theory - if you are anxious, that anxiety will hinder your ability to focus on other things; learn to deal with the anxiety, and your ability to focus automatically improves - he couches everything in the language of neuroscience. And so there are references to the insula, the amygdala, the anterior cingulate cortex: parts of the brain that contribute to the extraordinarily complex neuroscientific processes involved in day-to-day decision-making.
This creates the impression that it is the brain doing the thinking, the brain doing the distracting, the brain creating signals to which its human container responds. Emotion is stripped from the decision-making process. When Goleman describes the ventromedial prefrontal area as "an inner rudder", for example, the description suggests a physical process similar to a heart beating or to digestion. It leaves little space to question the ways in which life experience might have bent or damaged the rudder.
Goleman, however, disagrees. "When I was at the Times, the challenge was always to put things in a way that several million people would understand but the handful of experts wouldn't protest. It's really the art of science writing.
"I'm trying to make scientific concepts understandable, so that people can use them in an intelligent way."