Attention Machines

Birdfeeder and customer!

The Philosophy of Birdfeeders

I’ll begin by talking about the philosophy of birdfeeders. My partner recently bought one, and now, every morning starts with a procession of cardinals, blue jays, sparrows, morning doves…

The birdfeeder puts my attention on the birds — the nature that exists around us — even though we live in the “concrete jungle” of New York City.

I’m going to coin a phrase: attention machine. Instead of defining it, let me give some examples:

  • An object, like the birdfeeder.
  • A practice, like going to my local mycology group meetup and learning to see the mushrooms that have been hiding in plain sight, in the local park.
  • A phrase, like “concrete jungle.” If I look at New York City through this lens, then I’ll tune in more to the concrete, the stench of the summer garbage, the traffic…

An attention machine can also be a person, a place, a prayer, a poem, a profession, a pet. Anything, really…

Dynein and Kinesin

It strikes me that life is a miracle.

A patient of mine has progressive neurological symptoms that have left her disabled at a young age. After much testing, we diagnosed her with a defect in dynein, one of the proteins that’s responsible for moving cargo in the nerve cell. Here’s an animation of dynein walking, transporting cargo down the long length of an axon (sometimes more than 3 feet!):

For more info on dynein and kinesin, check out this cute video

We humans might tell different religious myths, wear different religious hats, have different skin colors, have different proportions in our faces and bodies, but we all rely on dynein (and it’s cousin kinesin) to move stuff around our cells. If we didn’t have these proteins, then our nerves wouldn’t work. Ditto for all other animals.

The spirituality of molecular biology!

All animals are alive thanks to the miracle of dynein and kinesin.

I want to start a very specific and strange gratitude practice:

For the next 30 days, before I get out of bed and use my legs, I will trace my fingertip from my lower back to the tips of my toes and say, “Thank you, kinesin.” Then I’ll trace back up my legs and say, “Thank you, dynein.”

I’ll report back on how this goes, in the comments!

Some of my Attention Machines

I met a guy the other day who was wearing a bunch of rubber bands on his wrists.

“What do they mean?” I asked.

“That’s always changing,” he said.

For him, these bracelets are attention machines, and he’s constantly cycling through new meanings for them, depending on what he needs in his life. And this guy is in his 70s!

Here are some of my current attention machines:

  • Complaining bracelet. I’m wearing a bracelet that represents not complaining. Every time I complain, I change the bracelet to my other wrist. The bracelet also is made of beautiful stones, and reminds me of the beauty of nature.
  • The artist date. The past few months I’ve been going through a book called “The Artist’s Way” with a friend. One of the exercises that the book gives is to have a weekly “Artist date.” The purpose is to restock the creative pond with fish, so to speak. Lately I’ve been thinking of my morning drives to work as artist dates. My attention is being tuned to look for opportunities for artist dates in daily life: maybe a walk in the woods by myself is an artist state? Maybe my evening run is one too? Maybe chopping vegetables is not a chore, but a mini-artist date? Changing how I think about the things really does make a load of difference.
  • Birthday poems. My mom has been writing my brother and I birthday poems ever since we were little, and lately I’ve gotten into this too. This is a great attention machine. Doing a creative project for somebody every birthday takes a lot of effort, but you get out when you put in.

Here’s an attention machine that I haven’t integrated, but would like to:

  • Saying “good morning.” I frequently get called out for not saying “good morning” at work. I show up to work and just get right into business. I’m in my own world. “Good morning” or “good afternoon” gets us to pause. It gets us to realize that we are on the planet and there is a particular position of the sun in the sky. “Good morning” is an attention machine I could use a bit more of in my life.

Attention Engineering

The coolest thing about attention machines is that we have the power to engineer them.

In the words of the punk band Crass:

If the programme’s not the one you want, get up, turn off the set
It’s only you that can decide what life you’re gonna get

Crass, I prefer this cover

I would update this lyric to be: if the attention machine is not the one you want, engineer a new one.

Here’s an example of this attention engineering, from my own life:

I recently noticed, chatting with a friend, that we had great word-play chemistry. We set up a commitment to do a periodic phone call where we just play with words. I think there isn’t enough play in my life. It feels nice and fun and free to have this phone call exist as an attention machine for the purpose of play.

Here’s a homework assignment: do an inventory of the attention machines in your life, as I did above. Some of them might not be serving you. Some of them might be serving you very well. Don’t underestimate their power.

The objects in our lives can seem unimportant: a coffee maker, a wrist watch, a bird feeder…who cares?

Well, the things we include in our lives have ripple effects, even the small ones.

A coffee maker in the kitchen makes it more likely I’ll drink coffee.

I could replace the coffee maker with a teapot. Or a bong. Or an aquarium.

It’s not the most practical to have a kitchen aquarium, but it would definitely change where my attention goes…

I recently replaced a wonky shoe rack with a functioning one. Now I no longer shout expletives every morning because my shoes have fallen into the crevasse behind the rack. Replacing the shoe rack was a small act of attention engineering.

Holy moly, life is our canvas on which to paint. Attention, oh attention, shine, oh you shine. If matter is made of atoms, then consciousness is made of attention, and attention is sculpted by attention machines.

I pray that we can all use our attention well, in this life.

2 thoughts on “Attention Machines

  1. Fantastic. Thank you for sharing this idea! An attention machine is like a little lens factory. It shapes the ideas and objects and thoughts we focus on by altering the lenses we look through. Brilliant, bud!

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