Mini-Book Review — Gallagher – Rapt

Gallagher, Winifred, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, Penguin:New York, 2009, 244 pp.

Rapt is a wide-ranging and elegantly written summary of what scholars, authors, and a few mystics have to say about human attention and the role that it plays in our emotions and our day-to-day actions. Written in a very polished and literate style, it finds a nice balance between the author’s personal reflections on the role of attention in her life, quotations about focus and attention by authors such as William James and Thoreau, and interviews with leading psychologists and medical professionals. There’s perhaps a bit too much meat on the book’s bones to warrant selection for Oprah’s book club but fans of her TV show will find much to like and enjoy with Rapt.

In some ways, the book could be considered a skillful Boomer reflection on a subject that was grabbed with adolescent abandon by the same generation in the Sixties. The Power of Positive Thinking can’t quite match a world with many more religious, philosophical, pharmaceutical, and therapeutic choices in dealing with our unhappiness, or our endless distractions, or our frustrating procrastinations. Gallagher’s book makes a serious effort at surveying what we now know about particular habits of thought and focus. Anyone surrounded by colleagues wedded to their Blackberries, or by hordes of teenagers flogging their multi-coloured cellphones, has paused to wonder whether all of this is really “good” for people.

Table of Contents
Introduction: Choosing the Focused Life [1]
1 Pay Attention: Your Life Depends on It [15]
2 Inside Out: Feelings Frame Focus [29]
3 Outside In: What You See is What You Get [43]
4 Nature: Born to Focus [55]
5 Nurture: This Is Your Brain on Attention [67]
6 Relationships: Attending to Different Worlds [81]
7 Productivity: Work Zone [99]
8 Decisions: Focusing Illusions [115]
9 Creativity: An Eye For Detail [133]
10 Focus Interruptus [145]
11 Disordered Attention [163]
12 Motivation: Eyes on the Prize [173]
13 Health: Energy Goes Where Attention Flows [189]
14 Meaning: Attending to What Matters Most [203]

Gallagher can lapse into school-marm mode on occasion as she itemizes all the ways that our mental and physical habits can undermine our satisfaction and health. Fortunately the breadth of her subject matter keeps her own attention moving at a steady clip. The finger-wagging takes a back seat to discussion of each new aspect of the topic. I enjoyed this book’s review of the new scientific understanding of attention and focus. Readers who have a more personal stake in the subject matter of distraction, inattention, or depression (at home, work, or with children) would find Rapt an excellent place to begin. There is a checklist of ideas and issues that appear to have stood the test of time though this cannot really be classified as a “self-help” book.

The book would also make a good gift for friends and family who have a spiritual bent and no aversion to learning about a bit of psychological research. This is another title that would make a fine holiday gift for an undergraduate in psychology, religious studies, or social work. High school students might find it too much though the right teenager might love it. I’ve added the title to my holiday list for a friend who works as a clinician in a cancer clinic.

Interestingly, Gallagher looks at some of the research on cultural focus and intelligence by psychologist Richard Nisbett, whose books were reviewed earlier on chicagoboyz here and here. I ran into a number of familiar names and recent titles while reading this book, which reinforces just how broad a scope the subject of “human attention” commands. When Marcus Aurelius and Aristotle make an appearance alongside Nobel Laureates Daniel Kahneman and Albert Einstein, you can be certain the subject tackles a serious human conundrum.