Now Pay Attention

Only an intense focus can transform modest achievement into brilliance, says Eric Harrison.

Only an intense focus can transform modest achievement into brilliance, says Eric Harrison.

Is genius born or made? Can any child achieve excellence, given the right training? Or is innate ability the determining factor? And if good nurture does trump nature, what does this mean for adults who have outgrown the nurturing phase of life? If we failed to excel while young, should we just accept our current level of mediocrity as being set in stone?

We tend to assume that the quality of our early upbringing is a critical factor in later success. This attitude is crystallised in the bone chilling Jesuit maxim, "Give me a child for his first seven years and I'll give you the man."

This maxim could explain why, a hundred years ago, Ramon y Cajal, the founder of modern neuroscience, believed that no brain development was possible after childhood. He argued vehemently that the wiring was fixed by adulthood, that no new brain cells would be born, and that the existing ones, though long lived, would only diminish in number and potency.

We now know he was quite wrong on all counts, but what could you expect? He was a Portuguese Catholic. He unconsciously transferred the prejudices of his upbringing into his science.

But if a supportive childhood is vital for genius, then Newton would have remained an illiterate farmer; Pasteur would have been a rural tradesman (his father was a tanner); and any number of the world's greatest scientists, composers, painters and writers would have worked in the family business and indulged their passions only on Sundays. Conversely, the sons and daughters of brilliant men and women, with the very best of opportunities, rarely achieve as much as might be expected of them.

Neither good genes nor good training can guarantee excellence, but is it possible to fine tune the formula? Laszlo Polgar, a Hungarian psychologist in the 1970s, believed that "geniuses are made, not born", and that he knew how to do it. It came down to training plus love. The training was crucial (nurture), but the child also had to love what he or she was doing (nature).

His daughter Susan stumbled over a chess set in a cupboard when she was very young. As it turned out, she adored the game. Laszlo had no great skill at chess, but he accepted her choice and supported her brilliantly. Together, they studied the art of chess up to six hours a day, while he and his wife gave Susan and their other daughters a rich and varied education at home.

Susan Polgar could have chosen a more promising subject to prove her father's point. In the 1970s, chess, like maths and physics, was almost exclusively a man's game.

None of this made any difference to little Susan. She was soon blitzing all the chess players in Budapest. By 15, she defeated her first chess grandmaster, which is a title given to a player who has attained the highest possible rank in the game. At 18, she became the first ever female grandmaster. This achievement would have once been regarded as a biological impossibility, somewhat equivalent to a woman knocking out Mike Tyson for the Heavyweight Boxing Championship of the World.

So was she a freak, just born that way, something like an idiot savant? Not at all. At the age of 15, her younger sister Judith also became a grandmaster, at that time becoming the youngest player of either sex to do so. It looked like their dad was right: you really can make a genius.

Susan says that excellence requires just two things - good training and the child's love of the subject. While this seems simple enough, it also explains why so few of us feel we achieve our full potential: our commitment isn't strong enough and/or the training is inadequate. Success demands an intensity of passion for a subject that is far more than merely enjoying it. It also demands an abundance of high quality, conscious training, which is light years away from merely doing our homework.

All experts have usually spent thousands of hours of training to learn their skill, but so have many people who fail to excel. These latter people typically stall at a certain level of accomplishment and can't go any further. While genius has been described as "one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration", drudgery alone won't get us there. The deciding factor seems to be the quality of attention brought to the training.

Paying attention, or focusing, is a deliberate act of will. It is when we give priority to just one of the many possible things we could be doing or thinking about. As we all know, paying attention to one thing is quite hard to sustain. We commonly start on one activity, such as writing an email, reading a book or doing exercise, and within seconds our mind is miles away. It is virtually impossible not to be distracted at least part of the time.

Nor is this fickleness of the mind necessarily unhealthy. Our minds naturally switch to and fro between thoughts, sensations, feelings and memories, mostly at a subliminal level. This is the semiautomatic "parallel processing" that enables us to manage the enormous functional complexity of even the simplest day. If we had to think consciously about everything we did, we would never get beyond breakfast.

Conscious thought is expensive, "like a cavalry charge in battle", as one great scientist said. With fresh horses, and at the right time it is highly effective, but we don't deploy it on a routine basis. Conscious, reflective, self aware thought leads to a depth of understanding that is quite impossible at our usual level of automatic thinking. But it doesn't come without effort.

"Selective attention", in fact, involves a variety of mental skills. First, we survey the options and select what we want to focus on, be it a skill or a task or a sensation or a thought. Initially, our ability to focus is feeble, since our previous thoughts will still be competing for mental space. These don't meekly retire into oblivion when we give priority to something else. Choosing one option means sacrificing the alternatives, and who wants to do that?

The next stage is "sustained attention", as we gradually lock into what we are doing. It usually takes at least 30 seconds, and often a lot longer, to bring up the mental files, working protocols and emotions appropriate to that task to the surface of the mind. As our bodies and mind come into sync with our task, our previous thoughts get pushed into the wings.

Yet even when we achieve good focus, it is still not guaranteed. We can't just switch it on and forget about it. Selective attention needs to be supported by what is called "supervisory attention". Our minds are still obliged to notice any peripheral thoughts, sounds, memories or sensations that could be important. When a nearby door slams, we are bound to notice it. Any of these stimuli could fatally break our attention unless we can quickly process them. We can't just settle into our task and hope to be left alone. We also need to be able to efficiently switch from A to B and back to A whenever necessary.

"Supervisory attention" stands back from the main action, and operates rather like a good secretary. While the boss is sequestered in the office, doing the important work that only the boss can do, the secretary handles the incoming calls, the emails, the paperwork and the clients at the door. Unless we can economically manage the distractions, as they appear, moment to moment, as they inevitably will, we will never be able to give important things the attention they deserve.

Furthermore, the secretary, strange to say, is also supervising the boss. He or she may be a genius, but they can easily get lost in their own brilliance. The secretary, the supervisory attention system, is able to see when the boss strays off track. He or she sees the big picture and the danger signs which the boss may well lose sight of. A champion, in other words, still needs a coach.

Conscious thought thus takes effort and a variety of skills. It involves carefully selecting the object of attention (skill no. 1); sustaining our attention over time (skill no. 2); handling the inevitable distractions economically (skill no. 3); and keeping a careful, supervisory eye on what we are actually doing (skill no. 4). All this can be learned. Research on experienced meditators, for example, shows that they invariably have a capacity for high quality focus and low distractibility.

Research also shows that the fatalistic beliefs of the Jesuits and Ramon y Cahal about the fixity of the brain are wrong. The healthy adult brain, if well stimulated, will constantly grow new cells, especially in the memory centre. Existing cells can develop rich, branching connections with other cells: they become "potentiated".

Communities of cells create strong networks to deliver new mental services. Brain pathologies can be reversed, or retired or bypassed. The brain becomes wired up and buzzing, finely tuned to the service of your chosen activity.

At the conscious level, we notice an enhanced richness of detail in whatever we pay attention to. This kind of understanding tends to automatically improve the way we function. It also explains why conscious training leads to improvement while mere repetition does not. Finally, this kind of depth knowledge allows us to make good judgements about what is important, what is worth attending to and what is not.

Success rarely depends on high self esteem, or good genes, or a mystical belief in one's boundless capacities. In fact, high achievers are often quite self critical, frequently questioning what they do and so pushing themselves to greater efforts. But attention is not an optional extra. The ability to give high quality, sustained attention to one's chosen activity is essential for any kind of success at all. I'm sure that Laszlo frequently said to his daughter over the chessboard, "Now pay attention, Susan!"