Developing Naive Attention

How does one learn to exercise naive attention? It's an experiential thing, rather like learning to dance or ride a bicycle.

I can describe how I go about it but only practice will make you fluent. Relax, stay alert but suspend thought - particularly turn off the internal commentary that labels experiences. It's been said that the mark of an intellectual is the ability to hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger - well one mark of initial progress in naive attention could be to listen to bird song without thinking of the names of the birds.

Don't concentrate on or respond to individual stimuli or let them attract your attention, just witness everything that impinges on your senses uncritically with equal emphasis. That is the state of naive attention. It's easier to learn if you start with a relatively quiet environment - a trip to the countryside is ideal - simply because less of the soundscape is buried in noise, so there's a higher proportion of useful information available. But quite soon you'll find you don't have to be so particular. You can practice in the park, in your garden, or even while waiting for the bus - indeed almost any time you're not engaged in a task that requires focused attention - and eventually you'll be able to do so successfully in surprisingly noisy environments.

While in the naive attentive state you will become more aware of the noise, but also of a multitude of other sounds you were not until then conscious of. Ultimately, the mind will inevitably categorise every experience, but the categories can become more numerous, diverse and subtle than before. Thereafter, you will be able to selectively tune out the noise and perceive the subtle sounds you have learned to recognise by applying the finer categorisation you have developed to the normal process of selective attention.

Of course, although I'm stressing auditory stimuli here - because this is after all a site about soundscapes - it's critical to remember that naive attention is essentially holistic. We must bring all our senses to bear simultaneously, otherwise the information we receive will be incomplete, and that can lead to the formation of distorted categories which are as inadequate as the crude ones we're trying to refine.

You may find the exercise quite tiring to begin with - the level of alertness required is greater than that we normally employ unless focused on a specific task, and it can seem difficult to sustain when not so focused. So I would suggest you initially limit yourself to ten minutes or so at a time and build up gradually from there. And remember that the naive attentive state is a tool for learning - not to be aimed at as a permanent - or even a dominant - state of mind. Its purpose is to help you learn to make more effective use of your normal states of mind, which must on no account be abandoned. You need them to keep your everyday life in some semblance of control. Otherwise there's a high risk of becoming like the cyclist who complained about finishing up in a ditch while "exercising mindfulness".

Well, that's about it. Despite the cacophony all round us it seems we can tune in again to the subtle sounds of the natural world in all their diversity - provided we know what to listen for. And we can achieve that by learning to pay attention again. In our modern noise-ridden environment that might seem a challenge, but the more we recover our innate capacity to do so, the closer we can connect with the complex and beautiful world we live in. To quote J. Robert Oppenheimer 'There are children playing in the street who could solve some of my top problems in physics, because they have modes of sensory perception that I lost long ago'.

Our ambition should be to recover those modes of perception and put them to good use.

condensed and adapted from part four of my lecture "The Subtle Sounds of Nature" - The Institute for Cultural Research, June 2010.