From What is to What if? Unleashing the Power of Imagination

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written by

Rob Hopkins

Aug 25, 2020

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The following excerpt is adapted from Rob Hopkins’s book From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2019) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher. This except was published in Stir Magazine, Winter 2020. To support our journalism, purchase this issue or an annual subscription.

We are relentlessly bombarded with information, all vying for our attention, to the extent that many people fight a daily battle with distraction. Author Hugh McGuire describes “the unavoidable siren call of the digital hit of new information” and explains how digital technologies have changed the way he works. “Work on something important, brain itch, check email, dopamine, refresh, dopamine, check Twitter, dopamine, back to work. Over and over, and each time the habit becomes more ingrained in the actual structures of our brains. How can books compete?” Sound familiar? It did to me. Having spent the last few years working in a way that involved a lot of time online, posting things here, tweeting them there, emailing, Facebooking and so on, I was shocked at how shot to bits my attention span was when I started the research for my book From What Is to What If. I could barely read for five minutes before the itch McGuire describes would start up. And for what? What do I gain or accomplish by scratching that itch? For the most part, I’m not totally sure. 

In 2018, the average ‘total media consumption’ for US adults (and that’s just electronic media: TV, radio, time online, gaming and smartphones) was 11 hours and 6 minutes per day, up from 9 hours 32 minutes per day in 2014. In 2013, researchers at Cal State Dominguez Hills observed 263 students from middle school through college while they studied and found that they focused on a task for an average of six seconds before switching to something else. Many people are aware of and uncomfortable about feeling so distracted, and yet, with so many things pulling us in so many different directions, especially online, it can feel impossible to keep our attention where we want it to be. The question is: What do we do so that everyone stands a better chance of noticing the daffodils, enjoying life on our own terms and engaging in the kind of imaginative thinking that may be our best hope for survival? 

The first thing we need to do is understand that our distraction is not a personal failing. Nor is it an accident. Our attention is being hijacked by vast tech companies, and exploited by many more companies, in ways we are evolutionarily unequipped to resist. These companies (which have names and addresses and shareholders, by the way) use aggressive strategies and have clear objectives for how you spend your time – objectives that are probably massively at odds with your own, including the goals you have for what you want to accomplish in life. As Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google and, according to The Atlantic, ‘the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience’ says, “A handful of people working at a handful of technology companies ... will steer what a billion people are thinking today”. There is, in other words, a huge amount of competition for your gaze. The author Matthew B. Crawford calls this the ‘battle of attentional technologies’. Common Sense Media founder Jim Steyer refers to it as ‘an arms race for your attention’. And the author James Williams argues that the Information Age would be better renamed ‘The Age of Attention’. 

What, besides how to direct our gaze, do these companies understand that most of the rest of us don’t? They understand how valuable attention is. If not, there wouldn’t be such a battle over it. If we’re going to stand a chance of reclaiming our own attention, we have to really understand that our attention does have great value, to us, to our lives, to our well-being, to our collective future; it matters what we give our attention to. For these huge tech companies, capturing our attention translates to huge profits. The question is: What does it translate to for us as individuals, for society as a whole, for our collective future? What is it worth to us? What if we considered it worth fighting back for? 

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These questions got me thinking about the moments when I feel least distracted, most focused, my attention truly summoned. It is when I draw. I head off, with paper, pens and paint, and find a quiet spot. For the next couple of hours, my attention is totally focused on what’s in front of me: the forms, the angles and proportions, the colours, the light and the shade, the textures, the relationships between things. In these moments, I am really looking, far deeper than I usually do. The light changes, the shade moves, I notice details I hadn’t noticed at the outset. I feel as if I am connecting to the place, really seeing it, in a way I wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, otherwise. And when I look back at drawings I did 10, 20, 30 years ago, I can still feel what that place looked like, sounded like, smelt like at the time I drew it, even what I was feeling at the time. It is meditation. It is multisensory. As essayist and literary critic Sven Birkerts writes, “Art is the summoning of attention”, and that attention has given me things, both tangible and intangible, that have real and lasting value. 

Part of valuing our attention is developing a better understanding of how it works, so we can develop more resistance to the many distractions vying for it. Our brains summon attention in different ways, and via different networks, depending on the task in hand. The executive control network (ECN) is active when we bring our attention to focus outwardly on completing a task, the default mode network (DMN) is active when we are focused inward reflectively and the salience network monitors and modulates the two. (The hippocampus, by the way, sits at the heart of these three networks.) Imagine, for example, that you’re intensely writing a screenplay to a deadline. Your ECN is outwardly focused on completing it, while your DMN – or ‘Imagination Network’, as Scott Barry Kaufman of the Imagination Institute calls it – is inwardly focused on conjuring the creative work. Some people also refer to the DMN as the ‘daydreaming network’, since that’s how we often experience it. The DMN creates a space in our mental life to think divergently, expansively, and to integrate different ideas, possibilities and scenarios, often without our even realising it. The result? New associations form and unexpected solutions to complex problems emerge – often effortlessly, it seems. In other words, the DMN is where attention and imagination meet. 

Have you ever struggled hard to figure something out, only to find that once you stopped thinking about it, the solution became clear? People who understand this, even subconsciously, will often go for a walk or sleep on a problem rather than continue to chew on it unproductively. The mathematician Andrew Wiles talks about his ‘3B Mantra’: his best ideas come when he gives his subconscious time and space to wander, ideally on the bus, in bed or in the bath. Whenever I found myself stuck writing this book, I headed out for a short bicycle ride, under some trees, up a hill, and by the time I returned home, the right idea would have arrived.

As we fill more and more of our mind- wandering time with screens, social media and random busyness, we need to ask: What is the impact on our ability to think imaginatively? The writer and physicist Leonard Mlodinow explains in his book Elastic that “as our dmns are sidelined more and more, we have less unfocused time for our extended internal dialogue to proceed. As a result, we have diminished opportunities to string together those random associations that lead to new ideas and realisations.” 

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I asked Dr Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, whose work focuses on the psychological impacts of new technologies, how he sees the overlap between imagination and attention. He told me that abstract thinking, vital to our ability to be imaginative, is “taking ideas from various other places in your brain – things you’ve heard, things you’ve done, things you’ve thought – and putting them together in unique but valuable ways. We don’t have the attention span to do that anymore, and it’s not just young people. It’s everybody.” I asked him why he thought that might be, that we are seeing this precipitous collapse of attention, and he told me, “I would say that our imagination ... is probably on the decline exactly in the opposite trend of our time spent on smartphones”. As he and Adam Gazzaley noted in The Distracted Mind, “We appear to have lost the ability to simply be alone with our thoughts”. In a troubling corollary, addiction specialist Bruce K. Alexander told me that in his experience, people with addictions are “totally out of imagination”. 

As with so many aspects of imagination, the individual experience also plays out in communities and on a large societal scale. “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention – the building block of intimacy, wisdom and cultural progress”, Maggie Jackson writes in Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Our depleted attention spans can mean that the world around us simply seems too complex, too bewildering for us to know how to influence it, so we can be increasingly drawn to simplified versions of why we are experiencing the problems we are experiencing. Our imagination shuts down as a decreasing number of stories we encounter add to our sense that another future, one worth fighting for, is both imaginable and possible. As Jackson tells it, “We really didn’t yet fully know the effects of the vast social experiment that we were undertaking on ourselves and our children. We didn’t understand the costs of distraction and the downsides to inhabiting digital worlds, dismantling cultures built on face-to-face human connections, and abandoning the kinds of reverie, musing, and what-if questions that are foundations of imagination and hence building blocks of envisioning and creating a better world.” 

Our attention and imagination are inextricably linked. One does not exist without the other. Together they are, quite possibly, the most valuable tools we have to envision a positive future and fight for it.

Rob Hopkins is cofounder of Transition Town Totnes and Transition Network and the author of The Power of Just Doing Stuff, The Transition Handbook, and The Transition Companion. His latest book is From What Is to What If (Chelsea Green Publishing, October 2019).

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