“Everyone knows what attention is”—or do they?

Many popular notions of attention exist, as overloaded achievers have discovered through the work practices, meditations, and social networks they have improvised to survive. One reason attention remains such a wondrous but unwieldy topic is that there are so many ways to describe it. Any quick online foraging quickly brings a cascade of views : educators, highly specialized neurophysiology research, silicon valley ethnographers, eponymous college courses in psychology, new age personal transformation therapies, or the pioneering opus of William James. Today much neurobabble recites James’ famous remark that “everyone knows what attention is.” Well I don’t. Neuroscience really doesn’t know either; they consider the theory of attention a bit like a holy grail. What about you?

“The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” William James, Principles of Psychology (1890) 1:402–58.