How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World: A Conversation with Christian Madsbjerg

How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World: A Conversation with Christian Madsbjerg

Paying attention is a crucial human skill, yet many of us have forgotten how to listen carefully and observe intentionally. Deluged by social media and hobbled by the increasing social isolation it fosters, we need to rediscover the deeply human ways we connect with others.

Christian Madsbjerg, a philosopher and entrepreneur, understands this dilemma. To counteract it, he began a course at The New School in New York City called Human Observation, which lays out the ways that we can learn to pay attention more effectively. The course has been hugely popular since its inception, with hundreds of students filling waiting lists. In his recent book Look, Madsbjerg set out the key observational skills needed to show how we can recapture our ability to pay attention.

In this interview, I speak to Christian Madsbjerg on why we need to rethink observation, and how it can help us see our world with greater richness and texture – with more empathy, accuracy and connection to others and the world around us.

Q: What is the importance of paying attention?

[Christian Madsbjerg]: Well, the immediate response to emphasising the act of paying attention is its utility in addressing or completing tasks in our lives. When we advise our children to “pay attention,” we’re essentially guiding them to narrow their focus onto specific matters, leaving other distractions aside. This form of attention can be termed as ‘focus’ or depicted metaphorically as a ‘spotlight’—a tool to single out a particular element in a broad spectrum. It’s a common narrative; we often express a desire for more of this focused attention, valuing it as a crucial skill to imbibe in our youngsters.

However, beyond this conventional type of attention, two more exist, each with its own whimsical essence. The second type, referred to as ‘panoptic attention’ in my book, deviates from the laser-like focus of the spotlight. It resembles more of a casual stroll down a street, where your awareness broadens to encompass the surroundings, yet without zeroing in on any specific detail. It’s the peripheral comprehension of the landscape, assisting you in navigating through the street to reach your destination—be it a store for milk or a school to drop off your children. This form of attention is akin to the natural stance of a proficient athlete, say a football player, who doesn’t fixate on any particular aspect but maintains a holistic awareness of the field. Their attention is spread out, enabling them to respond to the game’s flow intuitively.

The third variant of attention is what I’ve labelled ‘hyper-reflection’ in my book. This aspect delves into the meta-cognitive realm, enabling one to perceive how others process their surroundings, essentially paying attention to how others pay attention. It’s a fascinating capability, almost magical, allowing us to momentarily step into another’s perspective to fathom their viewpoint.

These three facets of attention—focus, panoptic, and hyper-reflection, are inherent human abilities, each vital in its own right. Their harmonious cultivation is instrumental in leading a fulfilling and meaningful life. They are not merely skills, but essential components that enrich our understanding and interaction with the world.

Q: Is that what people often refer to as the hurly burly of life around us?

[Christian Madsbjerg]: Indeed, the phrase “hurly-burly” carries a unique resonance. This term traces back to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who posited that the scope of philosophy is confined to what we can observe, rationalise, and articulate about the tangible world, the realm of the existent. Yet, beyond this, lies a domain he dubbed the ‘hurly-burly.’ This encompasses all the practices and unseen frameworks of reality that, according to him, were beyond grasp; a domain he felt might forever elude human understanding. This hurly-burly is the underpinning of our social structures, driving our behaviours, thoughts, and essentially defining who we are. While some might label this as ‘culture,’ the term often serves as a placeholder for the undefined, but here, it refers to the forces shaping our actions.

This conceptual challenge was boldly accepted by Martin Heidegger, who retorted with a figurative, ‘Well, watch me.’ In the first segment of his seminal work ‘Being and Time,’ Heidegger ventures into the heart of this hurly-burly. He endeavours to structure and elucidate it, presenting a narrative that not only makes sense but also sheds insightful light on the intricacies of these unseen frameworks. Through his exploration, Heidegger unveils a pathway to a clearer, more insightful understanding of the hurly-burly that Wittgenstein believed to be indescribable.

Q: What is the importance of phenomenology to our understanding of the world?

[Christian Madsbjerg]: To me, phenomenology embodies the philosophical discourse on experience. The suffix ‘ology’ in phenomenology, akin to its usage in biology or geology, signifies a science — in this case, a science dedicated to articulating human experience. It’s not about a verbatim representation of the world, but rather an exploration of how experiences manifest. For instance, consider the current state of the American economy, which is flourishing. Logically, this should evoke a sense of wellbeing, yet for some, it doesn’t. On the surface, this dissonance might seem absurd, especially amidst economic prosperity. However, delving deeper, one could inquire: what drives this divergence between reality and perception? What underpins the experience of the economy, and can we dissect the hurly-burly entangled within?

Phenomenology, therefore, serves as a methodical lens through which we scrutinise social phenomena. Whether it’s the concept of victory, the sensation of being observed, or the abstract entity of money—these are all social constructs open to examination. Phenomenology extends an avenue to describe, to delve into the essence of such phenomena, acting as a conduit for unravelling the intricacies of our shared experiences. Through this philosophical lens, we navigate the nuanced landscape of societal phenomena, each exploration further elucidating the multifaceted tapestry of human experience.

Q: What do we misunderstand about how we see the world?

[Christian Madsbjerg]:  Allow me to delve into abstraction for a moment. My curiosity is piqued by the foundational layer of experience—how do we perceive colour, shape, distance, or sound? What mechanisms underlie the human perceptual apparatus that allow us to transition from mere sensory input to the rich, meaningful world we find ourselves immersed in?

An empiricist might assert that sound waves reverberate against our eardrums, light rays strike our retinas, and through some transformative process, these stimuli morph into a world brimming with conversations, articles, theatrical plays, traffic snarls, and myriad other elements of our lived reality. But how does this alchemy occur?

In the realm of phenomenology, we shy away from merely conjecturing about the physical attributes of the human body. Instead, we delve into the essence of experience itself. Unlike a machine, which processes myriad data points yet remains detached from meaning, we humans instantly ascribe significance to our sensory perceptions. Take the colour red, for instance. Show a machine a red woollen sweater, a red fire truck, and a red airplane—it may identify the common colour but overlook the unique textures and connotations each object invokes. In contrast, we perceive a cosy warmth in the sweater, a rush of urgency in the fire truck, and a hint of adventure in the airplane. The colour red transcends mere visual data, morphing into a spectrum of experiences.

We do not operate like cameras, capturing a 1:1 replica of the external world. Is this a boon or bane? The judgment eludes me, but the fact remains: we don’t. Our sensory faculties are not conduits of raw data; they are gateways to a world laden with meaning.

Consider a musical analogy. Strike a middle C on a piano, and it resonates at a specific frequency, say around 420 hertz. Yet, the same note, when nestled within varying chords or contexts, exudes a different aura—sometimes jazzy, sometimes baroque. The same wave of sound, embedded in diverse cultural or musical landscapes, evokes disparate experiences. This deviation from the notion of perceiving raw data fascinates me. We don’t just hear or see; we interpret, we feel. We are not passive receptors of raw data but active interpreters, enmeshed in a socially constructed, meaning-saturated reality. This deviation from merely perceiving raw data to experiencing a tapestry of meaningful interactions forms the crux of my intrigue.

[Vikas: Does this, therefore, speak to the role of arts and aesthetic in observation?]

[Christian Madsbjerg]: My intrigue leans less towards the traditional appreciation of art, the kind that unfolds within the quiet halls of a museum, and more towards art as a lens through which we examine perception. My fascination orbits around how we see, rather than what we see. Indeed, the book encapsulates discussions around monumental artists, yet readers with a penchant for art often point out a philosophical undertone rather than a mere celebration of aesthetic allure in my narrative. Perhaps, it mirrors my penchant for delving deeper into the realms of perception through the medium of art.

Take, for instance, the illustrious American artist, James Turrell, a venerable figure in the realm of American minimalism, now in his nineties. Turrell crafts what one might term as sculptures, but they are, in essence, rooms. Within these rooms, one can recline and gaze up at the sky through a meticulously carved aperture in the ceiling. This architectural marvel creates an illusion where the sky seems to descend and meld with the room’s ceiling, momentarily erasing the barrier between the indoor and the boundless sky. Yet, as a plane or a bird traverses this frame, the sky suddenly reverts to its distant, expansive self, illustrating a stark dichotomy—either ceiling or sky, either near or far.

These encounters, though emotionally evocative, also embody a philosophical inquiry. They echo the notion that we, as perceivers, engage with our surroundings in wholes or ‘gestalts’ as termed by German philosophers. The dichotomy of ceiling or sky, close or far, unveils a fundamental aspect of our perception: we perceive in wholes, not in fragmented or linear scales. This is not just an aesthetic revelation but a philosophical epiphany, shedding light on how we navigate and comprehend our world. It’s an invitation to reflect on the inherent nature of our perception, to acknowledge that our interaction with the world is layered with these gestalt experiences. And understanding this, I believe, enriches our broader comprehension of both art and our own perceptual engagements.

Q: Can we separate the ‘how’ with the ‘what’ when it comes to observing?

[Christian Madsbjerg]:  For a decade, I co-taught a course titled Human Observation at The New School in Manhattan alongside my colleague, Simon Critchley. Our mission was to instil in our bright, inquisitive students the art of observing the world, perceiving its nuances, and specifically, understanding human behaviour. Over time, we discerned a growing trend: students were adept at forming opinions and defending them vigorously. This ethos of cultivating ‘weak opinions, strongly held’ emerged as a barrier to unbiased observation. We realised that this veil of preconceived notions impeded their ability to see the world as it is, substituting instead a projection of their beliefs onto the reality they encountered. This cycle of confirmation bias stifled their observational acumen, leading them to see recurring patterns that aligned with their expectations, rather than discovering new facets of the world around them.

Conflicts arose, as they invariably do in the realm of academia. And in those heated exchanges, I often found myself emphasising, “I am not interested in what you think, but rather in how you think.” The crux of the matter was not the opinions they held but the lens through which they viewed and engaged with the world. I wanted them to delve into the underlying ‘hurly-burly’ that shaped their perceptions, to dissect the mechanics of their worldview.

This distinction between having an opinion on a subject and merely observing it with a fresh, unclouded lens is fundamental. Both stances have their place, yet for the essence of what we aimed to teach, and the core message within my book, the latter held precedence. The endeavour was to encourage a form of observation free from judgement, an exercise in seeing and describing before drawing conclusions. It’s about halting the rush to judgement and instead, taking a moment to just look, to observe and to understand the social phenomena unfolding before them. This, I believe, is a shift from asking, “What do I think about this?” to a more open-ended, “Let me simply observe this,” laying a foundation for a deeper, unbiased understanding of the world.

Q: Can the tools of observation play a role in leadership?

[Christian Madsbjerg]: Many accomplished individuals are already practicing, in essence, what we’re discussing here. However, there’s room for enhancement in all of us. I liken this to attending a sort of ‘attention gym,’ where one selects a phenomenon of interest and delves into understanding it. For instance, if you’re entrenched in the finance sector, unravelling the social dynamics of money could be enlightening. Immediately, money’s functionality seems straightforward—enabling transactions, embodying a certain value. Common sentiments like ‘more is better’ or the ability to quantify it on spreadsheets are rudimentary observations. Yet, there’s a more nuanced narrative to money. Its essence varies with context—the dollar spent on daily groceries feels different from the dollar saved for a child’s education, though numerically identical.

Engaging in a consistent observational practice, particularly if you’re in finance, to discern how people interact with and experience money could refine your acumen as an executive. It heightens your capacity to cater to the needs of those you serve. This is akin to a daily regimen in an ‘attention gym,’ honing one’s perception and understanding.

Moreover, adept observation of people, discerning the motivations behind their actions, can unveil the inklings of change. It’s about reading the subtle shifts in behaviour, which could signal broader societal shifts. Identifying these changes early on allows for informed anticipations, be it in product development, decision-making, or strategic adjustments. This foresight, derived from what I consider ‘alternative data,’ is invaluable in making business decisions. The future, in a way, is manifesting now, discernible to those who attentively study human interactions, be it with money, media, writing, or any other domain. Observing these micro-shifts helps in navigating the macro changes, positioning one favourably in the ever-evolving landscape of societal and market dynamics.

Q: How can life be different, if we really know how to observe our world?

[Christian Madsbjerg]: There’s a certain vibrancy that unfolds when one steps into the world with a lens of curiosity. Residing on 13th Street in Manhattan, the simple act of stepping outside can morph into a rich tapestry of observations. Like anyone else, I could embark on my daily routine. Yet, at times, a heightened awareness takes over, leading me to marvel at the orchestrated dance of urban life. How do the cars seamlessly sync with the city’s rhythm? How does the collective behaviour of the crowd subtly shift as the clock hits 2:30, signalling the end of a school day? The dynamics of the city seem to ebb and flow with the ticking clock.

With a keen eye and a mindful approach to observation, the mundane transforms into the extraordinary. The nearby school, usually a mere landmark, becomes a fascinating hub of activity. This enhanced perception unveils a layer of magic in the everyday.

Currently, the narrative seems to tilt towards the prowess of machines, often overshadowing the unique capabilities inherent to humans. Machines are lauded for surpassing human efficiency in various domains, be it writing, ideation, or even filmmaking. However, a closer look at the human tapestry reminds us that we’re far from becoming obsolete. There exists a realm of perception, a depth of understanding that machines have yet to reach. Our ability to notice how others engage with the world, to perceive the nuances of human attention, sets us apart. It’s this human-centric attention that infuses the world with a texture that’s both exhilarating and rejuvenating. Amidst the burgeoning realm of artificial intelligence, this form of awareness reignites a sense of appreciation for the human essence, offering a refreshing perspective in a technology-driven narrative.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.