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2-3. Locus of Attention

You have a degree of control over making unconscious thoughts conscious, as you demonstrated when you brought the final character of your first name “into mind.” You cannot deliberately make conscious thoughts unconscious, however. “Don't think about an elephant,” a girl whispers to a boy, knowing that the boy cannot comply. But in a few moments, unless the conversation stays on elephants, the animal will fade into the boy's unconscious. When that happens, the boy is no longer paying attention to the thought of an elephant: The elephant is not his locus of attention.

I use the term locus because it means place, or site. The term focus, which is sometimes used in a similar connection, can be read as a verb; thus, it conveys a misimpression of how attention works. When you are awake and conscious, your locus of attention is a feature or an object in the physical world or an idea about which you are intently and actively thinking. You can see the distinction when you contemplate this phrase: “We can deliberately focus our attention on a particular locus.” Whereas to focus implies volition, we cannot completely control what our locus of attention will be. If you hear a firecracker unexpectedly exploding behind you, your attention will be drawn to the source of the sound. Focus is also used to denote, among the objects on a computer display, the one that is currently selected. Your attention may or may not be on this kind of focus when you are using an interface. Of all the world that you perceive through either your senses or your imagination, you are concentrating on at most one entity. Whatever that one object, feature, memory, thought, or concept might be, it is your locus of attention. Attention, as used here, includes not only the case of actively paying attention but also the passive case of going with the flow, or just experiencing what is taking place.


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