Attention, Flow, and Concentration

Chess thinking provides a rich metacognitive context that leads me to believe that we should tease apart three notions that are related but often conflated – attention, flow and concentration. Attention is fundamentally grounded in perception (how we attend), flow is fundamentally grounded in experience (how we feel), and concentration is grounded in praxis (how we purposively coalesce).

We ask too much of attention and not enough of concentration. The recent cultural emphasis on attention risks subsuming too many variables of human experience, as if they could ever be held constant. We have to pay attention with the body, the will, the place, the mood, the memory, the moment, the relationships, the affordances, not the least the smartphone. All these variables are implicated in our capacity to attend, but they have their own kinds of agency, too, and they play with each other in unpredictable ways. The emergent properties arising from the psyche at play with itself in the world include amusement, enchantment, dissonance and distraction: these are not mere hindrances but more like a kind of data to be understood and integrated before we can exercise agency that is truly our own. We need to coalesce in order to concentrate, and concentrate to coalesce.

If we can’t concentrate, we will not be able to enjoy the state of consciousness – called flow – that is part of the chess experience. Flow was conceived and popularised by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and it is a mental state characterised by intense absorption, loss of self-consciousness, goal-related feedback from the world and an altered sense of time. Flow experiences are deeply rewarding, and they arise when our skill level and challenge level are optimally matched; too little challenge and we get bored, too much and we feel anxious. Chess is a great way to access flow, yet – as a lodestar for living – flow has limitations. Mostly, it describes a quality of consciousness, not a method for obtaining it. Ultimately, flow is not a virtue but a form of pleasure. While flow is a desirable state of mind, promoting it might not lead to desirable qualities of character; just as likely it could yield an atomised society of sophisticated hedonists with gaming addictions and virtual-reality sickness.

Unlike attention or flow, concentration prompts an awareness of mood, even a commitment to meaning, and an appreciation for method. As a young player, I leant on various methods to deepen concentration, including taking long walks before games and listening to favourite music tracks. They worked mostly because the purpose of the concentration was never in doubt. However, in early December 2008, in a generic hotel room in Palma, Mallorca, I vividly remember trying to prepare for a game while feeling unusually displaced from myself. As generations of American football coaches have put it: ‘The will to win is not as important as the will to prepare to win.’ And I noticed that I had lost that. It felt as if the underlying motivational vector for concentration had collapsed; and, as the will to deepen my attention for chess was dying, a part of myself was dying, too. The will to sustain the identity that perpetuated my desire to win had gone, and I knew that it was time to concentrate on what the game symbolised rather than on the game itself.


Folksonomies: concentration flow attention

Electronic/World Wide Web>Internet Article:  Rowson, Jonathan (2020/01/06), Concentrate!, Aeon, Retrieved on 2020-12-19
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  • Folksonomies: attention gaming chess concentration