Why is everyone so busy seeking attention
"Attention is not an infinite resource"
DEFAULT: In your new book "We are everywhere, just not with us" you describe attention as the hottest subject of our time. What do you mean?
Spleen: Attention is the soul's currency par excellence. No living being can find a happy existence without attention. We know that neglected children develop severe disorders. It is also known that adults who are denied attention are desperate to regain it. In today's networked culture, it is becoming more and more difficult to even be noticed. Immense competition has broken out, a kind of Darwinian contest over who counts. And whoever is paying attention does what counts.
DEFAULT: What happens when children lack this attention because parents are more concerned with incoming WhatsApp messages than with their offspring?
Spleen: We have initial data that babies whose mothers chat while they are breastfeeding become incredibly restless. Strangely enough, this does not happen if the mother reads while breastfeeding. Neither does it happen when she reads on her smartphone. So it's not the smartphone itself, but the external communication. In early childhood, unnoticed children tend to behave in two ways: Either they withdraw more and more or they attract attention by doing things that are disturbing. They knock something over, fidget, whine. These are all attempts to be noticed again.
DEFAULT: And how do young people react?
Spleen: Young people often switch these attempts to the Internet. The fatal thing about it: Those who get a lot of attention in the analog world also get it on the Internet. Those who get lonely in their social lives and hope for attention in social media then experience the same loneliness again on the Internet. This also explains the increased number of depressive moods after stays on Facebook.
DEFAULT: More and more people are having a hard time when they have to spend half an hour without an Internet connection. How much does this restlessness have to do with the self-loss you diagnosed in our society?
Spleen: The contemporary man defines himself to an unusually high degree through his interconnectedness. If you take the interconnectedness out of it, a strange sense of emptiness is left behind. If we put all our attention into the outer web, then the perception inward is lost bit by bit. If you suddenly lack the external network, it is difficult to feel something inside - except for increasing unrest.
DEFAULT: You write that many people no longer know what to do with their lives. Why?
Spleen: A person who has not learned how to look inside himself, how to explore and get to know himself, does not get access to what he really wants. It is also harder and harder for them to decide. He is driven back and forth between the external stimuli. The really good decisions, however, are made through time, attention, and self-care.
DEFAULT: What are the consequences of a permanent lack of self-awareness?
Spleen: In order to develop a mature personality that can withstand internal contradictions and diversity, you need self-awareness. If this is less and less possible, then less and less mature personal development occurs. This loss of a mature self is palpable. Instead, one builds a "false self" or an "artificial self". I am currently seeing four forms of artificial self, namely narcissism, fundamentalism, swarm orientation, and functionalism.
DEFAULT: What do you mean by that?
Spleen: They are attempts to compensate for the loss of self. Most of all, behind narcissism is the desire to be valued and desired. Fundamentalism is about adjusting what should apply - something that you actually work out more deeply with yourself. When it comes to swarming behavior, everything revolves around belonging and defending against loneliness. And at the level of functionalism, we compete with a machine and define ourselves based on what we can do. But pure ability in the machine sense makes people easily corruptible. For money or for recognition, people do things that are not good for them and leave them mentally desolate. At some point he feels that the effort to be functional is no longer in proportion to the profit. This functionalism leads purposefully in burnout.
DEFAULT: The pressure to survive in the digitized world is not decreasing. How can we save ourselves from self-loss?
Spleen: I think we need three things above all: One is an awareness that attention is not an infinite resource. It is possibly the most limited human resource. You can't do two or three things all the time. Attention should only be given to what appears to be valuable to us. Second, there is a need to broadly learn awareness technologies that direct attention. Mindfulness exercises are one of many ways to direct our attention. And third, there is an urgent need for a cultural debate about where we want to go as a digitized society. At the moment we take digital capitalism for granted.
DEFAULT: What can parents do to empower their children?
Spleen: If you want children to learn to deal with the networked world, you should set an example. But the big ones are just as unsuccessful in distributing their attention as the little ones. The surest way of telling a child that they are interesting is to engage with the child. I see this again and again in my practice: Those who experience as a child that they are little noticed are subtly conveyed that they are less interesting. And as a result, these people find themselves less interesting.
DEFAULT: You advocate a new idea of attention economy. What does it look like?
Spleen: Due to the extremely high level of stimulation, it is no longer a matter of course that you give yourself up to something if you find it fascinating. When our cell phone whistles, we take a look. This is a remnant of the evolutionarily necessary pattern: If something rustles up in the bush, I have to find out whether there is prey or whether I will soon be prey. Part of our current unrest is due to the fact that these evolutionary patterns are at work. In addition, it is difficult to filter what is important or what is not. For a new economy of attention we have to learn to filter what is relevant. If you don't want to succumb to the evolutionary patterns on the playground, you need rules. Because if, at the moment when the child would need a safety position, the father or mother stupidly looks down because a message comes in, the child will fall. It takes an awareness that we are not in control of the channels. A new attention economy could look like this: I turn off my cell phone when I'm in the playground. It is important to plan consciously when and where you want to be connected and when and where to switch off all channels. In some families, the rule is to turn off all screens after 9 p.m. In a family, it's worth negotiating. And: Children very much appreciate it when it is clear that the rules are also observed by adults. (Christine Tragler, 10.1.2018)
Georg Milzner (55) is a qualified psychologist and works in his own practice as a psychotherapist with adults, children and adolescents. He researched and wrote on severe mental disorders as well as on rampages and the influence of digital media on people. He works in Münster, where he lives with his family, and in Düsseldorf.
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