Tuesday, 7 August 2012

PAY ATTENTION! The human need to receive (and give) attention

(Trigger warning for discussion of Middle Ages experiment involving child neglect)

Without nutrients of any kind we will die, and the human need for attention is no different.

This is shown by a horrific experiment in the Middle Ages by the Roman and German Emperor, Frederick II, who had newborn babies removed from their parents and cared for by nurses who fed and cleaned them but were under strict instructions not to touch, talk or give them any attention whatsoever in an attempt to satisfy the emperor’s curiosity as to what language the children would speak if they didn’t hear a native tongue. The experiment was never resolved, as all the babies died from lack of attention before reaching talking age.

The phenomenon of attention needs has always been well understood in Eastern psychology but has only recently been equally as valued by the West. A 1927 study into productivity performed by the Western Electric Company plant in Hawthorne near Chicago found that difference in the ways they treated employees was the amount of attention they were giving them, not taking 5 minute rest breaks or going home at 4pm. This became known as the Hawthorne effect. (Mayo, E 1933 The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization. Macmillan)

We all know that people draw attention to themselves in myriad ways - by being the most stylish, fashionable or expensively dressed, or the noisiest and most noticed at social gatherings. Some exhibit eccentric behaviours, wear garish clothes, sport deliberately odd hairstyles, boast about their achievements etc. But the lure of attention seeking can be far more subtle than that. People are attracted, far more often than they realise, to situations that provide opportunities for getting attention.

Many social and commercial transactions are in fact disguised attention situations, and if individuals are unaware that what is driving them in certain circumstances is the demanding, exchanging, extending or exchange of attention, believing they are engaged in something else - such as learning, informing, helping, buying or selling - they are likely to be less efficient in achieving their ends (both those they think they are serving and their attention needs) and will be less able to act and react in ways that are appropriate to a situation, whatever that is.

In becoming aware of how your attention needs are being met it’s important to realise:

1) That this attention-factor is operating in virtually all transactions;

2) That the apparent motivation of transactions may be other than it really is. And that is often generated by the need or desire for attention-activity (giving, receiving exchanging);

3) That attention-activity, like any other demand for food, warmth etc, when placed under volitional control, must result in increased scope for the human being who would then not be at the mercy of random sources of attention - or even more confused than usual if things should not pan out as expected.

This is a profoundly more subtle understanding of the importance of attention than found in Western psychology until now.

It's worth considering how your need to give and receive attention is being met in your life at the moment.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about attention: 

Do you feel like you receive enough attention?
Do you give other people significant attention?
Are you often around attention seeking people who seem to drain you of energy?
Are you around people who are genuinely interested in what you think?
Do you spend a lot of time alone, by choice or not?
Do you feel too shy to get the attention you need?
Do you get attention in healthy or unhealthy ways?
Do you get attention through behaving dramatically, being emotional and creating scenes?
If so, have you considered that you might be an emotional tyrant?
Do you really listen when people talk to you, or just hear what you expect they are saying?
Do you enjoy being the centre of attention?
Do you dislike being the centre of attention?
Can you separate out your need for attention from the activities you are involved in, such as sport, politics, community work, attending meetings or a church?

Read more about your human need for attention on our lift depression website.

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