Can Modern Psychology Shed Light on How We Might Best Give Our Attention to Both God and Others?

Derek King
Tuesday 14 June 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Attention is ubiquitous.[1] Although rarely paying attention to attention itself, we are constantly giving our attention to people, places, and things. This has always been true of human beings, but the importance and role of attention has especially become a topic of interest in our present moment. The proliferation of information in a technological age led economist Herbert Simon to coin the phrase “attention economy” and claim a “wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” (Simon 1971, 40–41). Our attention, like all goods that contribute to market forces and economic systems, is a finite resource. How and where we direct our attention says a lot about who we are, what we value, and how we are being formed—knowingly or unknowingly. Thus, our attention is a critical component in our spiritual formation.

The 4th century theologian Gregory of Nyssa makes the connection between spiritual formation and attention explicit. On his telling, our souls are shaped in accordance with that to which we give our attention. For Gregory, then, we ought to give our attention to God. The more we focus our attention on God, the more we are shaped into the divine likeness. Since, on the doctrine of sin, human beings are fundamentally broken and the image of God in us is marred, one must gaze upon God to be restored in God’s image. To add to pithy sayings like, “you are what you eat” or “you are what you love,” Gregory’s principle for spiritual formation could be articulated as, “you become like that to which you give your attention.” This initially seems like a promising way to conceive of our attention and the importance of directing that attention toward God.

Gregory’s principle, however, introduces a theological puzzle. We can, and should, give our attention to God, but there are also other things worthy of our attention. Most of us have careers, family, and friends that vie for our attentions—and rightly so. On top of that, there are basic necessities that we pursue, like food and water, or other goods that Scripture even commands that we offer our attention to, like church or the poor. These are but a sample of the many goods that require attention. To neglect them could even be construed as disregarding a Christian duty. Yet, when we give our attention to these things, it could imply that we are not attending to God. And, on Gregory’s principle, this could include us becoming formed in accordance with things or people that are not God.

The hypothesis of this article is that modern psychological accounts of attention can shed light on this theological puzzle. To test this hypothesis, the article proceeds in three parts. First, it investigates the role Gregory of Nyssa gives to attention for spiritual formation. By examining Gregory’s Homilies on the Song of Songs in particular, I articulate Gregory’s principle for spiritual formation. Second, I explore modern psychological work on attention that may be relevant to how we conceive of giving our attention to God and others. Third, I construct some models from that modern psychological work and discuss their merits toward determining which, if any, offer promising ways to think about attention and spiritual formation according to Gregory’s principle.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 The Theology of Attention and Spiritual Formation in Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory’s In Canticum Canticorum—or Homilies on the Song of Songs—is a tour de force of spiritual theology and formation. In fifteen sermons, he applies an allegorical reading of the text that bears much fruit for the spiritual life of the ordinary Christian. Preaching on Song of Songs 2:8-17, he reflects on the “changeable nature of human beings” (Gregory 2012, 159). For Gregory, the human soul is necessarily changeable. It is fundamentally malleable, because it is a mirror that reflects the impression of that which it is turned toward (Gregory 2012, 163). David Bentley Hart comments on Gregory’s view:

Such is the soul’s ‘glassy essence’ that it cannot help but assume the aspect of that toward which it is turned, and thus its intrinsic mutability and plasticity make of it also a ‘stable’ surface in which anything—however noble or debased—can be made manifest. Human nature, says Gregory, is a mirror that takes on any appearance, bears the impression of any form, and is molded solely by the determinations of free will. (Hart 2017, 125)

What other Christian thinkers saw as an unambiguous negative—because, since God is unchangeable, our natures are unlike God in this respect—Gregory saw neither as necessarily positive nor negative. And, indeed, he may have been the first Christian teacher to envision the changeable nature of humanity as a potential good (Norris 2012, 265 fn. 11).

Gregory’s motif of the mirror is critical for understanding how he thinks about spiritual formation. The human soul cannot become beautiful “unless the mirror has received the impression of a lovely form” (Gregory 2012, 163). The soul as mirror thus charts a kind of roadmap for the person seeking restoration in God’s image: she must direct her mirror, her gaze, toward God to become like God. Of course, we can direct our mirrors in harmful directions too. Human nature “took the form of the serpent as long as it…directed its gaze on him” but “in the same way” it can “face the good” and “look upon the archetypal beauty” (Gregory 2012, 163). He says in a later homily “it is necessary that one assume the form of that toward which one looks, receiving through the eye, in the fashion of a mirror, the form of the visible thing” (Gregory 2012, 229-231). In short, our human nature “is formed according to that which it looks upon” (Gregory 2012, 163).

If human nature is “formed according to that which it looks upon,” then a person desiring proper spiritual formation should look upon God. Gregory even goes so far as to say, “the purified soul is to have nothing in herself, nor look upon anything else, except God. But she must rather cleanse herself of every material concern and thought…to make herself an image of the archetypal beauty” (Gregory 2012, 467). In less mystical terms, Everett Ferguson sums up Gregory’s thinking: “Looking towards God provides direction for the virtuous life” (Ferguson 1993, 321).

What does it mean to “look” upon or towards God? I have examined this issue in greater detail elsewhere (King 2020, 155), but it is sufficient here to say it includes more than just using our visual senses. Indeed, Gregory himself ties what it means for the soul to “look upon” something with “attentive apprehension” (Gregory 2012, 341). Because God is, except in the incarnate Christ, fundamentally invisible, to “see,” “look upon,” or “gaze at” God must mean something beyond sensory perception of a visible reality. Instead, I submit that attention is a good way to understand what Gregory has in mind.[2] The human soul is shaped in accordance with that to which it attends—or gives its attention. Hereafter, we call this Gregory’s principle for spiritual formation: we are formed in accordance with God only insofar as we attend to God.

2.2 Modern Psychological Themes and Attention

The features and bugs of human attention are increasingly a subject of study for modern psychologists. Following one of the most well-known psychological studies, psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons argue that one of the bugs of human attention is what they call the “illusion of attention” (Chabris and Simons 2009, 7). Their famous study asks subjects to count the number of basketball passes in a following video. The video depicts a handful of people, walking around in a circle, passing the basketball to one another. After the video, about half of the subjects can confidently give the number of basketball passes but did not see the person dressed in a gorilla suit walk right in the middle of the circle, dance for a moment, then walk away.[3] Chabris and Simons call this the “illusion of attention” because “we experience far less of our visual world than we think we do” (Chabris and Simons 2009, 7). The reason subjects often miss the gorilla, however, is not because they failed to pay close enough attention, but rather that they were paying too close attention to something else. When we closely focus on one thing, it is difficult to focus well on anything else. In short, “attention is essentially a zero-sum game: If we pay more attention to one place, object, or event, we necessarily pay less attention to others” (Chabris and Simons 2009, 38). The zero-sum nature of attention is central to the theological puzzle. Toward a solution to this puzzle, this section will focus on three themes in psychology that may be relevant to the theological puzzle: the “cocktail party effect,” multitasking, and shared-attention. I shall consider each in turn.

First, the well-known “Cocktail Party Effect” refers to the challenge of attention in a crowded room (cf. Cherry 1953). Suppose you and a friend are at a crowded party, talking about theology while sipping Rob Roys. Your friend is going on about Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the hypostatic union and you begin to lose interest. Meanwhile, you hear your name spoken by another friend, to another friend, in a separate conversation happening behind you. Suddenly, that conversation becomes more interesting to you than the one you are in, so you feign interest in your friend’s opinion on hylomorphism while covertly listening to the obviously more interesting conversation about you.

In this example, you essentially tune out the noise of your Thomist friend to attend to a “target voice” (Bronkhorst 2015, 1476). This may also be called “selective hearing”: many different noises, even words, are going into our ears, but we only hear a portion of them. Of course, the sound of your name is likely to elicit your interest, but there are other factors that determine how and what we hear in a given situation. To tweak the example above, suppose you are sitting in the middle of a crowded room sipping your Rob Roy alone. In this case, the conversation you end up overhearing may not be the result of an interesting topic (like yourself), but rather the result of the auditory features of a particular voice (Bronkhorst 2015, 1476-1477). However the example plays out, the cocktail party effect—and the various psychological work done on the phenomenon—shows how our brains can tune everything else out to focus on one voice.

A second theme studied in modern psychology that may be relevant to the theological puzzle is multitasking. Multitasking does not mean merely doing multiple things at once. For example, chewing gum while breathing and walking does not count as “multitasking.” Instead, multitasking refers to attending to multiple tasks at the same time—tasks that require attention, that is, unlike chewing, breathing, or walking. While many people are confident that they can multitask well—for example, many people are confident that they could simultaneously count basketball passes and notice unexpected visitors, evidenced by their incredulity when they learn of the invisible gorilla—“the main conclusion from studies of multitasking is that virtually nobody does it well: As a rule, it is more efficient to do tasks one at a time rather than simultaneously” (Chabris and Simons 2009, 32).

Since it is more efficient to do tasks one at a time rather than simultaneously, that is what our brain does. When we think we are “multitasking,” we are actually “task switching”—that is, switching back and forth between multiple tasks (Evans, Meyer, and Rubinstein 2001). When switching between at least two tasks, there is a “cost” for the switch. The switch itself takes time, and the mind must then focus (or refocus) on the new task. You may think you are watching Netflix and responding to your boss’s email, but, instead, your attention is switching back and forth. You are missing some of your show and drawing out the time it takes for you to type the email—and probably struggling to remember your thought process each time you return to type another sentence. And the more complicated and unfamiliar the task, the greater the cost of the switch (Evans, Meyer, and Rubinstein 2001, 783-784). If either efficiency or depth of attention is an aim for our tasks, then this suggests that “multitasking”—or task switching—is a poor way to attend to people and things. You likely already know this if you have tried to have a conversation with someone who is also on their phone.

A third theme studied in modern psychology that may be relevant to the theological puzzle is shared-attention. Shared-attention refers to the common experience of two or more persons jointly attending to some other object.[4] Garriy Shteynberg, however, makes the important distinction between “the psychological state of shared attention” and “the actual activity of attending together with another social agent” (Shteynberg 2015, 580-581). To see the difference, consider two cases of watching a movie with your spouse. In the first case, you think you are watching a movie with your spouse, but you do not realize that your spouse has fallen asleep. In the second case, you think you are watching a movie alone, but you do not realize that your spouse has walked in the room and is quietly watching the movie with you. In the former case, there is the perception of shared-attention—or what Shteynberg calls the psychological state—even without the actual activity. In the latter case, there is the actual activity of attending together, but not the psychological state. Shteynberg defines the psychological state of shared attention—hereafter, just shared-attention—as “the perception of in-the-moment attention to an object from a first-person-plural perspective. Put simply, it is the perception that we are attending to some aspect of the world” (Shteynberg 2015, 581). Of course, most cases of shared-attention include the actual activity of attending together, too, even if it is not a necessary condition.

The research on shared-attention “suggests that people devote greater cognitive resources to any feature of their environment that is thought to be co-attended synchronously with a socially close other,” including cognitive benefits in memory, motivation, judgment, and emotion (Shteynberg 2015, 583-585). These benefits are especially important for childhood development (cf. Mundy and Newell 2007). Cognitive benefits aside, shared-attention also has an interpersonal dimension. It underscores “a deeply social dimension of the human mind” (Shteynberg 2015, 588). Watching a movie with my wife is different than watching a movie alone, and this shared activity has the potential to enhance or otherwise influence our relationship.[5]

3. Discussion

It should be obvious that the psychological work surveyed in section 2.2 did not have as its goal the solution to the theological puzzle introduced by Gregory’s principle in 2.1. But some avenues for a solution may be present in this work, nonetheless. This section investigates possible solutions to the theological puzzle by constructing models from the psychological work on attention. These models are constructed for the purpose of seeing what this work may offer to the discussion of God and attention.

Before constructing these models, it is worth considering what a good model for thinking about attending to God may look like. The following desiderata shall guide the evaluation of these models. First, the model should encourage a maximal amount of attention given to God. Gregory’s principle, the reader can recall, is we are formed in accordance with God only insofar as we attend to God. If this is a good principle for spiritual formation, the more attention we can give to God, the better. Second, the model should allow us to truly attend to others. It is not always good to attend to objects that are not God, but sometimes it is. It is good, for example, that I attend to my wife and son. It is good that I attend to those in my church community. It is good that I attend to the poor. It is good that I attend to daily tasks, like driving or eating. A model that causes us to attend to others only partially, or with a distracted mind, is a deficient one. Third, the model should be easily transferrable to real life and practical situations. A good model is one that is easy to put into practice. While there may be other desiderata worth considering, these three shall guide my evaluation of the following models.

The first model is the Cocktail Party Effect Model. Taking its cues from the cocktail party effect, this model says that attending to God involves the tuning out of the noise around us so that we can properly attend to God. On this model, spiritual formation would primarily include finding the voice of God—in whatever way that might be analogously understood—despite other things vying for our attention. This model offers some initial promise because it accomplishes the first desideratum. In this model, we can, or should, virtually always attend to God by tuning others out, meaning it encourages a maximal amount of attention directed toward God. However, the other two desiderata do not fare as well. It is unclear how this model would do for the third desideratum. What does it mean, for example, to tune out the rest of the world to attend to God? We might think of attending to God as praying—so, perhaps this model can be thought to take Saint Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) most seriously—but what does it mean to tune out others? Can I, for example, drive a car or talk to my wife while attending to God? And this gets to the central problem: this model fails miserably at the second desideratum because this model includes “tuning out” others so that we can listen to God. This is a deficiency of this model since the Cocktail Party Effect necessarily means not attending to the other voices in the room.

The second model is the Multitasking Model. Following a popular trend toward “multitasking,” this model proposes that we multitask our attention by focusing on God and on others simultaneously. As discussed in section 2.2, however, multitasking is a myth. This model could pivot to become a Task-Switching Model. On this model, attending to God is something we weave into our days by switching our attention back and forth between God and others. The advantages of such an approach are that it allows for a lot of our attention to be devoted to God, albeit less than the Cocktail Party Effect Model. But it does succeed in at least one place that the first model fails: it is more easily transferrable to our daily lives, so fulfilling the third desideratum. However, the same problem befalls this model that befell the first: it is difficult to see how it succeeds in accomplishing the second desideratum. Since we cannot truly “multitask,” this model requires that we choose between God and others. Because of this, it does little to solve the problem, since our attending to God is still at odds with attending to others.

The third model is the Shared-Attention Model. For this model, when we give our attention to people or other things in the world, we can conceive of that as a kind of shared-attention with God. For example, when I attend to my child, I can do so under the assumption that God is also attending to my child. The knowledge that God is also attending to my child is a kind of attending to God, but of a different stripe—what we may call “background attending.” This is not like multitasking or the cocktail party effect, but rather is an implicit awareness of God’s presence in the world through all we do. Conceiving of our attention in this way allows us to attend to others while at the same time “background attending” to God in such a way that affects how we attend to others. The advantage of this model is that it gives us an avenue for attending to others while also attending to God, in a certain sense. And it is relatively simple to conceive of how to do so: simply make the mental switch from “I am attending to my friend” to “I am attending to my friend with God.” And yet this model, too, has drawbacks. The biggest problem is that it is debatable whether this counts as “attending” to God at all, since it would have to be a kind of background attending. Another problem is that, while the idea is simple, it may be an “easier said than done” situation, as it might be difficult to conceive of our actions in this shared-attention manner at all times.

The three models introduced here offer distinct ways of conceiving of the relationship between God and attention. Each offers advantages and disadvantages but none, per the desiderata laid out at the beginning of this section, are perfect.

4. Conclusion

The beginning of this essay introduced a theological puzzle: if, like Gregory’s principle for spiritual formation suggests, we are formed in accordance with God only insofar as we attend to God, then our spiritual formation would appear to be at odds with our attending to others or other tasks in our daily lives. This essay has considered the role of modern psychological work on attention, and especially whether models constructed from this work might help shed light on the theological puzzle. So, do they?

It would seem that none of the models surveyed here completely fulfill the desiderata introduced at the beginning of section 3. In other words, none of the models are perfect. In response to this, we may be tempted to discard Gregory’s principle for spiritual formation. If it sets up this theological puzzle, perhaps it is the problem. But this would be hasty. There is an insight here worth preserving. This is illustrated well in the 2017 film Lady Bird, in which “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan) struggles with her hometown Sacramento and longs to escape to bigger and better places. In a telling scene, she meets with Sister Joan, a guidance counselor at Lady Bird’s Catholic high school. Sister Joan has read Lady Bird’s college admissions essay on Sacramento. Lady Bird is surprised when Sister Joan says, “you clearly love Sacramento.” She retorts, “I was just describing it” and “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Joan rejoins, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

While Sister Joan may overstate her case a little, she makes an important claim that is related to Gregory’s principle. What we give our attention to simply is that which we value. And while it easy to say, “I love God,” the proof is in the pudding. As a pastor friend of mine likes to say, “the thing we think about most is the god we most often worship.” Gregory understood well that our attention is a valuable yet finite thing. What we do with our attention reveals what we value, what we love, and, therefore, how we shall be spiritually formed. For this reason, I find Gregory’s principle is worth preserving.

So, where does that leave us? And how then shall we attend? Let me close by offering two thoughts based on the previous work of this article.

First, attending to God could be significantly different than attending to others—especially God revealed in the incarnate Christ. Two Biblical examples help illustrate this. First, Christ claims to be among “the least of these” such that however we treat them, we treat Christ the same way (Matthew 25). In the context of attention, we might say that when we attend to “the least of these,” we have attended to Christ. The second Biblical example is that the church is called “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12-27). If this is true, our participation in the church is also, somehow, a participation in Christ’s own body. Each of these examples suggests that when we attend to “the least of these” and the church, we are attending to God. This is true even if we do not intend to attend to God and even though we are truly attending to others. That is why each have long been considered deeply spiritually formative.

This does not mean, of course, that attending to the least of these or the church is merely instrumental—as if we love those around us only to love God. Indeed, it may well be the opposite: only when loving the other as other can we discern God through them. But this point should, instead, help dissolve the tension one might feel in Gregory’s principle: we need not feel neither guilty nor neglectful of our spiritual formation when we attend to others. We can, fully and without reservation, attend to others. The prior recognition that we also attend to God—and with God, to apply the Shared-Attention Model—is even a powerful invitation into such attending.

Second, attending to God takes practice. The Shared-Attention Model, especially, is an example of a practice that is simple but not easy. To constantly conceive of our actions as a kind of shared-attention with God takes effort and, well, sustained attention. But an exhortation to practice and effort toward a constant awareness of the divine is hardly new advice. If anything, this is simply to repeat the advice of the spiritual giants of the Christian tradition. To skim one example off the top, Brother Lawrence famously encouraged the “practice of the presence of God” which he describes as “the soul’s attention on God, remembering that he is always present” (Brother Lawrence 1982, 67).

More work could be done developing the details of Brother Lawrence’s “practice of the presence of God,” but I mention it here because it could help ease a significant worry with the Shared-Attention Model. One problem with the model, detailed above, is that it could only count as “background attending.” And it is questionable whether “background attending”—however understood—counts as attending in a way that satisfies Gregory’s principle. But it seems to me that it could. Consider again the example of watching a movie with my wife. In addition to watching a movie, we might birdwatch or go to a baseball game together. In any of these cases, the primary object of my attention is not my wife. But the very fact that I am doing it with her is significant and, presumably, deepens our relationship. It is true that shared-attention cannot by itself satisfy Gregory’s principle—just like shared-attention alone could not satisfy the amount of attention I should give to my wife. As with my wife, my relationship with God would greatly benefit from times of extended, sustained attention, like times of contemplative prayer. But the Shared-Attention Model helps chart a way to attend to God—even if in a diminished sense—that is useful toward showing how one might practice God’s presence and constantly remain aware of him.

The “practice of the presence of God” bears an initial likeness to the Shared-Attention Model. But it might find other useful resources in psychology, too. The practice of “mindfulness” and its many benefits are increasingly of interest to modern psychologists (cf. Brown and Ryan 2003). Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn 2005, 4). This is not the same thing as prayer or what Brother Lawrence called the practice of the presence of God. But, once again, there are similarities. We might define the prayer or the practice of God’s presence similarly to how Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness: paying attention to God in a particular way: on purpose and in the present moment.

Whatever similarities there may be, the central point is that, like mindfulness, attending to God takes practice and may help improve our attention. As an analogy, we might think of attention as a kind of muscle that can be exercised and improved. The more we practice sustained, uninterrupted attention, the better we will be at attending to things—and the inverse is true, too. The more we allow distractions, the more our attention spans will wane. The practice of the presence of God, like mindfulness, can and should be aware of this and seek to “practice” sustaining attention on God to improve it.

There are several unanswered questions about how we attend to God. As the beginning of this paper suggested, focusing our attention on God is only becoming more difficult. The rapid expansion of frivolity is virtually out of control—certainly, it is out of our control. But we often do control that which we give our attention to. If Gregory is right, we ought to take great care in directing our attention toward God. To paraphrase another great theologian: “for where your attention is, there your heart will be also.”


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[1] A special thank you to Dr. Benjamin T. Mast, Professor and Chair of Psychology at the University of Louisville. Dr. Mast read and offered several points of helpful feedback to an earlier draft of this paper.

[2]Though not required by the Greek, this move is not unwarranted. The relevant Greek word is “βλεπω.” Among early Christian literature, “pay close attention to something”; “direct one attention to something”; “develop awareness of something”; and “be oriented in a particular direction” are possible translations of this verb (BDAG).

[3] I can not-so-proudly say that I was subjected to this experiment as an undergraduate and am among the roughly 50% who fail to see the gorilla.

[4] From what I can tell, the literature typically does not distinguish between “shared-attention” and “joint-attention.” The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology, for example, says joint attention is also called shared attention, thus conflating the two. Shteynberg does draw a distinction between the two, however, because shared-attention “does not require that co-attendants engage in dyadic eye gazing (i.e. look at each other) or triadic eye gazing (i.e. look at each other looking at the object) (Shteynberg 2015, 582). Whether they are the same or different (under Shteynberg’s definition) is not important for my purposes.

[5] It should be noted that this “influence” could be negative or manipulated. But this need not distract from the main point that shared-attention has cognitive and interpersonal benefits.

Cite this article

King, Derek. 2022. “Can Modern Psychology Shed Light on How We Might Best Give Our Attention to Both God and Others?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 8).

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