On Engagement: Learning to Pay Attention
50 Pages Posted: 25 May 2013 Last revised: 8 Nov 2014
Date Written: November 2014
In an age of electronic and mental distraction, the ability to pay attention is a fundamental legal skill increasingly important for law students and the lawyers and judges they will become, not only for professional effectiveness, but also to avoid error resulting from distraction. Far from being immutable, engaged attention can be learned. More specifically, with an understanding of how the attention system of the brain works, carefully designed mental practice can over time enhance an individual’s capacity for focused attention, not only psychologically, but also apparently gradually altering the physical structure within the brain itself. The result can be an improved ability for law students to focus attention — to stay calmly on what is intended, without being distracted by irrelevant thought or sense experience — avoiding wasting scarce time and energy otherwise lost to internal or external distraction. Ironically, learning this attentional skill requires temporarily quieting the active process of elaborated thought that law students, lawyers, and judges pride themselves on having developed as part of their legal education. In honing this skill, however, a collateral benefit of this practice is also an enhanced ability to be self-aware, hopefully providing law students, lawyers, and judges an increased capacity to respond, rather than just react, to legal problems and the human thoughts and emotions that arise with them.
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