On wading in: Day 25. The finite resources of attention.

This morning Ezra awoke a cheerful boy.  We watched the birds at his window feeder for a little bit; he used the potty; we headed downstairs.  Somewhere along the way, presumably in the bathroom, he remembered a set of old squirting tub toys he used to have, which were thrown away when they got all mildewy inside.  Which happened maybe 6 or eight months ago.  He spent the next hour in full-throated grief at their loss.

This is a kid who can normally marshall all kinds of resources to solve problems, especially when he knows the thing he wants is available at a store.  (And he knows these are available at a store because he’s seen them and asked for them before.)  But his sadness was so all-encompassing and his attention so focused on retrieving the lost toys (“Mama, can we ask the recycling man?  Maybe he knows where they are…”) that he could not think about replacement as an option.

Recent research into the effects of narrow “bandwidth” on decision-making is showing us that attention really is more finite than we’d like to believe.  Multi-tasking aside, the presence of stress taxes our attention and leads us to make bad decisions.

In a NYTimes article, one of the authors of an important new book discusses this phenomenon, making (unfortunate) comparisons between dieting and poverty.  His basic point seems entirely useful: the stressors restrict our available bandwidth, leading us to make poor choices.  He doesn’t seem to address adequately the difference between self-imposed choices like dieting and systemic traps like poverty, which I find problematic, but the bottom line phenomenon, he’s saying, is the same.

In related news, I’m preparing with a group of friends to throw a baby shower for another friend, and we’re planning to sing a song.  So at breakfast this morning I’m teaching the kids Elizabeth Mitchell’s version of “Three Little Birds” (of Bob Marley fame), and it occurs to us that there may be serious emotional, psychological, and perhaps, we now suspect, even financial value to being told in a sing-song melody that “every little thing is gonna be all right.”  It’s what we most need to believe; it’s what we most easily forget through grief or loss or stress or pain.  We become like Ezra, wailing at the top of our lungs, “I want my old mildewy tub toys!!” when in fact there might be something else we want more: comfort, togetherness, entertainment, reassurance.  I held him and rocked him until we could gather the energy to sing again.

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