Energy Follows Attention?
November 17, 2008 11:29 AM   Subscribe

Is there anything in western psychology shedding light on the martial arts truism that energy follows attention?

Martial artists (and also eastern doctors) say that "energy follows attention". That is, by focusing your attention, you are also focusing your energy. The more focused you are, the more vital energy is applied via that focus. Concentration, in a sense, IS energy.

My question is: Is this just a trippy Eastern thing, or is there anything similar in western psychology? I'd imagine, for instance, that it may have been verified that obsessive thinking mis-applies energy that would otherwise be used in day-to-day living. It takes energy, after all, to maintain very tightly focused behavior. Delusions are surely exhausting!

Sorry this is a little's fuzzy trying to translate between eastern and western paradigms. I'm hoping that someone with a background in western psych might cough up a few leads I could follow which resonate somehow with the eastern way of understanding focus and energy.
posted by jimmyjimjim to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, it's just a trippy Eastern thing. There is no scientific basis for a belief in chi.
posted by Class Goat at 11:53 AM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

You needn't call it chi or buy into that whole model. I'm talking at a less specific level.

The notion that attentive focus draws one's energy (however you want to conceive that energy) seems so intuitively obvious that I can't imagine western psychs have never addressed it somehow in their own way, with their own vocabulary, within their model. I don't expect any sort of tight match, just maybe a parallel touch or two.
posted by jimmyjimjim at 11:58 AM on November 17, 2008

Yes, a neurotic who worries about everything isnt going to get anything done. Calming yourself down and focusing on one task, not being a perfectionist, etc gets better results. These are basic truisms in treating anything from ADHD to chronic anxiety.

I think your thesis suffers from Occam's razor. There's no need to add this mysterious energy. If you have good attention you do better. Ask anyone who has been treated for ADHD.

In popular culture I hear this saying as meaning something like "Look, if you don't get serious and sit down and do the work, then you wont get anything done."

It takes energy, after all, to maintain very tightly focused behavior.

I dont necessarily agree. It takes energy to be a neurotic, probably more so than been attentive and calm. Neurotics are usually exhausted because worrying is exhausting.

/not a psych, just a layperson interested in it
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:07 PM on November 17, 2008

Another example is that, if all your ever think about is cars and all you ever do is talk about cars, work with cars, etc then compared to a random person you probably have a better chance of better dealing with mechanics or performing your own repair. There's no energy at work here. You simply are better at things that interest you and occupy your thoughts.
posted by damn dirty ape at 12:09 PM on November 17, 2008

I am not sure exactly what link you are drying to make, but you might look into the cognitive literature at selective attention and/or cognitive resources material. Endsley's situational awareness might be interesting to you as well.
posted by Silvertree at 12:11 PM on November 17, 2008

This is odd - usually I'm playing the part of the skeptic.

I think there are many aspects of Eastern "mystical" philosophies that have been borne out by medical studies. I think that many of the conclusions that old traditions of physiology have developed turn out to be true, even if the mumbo-jumbo they use to explain has little merit (such as vital energy, etc). Just browse through, for example, a PubMed search for articles about meditation.

However, in your question you seem to be asking about the mumbo-jumbo itself, i.e. the "energy". I think you'll find that there is (so far) very little scientific basis for believing in some kind of bodily energy field. That's not to say there aren't interesting physiological effects of mental concentration; just that is probably isn't via an "energy field".
posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:05 PM on November 17, 2008

The problem with your question, is the definition of 'energy'. It sounds like a revelatory insight, until you translate it into something meaningful in english, in which case it's usually redundantly obvious, or very simple.

For example:

If we use 'Success' [in given area] for Energy
'Success' follows Attention
True, and obvious, right? This covers setting goals, writing down goals, spending time, practicing and learning in an area, are all steps on the way to accomplishing something.
There have been a lot of studies on future planning, which cover things like this from the earliest stages - eg, the initial goal setting or 'attention' being beneficial.

'Electricity' follows Attention
Not true.

'Mood' follows Attention [on mood-influencing ideas]
Also mostly true, and somewhat obvious.
This is most of the basis for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
Challenging illogical and negative thoughts, and replacing them with more productive and positive thoughts. Watching a comedy to feel happy, watching a tragedy and feeling sad.
Further to this, is the placebo effect - if you are ill, and really believe you are going to get better, you are likely to do better, than someone who doesn't. It's shown in pretty much every drug trial, and includes terminal conditions. The opposite being the 'nocebo' effect.

More abiguously... 'Body warmth?/energy' follows attention
Somewhat true - practice in Biofeedback shows, you can learn to have more conscious control over various body functions, and for starters, paying 'attention' to a limb, usually increases blood circulation, and also 'warmth'.

'Energy' in the sense you used it, doesn't have a fixed, quantifiable, or provable meaning, but once you break it down a bit, it's possible to answer your question adequately.
posted by Elysum at 1:26 PM on November 17, 2008

I think you're looking for Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi's ideas about flow. Flow is the name Csíkszentmihályi gives to the optimal experience of focus and attention, or effortless action. There's a good article about it from Psychology Today. I wouldn't say it's an exact parallel, but there's enough similarities that you'll probably find it interesting.
posted by xchmp at 1:29 PM on November 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

This site is such a fantastic resource. The sole flaw is that replies often question the basis of the question, rather than answer the question.

But, hey, I can't complain. As a result of this thread, I've completely revamped my entire outlook. You're right! I don't need to find the writings I was looking for, because the entire concept is utterly specious! Thanks for the clarity, all! Man, that's better....
posted by jimmyjimjim at 4:39 PM on November 17, 2008

Maybe it's not the answers that are the problem.
posted by electroboy at 7:02 PM on November 17, 2008

Electroby, absolutely right, that's precisely what I'm saying: The QUESTION was the problem.

The basis for my question was completely moronic, and, again, I appreciate being set straight. After all, that's what we come here for, no? To have the assumptions behind our questions challenged?

Well done!
posted by jimmyjimjim at 7:48 PM on November 17, 2008

You sound bitter.

You asked, "Is there anything in western psychology shedding light on the martial arts truism that energy follows attention?"

The answer is no. There isn't anything in psychology like that. Maybe you don't like that answer, but that is the answer to your question.
posted by Class Goat at 11:54 PM on November 17, 2008

[a few comments removed. OP, your snark is not helping your question get decent answers.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:49 AM on November 18, 2008

I'm starting to feeling like the 'attention' I put into attempting to answer your question was wasted.

But, in an attempt to salvage that - OP, did any of what I posted help?
If not, why?

Have you gathered from the other replies that it would help if you could restate and clarify your question?
posted by Elysum at 1:17 PM on November 18, 2008

For a Western philosophy echo, an extremely reductive view of phenomenology is that consciousness comes from attention, and that consciousness (for Husserl) is the divining point for existence.

If you really want to go out on a hokum limb, you can then argue that since existence (in the physical form, which phenomenology is rather vague on) necessitates either energy or mass, and since mass is essentially energy, then yes, Edmund Husserl is saying that Energy Follows Attention.

But that's kind of abusing phenomenology (which has plenty of its own irreducible problems) into a "Have you ever really thought about your hands, man?" undergrad stoner bull session.
posted by klangklangston at 5:21 PM on November 18, 2008

Hi, Elysum

Interesting and appreciated, yes, but helpful, no.

I've indeed contemplated ways to restate my question. I left it broad quite intentionally, in order to invite even partial fits. But, instead, I seem to have pressed people's buttons re: chi and eastern woojoo in general.

So I could broaden still further, to the point of mush, or I could narrow......but if I could narrow this to something more western, then I'd have answered my own question. So I really have nowhere else to go.

I did get one extremely helpful insight from this discussion. If I'm going to write (I'm a writer) anything on the topic and hope to maintain even the slightest drab of interest and credibility from a western, left-brained audience, I have to be very careful not to go near certain words or concepts which seem to really turn off, or even outrage, some individuals. People do have their buttons, and it's startlingly easy to find oneself "classified" unless one steers well clear.

klangklangston, "hokum limb".....isn't that a syndrome where you feel like you're still strummin' yer banjo even though your arm's been cut off?
posted by jimmyjimjim at 1:14 PM on November 20, 2008

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