Focus and Devotion

* Tarek Amer, Karen L. Campbell, and Lynn Hasher, ‘Cognitive Control as a Double-Edged Sword’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20 (2016), 905-15.
* M.D. Rosenberg, E.S. Finn, D. Scheinost, R.T. Constable, and M.M. Chun, ‘Characterizing Attention with Predictive Network Models’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 290-302.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I am going to do some work on 17th-century devotional poetry. I’ve always enjoyed teaching Herbert, but I’ve never considered writing about him. Recently, though, poems like this one have been making me think:

Prayer (I)

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

The way it makes you think is what’s making me think. Religious poems like the ones in Herbert’s The Temple (1633) allow readers to spectate upon the speaker’s spiritual experience, and they also allow them to shadow, simulate, replicate, and question their own versions of that experience — either as a possible journey anticipated by the poem, or as a journey already undertaken (or in progress) to be compared with the poem’s way of setting it out.
      ‘Prayer’ is a list of things that prayer is, metaphorically (perhaps not), or that it is like (but it doesn’t say that), or that it can be (if you do it right, or wrong). Each of its propositions is interesting in itself, but I am interested most of all in the movements between them. It seems to me that the pace of considering each instance, and the pace at which the poem wants to add the next, do not match: so readers speed up and slow down, interrupt themselves, qualify themselves, and so on. I think this engages, and tests out, various cognitive capacities in relation to religious questions: our ability to make connections, the , the way in which we pay attention, and more. Attention has been the focus of a couple of recent Trends pieces, one of which at least is pertinent hereabouts.

Rosenberg et al. are trying to come up with an account of attention. The focus is twofold. First, they want to understand what sort of a thing attention is — and they think that it is ‘a network property of the brain’ (i.e. it is about how parts of the brain interact, not the workings of a particular region). Second, they want to make predictions about attentional abilities, and here the first point becomes relevant, because ‘the functional architecture that underlies attention can be measured while people are not engaged in any explicit task’. They posit that ‘the neural architecture that supports attention function is reflected in the brain’s intrinsic functional organization’.
      So they can use fMRI to measure each person’s ‘unique pattern of functional connectivity’ while they are in a resting state — not focusing on anything — and then predict how good at attention they’ll be. I suppose the idea is that constructing attention-based experiments and measuring capacities in the moment is harder than just saying ‘lie there’ and switching on the big machine. I don’t feel like over-indulging the pertinence of this finding to a poem like Herbert’s ‘Prayer’, but it is tempting to think about attention as something that is about the interaction between things, and that has fundamental links with the resting mind.

I’d make a stronger claim for the relevance of Amer et al. to a reading of the poem, on quite general terms. They are asking the question ‘what’s so great about focus?’. They argue that there is evidence that ‘a broader focus of attention, afforded by reduced control’, is actually beneficial to some learning, problem-solving, and memory tasks. This is especially (but not exclusively) true of older adults, who seem to have a different ‘processing style’ that means they have performed poorly in some laboratory tests, but appear to function quite capably outside.
      Interestingly they set this against the brain-training industry, which is all about ‘improving cognitive control to enhance general cognitive function and moderate age-related cognitive decline’. They’re doubtful about benefits of such programmes, and are interested in alternative strategies. Again the focus is on the elderly; they wonder if we can ‘take advantage of the natural pattern of cognition of older adults and capitalize on their propensity to process irrelevant information’. Apparently studies show that ‘distractors can be used to enhance memory for previously or newly learned information’.
      While their therapeutic focus is aimed at one age-group, the general point about the illusory advantage of cognitive control seems to apply more widely. And I find that very interesting in the context of 17th century religious verse. Why would you need to keep such a tight grip on your attention, when the goal is to have God give you the gift of faith? And how can a poem create the kind of gaps and meanders that make it seem like the mind is open, prepared for salvation in the sense that it has relinquished the false aspiration to save itself?
      There are other strands in the essay — the difference made by the time of day; the difference made by mood; the difference made by the combination of relevant and irrelevant information. The latter two at least seem to offer possibilities to an understanding of poetry. One of the most suggestive Trends essays I’ve read for quite a while.

I’m often on (on and off) about this. Put ‘mind-wandering’ into the search-window and you’ll see.
E-mail me at rtrl100[at]

One thought on “Focus and Devotion

  1. Sean Geddes

    The idea of thinking about the ‘movements between’ Herbert’s propositions of what prayer is is compelling; it made me think of a passage in Rowan Williams’s excellent The Edge of Words (pp. 131-6), where Williams takes up some the ways we are invited to see one thing through another in the pressurised language of poetry — ‘pile on the pressure and you force yourself to see freshly.’ (p. 134). He starts with rhyme and assonance, showing how unexpected connections can be made in a Welsh poem with a highly disciplined prosodic structure (‘there may be genuinely absurd homophonic patterns; but the challenge of a good poem in such a classical form is precisely to find patterns of this kind that are surprising but not simply arbitrary’ (p. 134)); and this reinforced my wondering at how such patterns might work with your idea of ‘movements between’: when for instance we pause at a puzzling thing that prayer might be, how much will that pause then afford the space for new connections to flourish, or how much will it drive us to make them? Which in either case extends the pause. Do we hear the chime of a word we’ve just read, and then reflect on how, say, ‘heard’ in the penultimate line connects by consonance to ‘blood’, and how they are both picked up by the final ‘understood’, which stands apart, on the other side of the semicolon, and which seems to qualify all the preceding propositions? The very understanding we might have of some of the poem’s stranger propositions seems to fit well with something heard ‘beyond the stars’, impossibly far off and yet present. In that sort of way, the poem does seem to engage and test out the cognitive capacities you’re interested in, and it does seem to do it by (among other things) generating difficulty (the mismatch of pace, perhaps) that then forces the reader to wander, make connections, and entertain meanings which are strained, but perhaps richly so.

    Well. One other thing worth mentioning about The Edge of Words is a line like the following, which seems to go well with an interest in attention and mind-wandering: ‘And at [poetry’s] root is an instinct that, because language is connected in opaque and sometimes untraceable ways with what it talks about, it will generate new perspectives when we are not looking, so to speak’ (136).


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