Paying attention: the secret to happiness (part 1)

Hello and welcome to this month’s neuro blog! Let’s see: where have we got to? Three articles in, we know about the three parts of the human brain (see: http://coachingforinspiration.com/three-brains/) and the dominance of the unconscious. We also know that one of the main purposes of the human brain is sense-making (see: http://coachingforinspiration.com/brain-is-for/).

In last month’s article, we discussed the fact that because ours is only an edited reality which is the result of an interpretative process based on our unique life experiences, it is as though we each read only our own individual newspaper and perceive reality through a filter we are mostly unaware of. Indeed, we don’t get to choose our newspaper, we cannot read any other one and everyone else reads a different one – from mine, yours and each other’s.

It is a wonder that we agree on anything!

But let’s not despair: there is a silver lining to all of this. Enter: attention. Tell me if I have this wrong, but I have a feeling that most of us think of attention as voluntary – as in "paying attention". Let me challenge that view and posit that, in fact, our attention is mostly up for grabs: my neuroscience studies have taught me that our capacity to perceive reality is filtered, in fact intermediated in multiple ways, as well as partial (for more on this, see renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman’s discussion: http://www.eagleman.com/blog/umwelt). It is because we pay attention in such a narrow fashion that we end up reading our own unique and confined newspaper.

I have therefore come to understand that attention, far from being mainly the product of our volition, in fact mostly emerges out of processed perception. In consequence, ours is a bounded reality we confuse for the world at large. This is a sobering thought which can feel disempowering. But if our attention defines our reality, then surely attention is also the instrument thanks to which we can shape our reality. I agree with Wallace that "[e]ach of us chooses, by our way of attending to things, the universe we inhabit" (see Allan Wallace’s book ‘The Attention Revolution’, 2006). We can expand our horizons by consciously, explicitly, choosing what to attend to.

At this point in my neuroscience journey, I appreciate better – and want to share with you today – the nature of attention as it relates to our brains’ sensory processes and the ensuing construction of human perception. While we are not in touch with what I will dub ‘full reality’, we can thankfully reassure ourselves that, by leveraging our consciousness, we can exert influence over what we attend to and thus modify our reality – thus challenging our ‘newspaper syndrome’.

So what? Indeed, why would we go to this trouble? Said otherwise, why should we not accept the limited reality which is presented to us? It seems plenty is wrong with such submissiveness. Wallace, again, contends that, without the capacity to place our attention, "[w]e can’t study, listen, converse with others, work, play, or even sleep well" (idem). Apart from the obvious discomfort which must ensue from such fundamental dysfunctions, what is really at stake is our happiness. Lacking the capacity to focus robs us of choice and leaves us vulnerable to the myriad stimuli in and out there, waiting to turn us into weathercocks. Consider how upset you are when someone decides in your place: and yet your unconscious decides much more often than your conscious. So let me encourage you to pay attention, more and more often: stop reading that newspaper and look further afield!

If you’d like to tell me about your behaviour and/or your brain, you will find me at alexandra@coachingforinspiration.com. In the meantime, relax and let your brain look after you!

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