The attention ultra-weapon
Our attention control skill is fairly underrated. Practically, it shapes to a significant extent – positively or negatively – our reality.
Although we can consciously direct our attention wherever we want, it will often decide as a naughty kid to go wherever it feels like.
Being able to control our attention is a “superhuman” quality. The better we learn how to use it, the more aware, efficient and happy we will become.
But what exactly does attention do?
Our attention is tasked with several important functions:
- it constantly monitors the environment and checksfor changes or threats
- it chooses at any given moment what to focus on
- decides which of the information coming from our senses to ignore as not important enough
- helps memory decide which of the information it has retained needs to be processed further
When our attention switches to autopilot mode
Sometimes we feel the need to constantly keep our minds busy. If we find ourselves without something to do for a while, we find ourselves compulsively discovering something. We may start to unconsciously play with our fingers. Or feel the need to check our messages, even though we did just a few minutes ago. We may go into an endless musing of thoughts, mentally regurgitating the same things over and over again.
What distracts our attention?
Our attention is controlled by two factors: our thoughts and our senses. That is, it is controlled not only by ourselves (our thoughts) but also by external stimuli (our senses). Whenever something interrupts our attention, we say that there has been a distraction.
Internal and external distractions
Distractions can come from two sides:
- External: by a stimulus perceived through a sense (hearing, smell, touch, sight)
- Internal: by a thought that interrupts another thought.
Usually, undesired thoughts interfering with our attention control have to do either with regretting the past or worrying about the future.
Reaction and response
Two factors therefore, control our attention:
- our consciousness
- the autonomous operation of our mind
We always have two choices: to respond or to react.
In the case of response, we think before we act.
In the case of reaction, we act without thinking.
Allowing therefore our conscious awareness into the game makes a huge difference in how we manage life.
Whenever our mind perceives something that it considers urgent or important, it will take control of itself and turn it in that direction. The majority of distractions, of course, are neither urgent nor important.
For example, when a notification for a new message arrives, the beep interrupts us from something we were doing. We have the following two options:
- automatically interrupt and check the new message
- continue what we were doing and after we are done, only then deal with the message
In the first case, we let our environment to control us, whether in the latter we control the environment, we are the boss.
Attention as a watering hoss
We can compare our attention to a watering hoss. Think about what happens when we water our garden. Only the area where we aim the watering hoss is watered and blooms. What is watered frequently, will grow. What is left unwatered for a long time will eventually dry up. In a similar way, the more we focus our thoughts on a particular issue, the more it expands and grows inside our mind. Conversely, when we are not thinking about it for a while, it shrinks and disappears.
You may think that your watering hoss cannot turn by itself. It simply follows where we point it. Whereas, our attention can jump anywhere by its own, especially when our mind perceives something important or urgent. And you’re right, that’s exactly so. Our mind has a mechanism allowing it to automatically point our attention wherever it thinks it needs to.
But let’s look at the next example.
Attention as a rudder
Let’s now compare our attention to a rudder of a boat which, although we control it, is also subject to external pressures from the sea waves or currents. The boat will eventually be directed at the resultant of these two components.
If the waves and currents are strong, we will have to make a greater effort to turn the rudder to the position we want.
So, in a fairly similar way to how we turn the rudder, we have the power to focus our attention where we choose, regardless of where it is directed by itself. Naturally, this takes some practice.
Exercise: Where is your attention focused? Take control!
Each person has a different degree of ability to concentrate and focus their attention. But like all cognitive abilities, our attention can be harnessed with surprising results.
First of all, we need to be aware of where our attention is at any given moment. With a little practice this becomes a habit and happens automatically, without having to think about it every time.
Then we need to acquire the ability of making a conscious choice of where we want to focus our attention.
Try practicing the method described below a few times a day and in a short time you will gain a surprising ability to focus your attention.
First become aware of your attention: Where is it now? In case it is wandering aimlessly into the past or the future, simply make this observation. It is the first important step. No other judgement. Just observe.
Redirect your attention to the present moment. You can do this by bringing awareness to your breath, the sounds of your surroundings, the sensations of your body, or simply by focusing your gaze on a nearby or a distant object. Even just by having a positive thought.
Take another half a minute to experience this brief experience and reinforce, on a neurobiological level, the shift you just achieved!
Read also the article: Is your attention deep or wide?