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Paying Attention to Attention
Peter Baumann

"Bite your tongue," my mother told me when I complained about a pain in my knee as a result from falling off my bike. I tried it, and surprisingly, it worked. When I bit my tongue, I didn’t notice my leg, and the pain seemed to have gone away.

Although now I was stuck with a pain in my tongue, it reveals an interesting feature of our brains: attention. Pain indicates some damage to the body, and attention allows the brain to focus and assess the problem and how to fix it. Bigger pain means potentially bigger damage, so in my case, my attention was drawn to the pain in my tongue because it was stronger than that in my knee.

Interestingly, while it feels to me that I can focus my attention at will, upon closer examination attention is more complicated than that. Surely, I can pick up a book and begin to read it. But if I were to hear a loud scream, my attention would immediately shift and try to figure out who was screaming and why. Once I realized that our neighbor was watching a horror movie, I’d relax and return to reading. If, on the other hand, the scream came from a young girl who perhaps cut herself with a knife, I’d drop the book and run into the kitchen, my heart racing.

Our attention seems instinctively attracted to what we perceive as being most important, the greatest opportunity or greatest threat. Even when no immediate threat is apparent, the mind generates thoughts about potential threats or opportunities, ruminating about a new love interest, a new job or the looming debt crisis. We ponder whether our last presentation went well, or if the interest rates are going to rise. A million different events happen daily, but we can only focus on one at a time—albeit in quick succession.

From this viewpoint, it’s clear to me why doing homework as a kid was such a struggle. I could never see the opportunity, and the threat of getting a bad grade seemed distant. A far bigger threat was missing out on playing ball with my friends in the backyard.

And this points to one of the dilemmas our brains face. There is an incessant competition among multiple desires and worries that show up in our awareness. It’s a competition: which is the most important to pay attention to? In our increasingly complex environments, this can be utterly confusing. Attention deficit disorder? Perhaps.

It takes energy for the brain to process information; to make decisions and energy is costly, so we instinctively deal with whatever we perceive as most important. Don’t we all love some attention from others? Yes, it indicates that we’re important to that person.

I find it both intriguing and fun to notice how my attention shifts so frequently, and to notice what my brain perceives as the most important event at any given time. Sometimes it’s a stomachache, paying the bills, trying to get some sleep, talking to our kids, or getting the pool ball into the pocket. Sometimes it’s finishing a blog post.

photo by robpatrick



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3 years ago

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