What is in front of you right now? Pay attention to what you attend to.
In Rapt, Gallagher shares how she managed to spend a largely good year surviving cancer.
We only pay attention to a small slice of the world around us. That slice is determined by your brain, which learns over time and can change which bits to filter out. Gallagher’s Rapt shows that what you consciously attend to determines how this sorting happens, with manifold effects. Two messages:
First, choose positivity, generally. That doesn’t mean being happy all the time, but it does mean focusing your attention on the bright side. You’ll see more of the world, improve your wellbeing and even your physical health.
Secondly, practice focusing on what is in front of you. You might know about the value of this for work (deliberate practice). It applies to compassion, relationships, creativity, too.
Below, you will find this week’s video from my Youtube channel, some quotes and visuals you might like to share, and a transcript of the video. If you find any of this useful, sign up for my newsletter – I share weekly, across a range of topics that might help you become more intuitive, knowledgeable, and take control of your own life.
This weeks video:
Illustrations and Quotes
Where you choose to focus your attention, shapes everything about how you experience life. This is something that’s explored in Rapt by Gallagher who came to this realization after having a largely good year surviving cancer. She went through chemo, radiotherapy, surgery, and chemo again, and came out the other side with a changed outlook of how we construct our world views.
She realized that by focusing on the present and on what was good in life, as well as what she was enduring, she could shape her own experience of the world. And since then she spent half a decade and more researching how other people have talked about attention and came to the view that attention is what constructs our worldviews, where we choose to focus our attention and the way our brain responds by automating up where our attention goes.
(1- What do you attend to?)
This is a book I read a while ago, which came to mind recently following a few conversations with people who defined their previous year by COVID. I thought, well, you know, on a geopolitical scale shore COVID is the determining factor, but for my life, No. I define my last year by my personal growth by shifted interests. My kids learning to do all sorts of cool things. My wife learning more Spanish. There are all sorts of great things. Last year and short COVID shaped a lot of where we were, what we were doing, just like everybody else. But that doesn’t mean it defined the year.
Those stories that we tell ourselves, the way that we define our past our present have huge impacts for how our brains develop and how we think about ourselves and the world around us. So I returned to my notes and here we are.
So start by thinking of a spectrum from things that you pay the utmost attention to over here, to the things that you completely ignore over here. What’s at this end of the spectrum is the salient valuable stuff that your brain will change in response to. Whatever you put this much attention into, it will change your brain. Your brain interprets it as the most salient, valuable stuff that needs reinforcing, and the way that you start to see the world through your subconscious is shaped by the stuff that this end.
The stuff at this end is the stuff that you’re basically ignoring consciously. It’s only going to change you if it’s habitual. If it’s there constantly for you, it’s not going to be something that your brain really cares about too much. This end is a tiny, tiny proportion of the world around us.
We can only focus our conscious mind on a very small subset of all of the sensory and memorial data that we have in here and all of the different things that we could do. So how do we decide over here? It turns out largely, automatically based on what we have consciously pushed to this end of the spectrum.
What we have forced ourselves to attend to in the past, our brain learns to train our attention to prime what we’re interested in by what we do consciously. So what you consciously focus on? Becomes what goes over here automatically. It becomes the stuff that grabs your attention in future. It determines how that sorting process happens to a degree that most people just don’t realize.
(2- Two Main Points)
The two points that Gallagher makes that are worth reiterating the first, is that a positive frame of mind, and I’ll give you the caveats in a second, a positive frame of mind has better outcomes in terms of your physical and mental health for you over the long run than focusing on negative things.
Does that doesn’t mean never being sad. That doesn’t mean ignoring everything that’s negative in the world. What it means is being careful, what you give your full attention to, what you allow to gain importance in your brain. So, yes, look at things that are bad that happened in your life, but then shift your attention to something good.
This is based on work by psychologists like Fredrickson , who focus on positive emotions. And they’ve demonstrated that people who spend more time attending to the positive than they do to the negative. Those people who put more time into the positive, have a broader perception of the world. You can even illustrate this with things like visual search tasks. So people who are primed with positive, emotional material can literally see more.
There’s research showing that there is a greater impact on `wellbeing in terms of how people choose to attend from positive versus negative than there is on how good or bad the triggers of those emotions work. So how you choose to attend in response to what’s going on has more impact on your wellbeing than what’s going on. There will be of course, individual exceptions to that. But over the course of your life, that’s entirely true. And if you Make a kind of automatic process of always moving to the positive after the negative and just generally attending more to positive things than negative things.
Your brain actually learns to encode less negative material, your amygdala doesn’t fire in the same way that most young people’s do nowadays. Having a more positive attitude like this correlates with, better health in just about every metric that you can. You can think of whether it’s stress or gastrointestinal conditions or, all cause mortality or a better immune response. More positive people, generally their bodies win, by magic. Nobody can explain that yet.
There are bridges to this more positive state. The one that’s mentioned by Gallagher is particularly useful for a lot of people, is mindfulness. So mindfulness encourages you not to judge your emotions, just to feel them, just to know them, just to name them, think about, and that would allow you to see yourself as somebody experiencing emotions, which will pass, which helps you to realize that you can to a large degree control where your mind is going, whatever your emotional state, it’s a skill to practice. It’s something that you need to do.
There is of course, an element here of nature, as well as nurture. And so you can’t control yourself from the most negative person to the most positive person. But compared to most traits that we have, whether it’s our height, which is mostly genetically determined or our IQ, for our positive mindedness, that range is huge. You have a lot of space to control where you are on that spectrum. And particularly for those of you who are fairly young, you’re probably way down in the negative end, nearly everybody is nowadays for a huge variety of reasons that I won’t go into here. But most people could be an awful lot more positive in how they choose to focus their attention than they currently are.
And if they did, it would likely lead to greater wellbeing, greater physical health, and all sorts of good things for them, which is why this is so important for you to get.
the other thing I just wanted to draw out that Gallagher talks about a lot is practice focusing on one thing. So as well as mindfulness, letting you look at your emotional state in a more attentive and more directed way, what you can do by focusing on one thing is direct your attention.
So you might be familiar with the idea of directed or deliberate practice, for work and for skill development. The same thing goes for controlling a wandering mind. It’s something that you can develop within yourself and you can change to a far greater degree than you believe is possible. The kind of multitasking myth and what I talked about last week in terms of the expansion of shallow work and distractedness has meant that most people are way down the range for how well they can focus their mind. Not just emotionally, but also in terms of their general attention state. So focusing on one thing can start to change that. And that has neurological implications, which have been explored in a few different contexts.
It sounds really simple, but it’s also really true. What you focus on for an extended period of time and with your full attention is what you become or what you move towards. You can’t do anything, but you can change very significantly.
(Deep attention and relationships)
This idea of deep attention also goes for relationships. If you want to develop a deep and meaningful relationship with somebody. You need to focus on them to attend to them, to attend to them both as individuals and as part of you as, as a kind of shared attention thing, most people, most relationships when they’re tested, have terrible shared attention.
If yourself and your partner sit down separately and write down a list of the things you did together last week. You can kind of measure that in a very quick way. Chances are, there’ll be different lists. And actually your partner is attending to things that you’re not, and you’re attending to things that your partner is not.
And knowing that and being aware of that difference in perception and the things that are kind of at this end of the spectrum for your partner, that aren’t for you is a very useful way of getting to know people more deeply and kind of paying rapt attention to the people that you love.