What Happens When We Start to Pay Attention

On the price of being a passive participant

Our ability to focus drives the majority of what we do with our lives. As the renowned psychologist William James put it, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.”

What we’re drawn to determines each experience. If you’ve had a frustrating day, you’ll be prone to finding fault in everything that happens. If you’re a bubbly optimist, you’re likely hard-wired to assume the best in others.

These small determinants have an outstanding impact on our lives. In every moment, there is an incredible amount of information to comprehend. Because of this, our brain removes what it deems irrelevant. The result? A limited, pruned-back version of reality.

What Happens When We Focus

Attention is a term for a complex neurological and behavioral system, but awareness isn’t just one thing. It’s a myriad of interactions that take place in any given moment.

At its simplest, our executive networks process the environment and our possible reactions. From there, it creates an appropriate response.

When you actively focus on a piece of information, you allow it to affect your behavior. This information may turn up useless, but for a brief moment, it can alter our reality.

Every one of us has some class we took in high school that turned out a waste. But what we focused on during that time made ripples throughout the rest of our life.

If focus shapes our reality, then what happens to the things we don’t focus on? Our limited ability to absorb information means the environment outside our attention may as well not exist. Because of this, our focus becomes an authoritative guide — either as a motivator or as a distraction and inhibitor.

The Limitations of Focus

It’s estimated that our unconscious processing power exceeds 11 million pieces of information per second, whereas the estimate for conscious processing is about 40 pieces per second. At any one moment, our processing power determines our conscious thought. What we process becomes our reality, while the brain removes or stores the rest away.

If you watch the video below, you’ll see one of the most significant examples of selective attention.

The instructions are simple, count the times’ players in white pass the basketball. Most people get an accurate count. But, as with most experiments, that’s not what the researchers were actually testing.

The underlying study assesses how many individuals also catch the gorilla suit. Often participants aren’t even able to see the gorilla. Their attention to the ball is too strong to notice any interruptions. In other similar experiments, individuals miss the distraction over 50% of the time.

We have no way of knowing what our brain will determine is essential enough to pay attention to. The various modules making up our brain seek different stimulants.

And, as they explore, they vie for control of our attention. When one of these modules takes hold, it influences our conscious into taking action. Even with these strong motivators, it’s possible to change our perception of a situation.

Shifting Input to Change Attention

New Year’s resolutions can shift your focus and change your behaviors. Your brain may convince you to eat a slice of cake, but it also remembers your commitment to lose weight.

The instant reaction is to cut another slice, but your brain starts to backpedal. Recently you’ve been focusing on your waistline and comments from your doctor which influences your reaction and gives you more time to think through your decision.

As someone with a fear of heights, the first couple of times I went rock climbing were horrifying — so much so that I disregarded proper falling techniques and ended up injuring my elbow.

This only made me even more afraid of climbing. After a lot of practice and experience, I was able to shift my attention. I’d built up a store of positive moments after each climb.

Instead of focusing on my immediate reaction, I was able to shift towards the excitement and joy of a good workout. That’s how important focus is.

Types of Attention

Our focus is invariably determined by the things that we pay attention to. There are two types of attention:

  • Selective Sustained Attention (SSA) produces consistent results on a task over time. Current estimates for the SSA of healthy teenagers and adults range from 10 to 20 minutes, though empirical evidence is scant. More, what that limited time frame actually means is also up for debate. After all, if we find something engaging, we simply choose to focus on it again.
  • Divided Attention is the act of working through two or more simultaneous actions. It’s something we do all the time without thought, and we’re capable of doing these things because we’ve committed to one of the acts to the subconscious. Actions like singing while driving or walking and talking.

At the same time, divided attention can be impossible. If we try to count two different sets of objects at the same time or hold distinct conversations, we will ultimately fail.

Our brains can’t handle this type of processing. Instead, we attempt to switch between both tasks retaining separate streams of information. Unfortunately, we’re also pretty terrible at this, and we often fail.

Factors That Affects Our Attention Span

Our motivation is the primary factor driving how we attend to an object or task. Depending on our motivation, we can experience identical stimuli in entirely different ways.

If we’ve recently eaten, our response and the focus we give to a plate of food is minimal. But, if we’ve gone a while without eating or recently exercised, we’re prompted to attend to the smell, look, and taste.

Emotional prompts, on the other hand, work to influence attention in subtle ways. If you’re feeling morose, you’ll notice unhappy emotions faster and clearly remember negative news.

Instead of taking in the entirety of a positive moment, you’re inclined to focus on whatever negative features you find. That’s because you’re in a state that primes you for a further upset. It’s more important to focus on potential problems to mitigate their effects. We’d rather protect ourselves from further hurt than focus on outside influences.

Attention also changes based on our competence. The better we are at completing a task, the less opportunity we have to encounter difficulties that slow progress.

Instead, we move through our work in a fluid state, referred to as ‘flow.’ Competence, unfortunately, does have a limitation — repetitive, easy tasks lose their attraction quickly. At that point, we’re likely to try and find something more engaging.

The Importance of Focus

What you’ve focused on in the past has made the person you are now. And what you focus on from this moment forward shapes the person you’ll become.

Whether you concentrate deliberately or as a passive participant will determine your life. When you focus, you create your future self, when you attend passively, you become your reactions.