How Attention Works

Your brain is processing tons of thoughts all at once.
But which thoughts get your full attention?
Your brain is wired to process a lot of information all at once, most of which we aren’t even aware of. In fact, your brain is actually processing multiple levels of information. We’re going to call these different levels: channels. 
And you have a lot of them.
A channel for physical things, work things, mental things, emotional things, future things, past things, the list goes on. And, generally, all these channels are running at the same time.

To give a clearer picture, imagine for a moment that you’re walking to work early one morning in April and a car comes screeching around the corner.

Even in this short example, your brain is doing a ton of work. On an environmental level you’ve probably noticed a few things: the coolness of the air, perhaps your slightly runny nose, and what the people around you look and sound like. Of course there’s also the screeching car which prompts even more environmental responses: a quickening of your heart rate, a subconscious step away from the road, and a quick assessment of how much or little danger you might be in. Environmental is just one channel we process on, but there’s also the emotional channel. Perhaps you’re a little stressed because, as you walk, you’re thinking about that deadline that’s coming up. But, there’s also gratitude, a coworker has been putting in a ton of work trying to help you hit the deadline. And finally you’re irritated that someone would be driving so recklessly in your direction.

Environmental and emotional are just two channels your brain is processing. And there’s more, but for the sake of time our example will end there. Your brain is processing a lot all at once.

The real question is: Which thought gets your attention or your conscious focus?
The weather, your nose, the people around you, the car, the work that awaits you, or your coworker? While your brain processes a lot of channels at once, it’s only one, or a couple that get your active attention. Most are fleeting thoughts, few break out into reality. 
This process between what we give our attention to or what we dwell on, often happens instantaneously and without us knowing. And yet the choice is profound.

We don’t get to filter the many thoughts that pop into our mind, they’re quick automatic assessments to keep us alive. But, when it comes to which thoughts we dwell on, keep, and allow to shape us, we do have a choice. That’s the beautiful thing about how our brain works, we have the ability to nurture certain thoughts and make them a part of our reality, while letting go of others.

In this regard, our attention can be wielded like a chisel, removing that which is unwanted and adding definition to the thoughts and ideals we cherish. Want to be more compassionate? Give your attention to the stories of people different than you. Want to become a fantastic musician? Give your attention to practice and enjoyment of others’ music. Over time these acts of attention become part of who you are, where you’re no longer just doing the same things a compassionate person or great musician might do, but you’ve begun to think like them too. It’s now part of who you are.

Journaling is a great tool to focus your attention.

For those wanting to focus your attention, journaling is a great tool for a couple of reasons.

When you write, you’re effectively focusing the entirety of your mental energy on a solitary thought. In other words, while thinking about what you want to write, your brain is also working through the physical motion of writing the words, processing the words visually, and then referencing it back to what you’re writing to make sure it’s correct. Because of this, writing increases memory and is a great tool for making intangible thoughts real.

The other reason is pretty straight forward. It slows down your thoughts. Ever tried writing a phrase, while thinking about something completely different? It’s pretty difficult, if not impossible.

Your brain processes words faster than you can speak them and much faster than you can write them. By writing, you’re essentially slowing down the speed of your brain to the speed of your writing due to the concentration that it takes. Instead of quickly running through your thoughts, you’re now forced to slow down and dwell on a single one.

By doing small things like this, you get to direct your attention. And by giving your attention to thoughts that are important to you, you’ve taken what might’ve been fleeting and made it real. This is the art of deciding where you’re going and who you’ll become.

So what will you give your attention to?

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