How neuroscience taught me not to trust everything I think, feel or see.
1. Attention precedes each experience we have (and it is extremely volatile)
What we decide to (or let) our attention lend upon, takes over our entire cognitive machinery for a moment. Our neurons wire in response to what we focus on to encode the information and ‘write it’ in our brain. Neuroscientists call this “encoding information’. In a way, we ‘become’ what we behold. That’s why attention shapes our brains along with the experiences we have. I refer you to William James:
My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind. — The Principles of Psychology, Vol.1
2. Because our reality is “made up” by our brain: Reality is essentially virtual
Once perceived, our view of the world is then heavily mediated during brain processing (aka our brain trying to make sense of stuff). The object of perception is filtered through our senses first, our past experiences and impressions: we interpret what we see to make sense of reality. A bunch of cognitive biases are further imposed upon our perception of the world by our cultural operating system, our language, our religious affiliation, our preconceptions and prejudice. Our World is a construction.
We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. — Anais Nin
What we call “our reality” is very subjective and therefore essentially virtual. That doesn’t make it any less real. Although it might be closer to pattern recognition than truth, it is still a pattern of very useful information. Our filter bubble is as real as any other reality.
3. We get used to EVERYTHING
Hedonic adaptation has it that whatever we are repetitively exposed to, we hardwire it into our brain… That’s why our brain eventually stops paying attention to it. It is true of the worst events and the most joyful ones.
Our level of well-being and happiness goes back to baseline after most setbacks or disasters, which include the loss of lost ones and major life crises such as divorce or losing one’s job. This phenomenon is very steady and reliable. The same is true of major life milestones, such as graduating or getting married, promoted or becoming a parent: we rapidly habituate and, in time, the excitement fades away.
The enemies here are not so much the events themselves (or details of what happened exactly): the enemy is the lack of novelty. Once we have built up a model and assimilated an event in our brain — however sad or happy — we update the library of ‘been there and done that’ and it soon stops feeling exciting. In other words…
Familiarity breeds boredom.
That’s why ‘Attentional stewarding’ is at the centre of the whole psychology and self-help industry
The definition of Attention is: to notice and be with something without trying to change it. That’s where meditation, yoga and breathing exercises come in. To help us become aware of our erratic attentional spotlight behaviour. We need all the help we can get to direct (or redirect) the spotlight of attention. It is no easy task.
I like to bear in mind that all realities are coloured, all realities are virtual, and we will get used to — or bored — of them. As much as I am fond of being aware of ‘what is’, I’m also acutely aware that ‘what is’ is mostly made up and I am not particularly attached to it.
If our reality-fabrication highly dependent upon the management of attention, then our capacity to steer awareness and decide where to allocate it “decides” what our reality is. I like to call it stewardship of internal life.
When we have or acquire the capacity to steward the content of consciousness: we can become architects of inner experience. It grants us precious control over our inner movie which is the key to any clear mind, peace and lasting satisfaction.
Designing Experience is possible and it is an art
Because attention is the fabric of reality, the art of ‘tweaking attention’ is at the centre of the entire self-help industry. The means that have been produced to facilitate attention steering are plentiful: meditation, affirmations, prayer, intentions, rituals, goal setting, mantra, mindset, therapy etc. Plentiful and redundant. Many of these techniques overlap extensively and it used to drive me mad. It doesn’t anymore. Life is an art and I have no scruples in using different brushes to paint the colours and perspectives I prefer, mindfully.
MORE. I love mindfulness but there is more to life than just paying attention. I certainly find settling troubles much easier on a calm and steady mind. What happens next is what truly fascinates me: once you are present, objective and able to deal with dreads and anxiety. Once you settle the noise and access real focus and mind space… What do you choose to do with it?