Focus Series: How We Pay Attention

Knowing how our brain goes about choosing what to focus on can help to teach us how to engage our uniquely human characteristic of choosing what to focus on, thus improving our quality of lives.

Residing just below the consciousness of most people lies the fact that our lives are comprised largely of what we have chosen to focus upon. Relationship issues, habits, idiosyncrasies, work preferences as well as other facets of life’s experience have been formed, at least in part, because of where we have placed our attention.

The Nature of Focus and Why Focus is Necessary

Whether navigating through the aggravation of heavy traffic on a daily commute to work or simply eating a relaxing dinner at home, there are countless stimuli at work on our central nervous systems. Because we interpret the physical world through our five senses, we are constantly receiving bits of information into our brains regarding our environment - the paint color on the wall, the feel of the chair we are sitting on, the buzz of a fly. So with all of these sensory impulses continuously flowing in, how do we decide what to pay attention to?

Hard-wired in our evolved human brains is the innate ability to involuntarily focus our attention on certain stimuli in our world. Bright lights, loud sounds, and very pleasant or putrid smells will all win the competition for our attention over more commonplace stimuli. This subconsciously directed focus of attention allows us the ability to detect and flee the possibility of danger or gravitate toward the promise of reward. This instinctual function is nature’s way of making sure that we are attending to the most relevant environmental threat or reward of the moment as well as giving us the necessary capacity to filter out extraneous information.

Voluntary Focus

If involuntary focus is mainly a survival mechanism triggered by “new” or “unusual” stimuli in our environment then the question begs: Do we have a choice in what we pay attention to? The answer is yes.

Specific to humans is the characteristic to choose our area of concentration. As an advanced species, we are able to pursue difficult goals with fervency and persevere in the area of problem solving. Without this trait, we would never have been able to build pyramids, develop antibiotics or even nurture our children for extended periods of time.

Intentional focusing increases our levels of success as well as our levels of happiness. Although our involuntary instincts are there to stay, we have the unusual ability to shift our focus to something more pleasurable and fulfilling. For example, let’s take that aggravating morning commute with the honking cars, acrid exhaust smells and less than desirable visual landscape. While all of these elements are brought to our attention by our involuntary system, we have the capacity to play an audio book in our CD player or tune into the jazz station and redirect our focus while maintaining awareness of our surroundings.

Understanding our involuntary focusing which makes us aware of negative stimuli in our environment is the first step to enabling us to shift gears and engage in a higher evolutionary endowment which is the ability to choose to pay attention to the more positive and pleasurable aspects of life.


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Audra Jones
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Posted on Apr 27, 2010