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Nizar Taki MD

Nizar Taki, November 12 2019

Selective Attention: Part One

Here, we will go deeper into the relationship between our conscious and our unconscious. Before we proceed, please watch this video, which is known as the Selective Attention Test

What is Selective Attention?

Every moment, our brain is flooded with a torrent of information coming in from the outside world, which can be measured in units of bits. As we learned in the last post, this information must be processed by our unconscious to then create our conscious experience. As demonstrated by the selective attention test, a large quantity of information is discarded prior to reaching our consciousness. But what is shocking is just how little information actually reaches our consciousness. 

Research has found that the amount of information that enters our brain (reaches our unconscious mind) is at 40 million bits per second. Of that number, our consciousness is only aware of only 40 bits per second ( yes, that's forty, with one zero)! Our ability to focus on only a limited subset of the available data at any given time, while discarding the rest is known as selective attention.

It's a good thing we have selective attention. Without it, we would be so overwhelmed by the information streaming into our bodies we wouldn’t even be able to act. 

But problems arise when we forget that selective attention is happening and innocently (but incorrectly) believe that we’re seeing the whole picture

When we believe that we have the whole picture, we don’t realize that other perspectives on a given situation exist. It's not that we choose one perspective out of a wide selection and stick to it. What happens is we actually think our "40-bit" little picture is the "40 million-bit" whole picture!  And failing to see the big picture results in unclear thinking and self-sabotaging, counterproductive behavior. 

Imagine going to the grocery store to buy snacks and assuming that the small display of potato chips at the end of the aisle is the grocery store's entire selection. 

If this was all you thought you had to choose from, you would be missing out on a lot of other options that you might like better, options that you could access without any additional effort other than strolling a little further down the aisle!

What's more, when we think our perspective is the whole picture, we feel threatened when someone seems to see the world from a different perspective. After all, if you are convinced that you see the whole picture, then everyone you encounter should see the same thing, unless one or both of you are wrong. This causes us to feel threatened and defensive when we encounter perspectives or opinions that are different than ours.

The Home of Your Reality

Selective attention shows us that our experience of reality is what we pay attention to and how we pay attention to it. 

Every second we can only choose 40 bits of information to enter our consciousness, and everything else is left out. And what we choose to focus on becomes our reality.

The word focus derives from the Latin word for "hearth" or "fireplace." A hearth represents the place in a home where everyone gathers. It is, in a sense, "a point of convergence." Which is why, in physics and optics, the "focus point" is the point where light rays converge.

What our mind focuses on is where our conscious and unconscious converge. This convergence point is where our reality is created on a moment-by-moment basis. It is everything we have and the only thing we have. It is, in a very literal sense, the "hearth" or "home" of our reality. It's where our reality is created and is nourished and grows, like a child or pet we're responsible for.

When we don't control our focus, we leave the front door of our "home" open.  We let strangers wander in and out.  When we don't choose what to pay attention to, we are choosing to let others decide for us.

The economist Herbert Simon was one of the first to point out that it's not attention that consumes information; it's information that consumes attention. The attention economy is an entire economic theory and approach based on the principle that consumers' attention is the most valuable commodity there is. 

There are entire teams, entire companies, devoted to the sole purpose of hijacking your focus and convincing you that they belong there. They don't want you to wake up to the fact that what you focus on is under your control. They want you, essentially, to leave the front door of your attention wide open so that they can stroll in, take what they please, and leave their trash strewn across the living room.  

This explains the ubiquity of more and more outrageous news headlines designed to capture our attention. Another example is the proliferation of apps and other technologies specifically designed to activate addiction circuitry in the human brain.

Taking Control of Your Reality

Since what you focus on becomes your reality, the first step in regaining control over your reality is to become the master of your attention. 

This means that when you are experiencing something undesirable, you must learn to manage your attention first before attempting to change the external circumstance. As we will explore later, all events are, at their core, neutral, and it is our attention that gives them a positive or negative meaning. Thus we must get into the habit of neutralizing any negative experiences by managing attention first before taking action to create physical change in the environment.

Begin noticing when you are feeling negative emotions, like anxiety, stress, sadness, or anger. Look to see what it was in your attentional field that created that emotion. 

Rather than trying to address the situation or circumstance, you will neutralize the negative emotion by managing your attention first.  There are two ways to do this: managing what you are paying attention to or how you are paying attention to it. 

1. Control What You Are Paying Attention To. 

If you are feeling a negative emotion like stress or anxiety, the most common reason is that you have placed your attention on something you can do nothing about. For example, you might be watching a news report on a war in a foreign country; or you might be thinking about an email that you have to send, even though you are on an airplane with no internet access. 

Anytime our attention is focused on something involving the past or the future, we are focused on something we can do nothing about. Planning is good, and can be done in the present moment, but anytime we are ruminating about a future event that we can do nothing about, we are not managing our attention correctly because it is best directed to the present moment, which we can act on. 

Once you notice that you are paying attention to something you can't do anything about, the solution is simple. Redirect your attention to something in the present moment you can act on. Turn off the newscast. Make a note to send the email later. Stop mulling over what you said at the party last night. Your reality is created in the present moment, not the past. 

2. Control How You Are Paying Attention to It. 

There are times when you are confronting something in the present moment that is actionable, and you don't like it. Perhaps you have to pay bills you don't want to pay or work on a project you don't want to do. In these cases, your negative emotion isn't telling you to run away. It's asking you to a better look at how you are paying attention what is in front of you. There are many ways to do this which we will explore in later posts, but for now, the most efficient way is the following: 

Ask yourself the question: "What's good about this?" 

"What's good about this?" is like entering a search term into the search window of your unconscious. The search results that pop up will remind you that your interpretation of the situation is just ONE of many ways of paying attention to it; one selection of 40 bits out of the 40 million bits that could have been chosen. On top of that, your unconscious will inevitably give you an answer as to what is the positive aspect of the situation. The "negative emotion alarm" will quiet down, and you will be handle the situation much more effectively. 

3. Slow Down Your Thinking So You Can Access Your Intuition / Insights.

Ultimately, the goal of both steps one and two is to get you to step three, and you will eventually be able to skip straight here. Slowing down your thinking is the holy grail of controlling your reality because it allows you to access the decision-making capability of your unconscious. Instead of dealing with the problem with the paltry 40 bits per second bandwidth of consciousness, you bring to bear on it the incredible processing capability of your unconscious mind. In the next post, we go into depth on this process. 

Written by

Nizar Taki

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Next Selective Attention: Part Two