“Give whatever you are doing and whoever you are with the gift of your attention”. ~Jim Rohn
The next time you experience a memory slip or “brain fart”, think about your attention. We are quick to blame our memory system, but really, our attention system is the “gatekeeper” for most of the information that we see, hear, and experience.
How well are you paying attention to information that crosses your path?
What’s Happening in the Brain When You Lose Focus?
Attention is a pretty complex thinking process. It involves multiple systems in the brain such as:
our sensory processing system,
visual and auditory systems,
alertness and awareness,
Sprinkle in some emotions and, phew, we’ve got something pretty complicated on our hands!
Let’s try to keep it simple: The key players in the brain involve the cingulate cortex, which is part of the frontal cortex that controls complex thinking, thoughts and feelings, planning, switching, and general cognitive control.
Further back in the brain, we have input from the parietal lobe and its counterparts deeper in the brain, helping out with things like orientation.
Let’s not forget the importance of neurochemicals such as norepinephrine, the cholinergic system, and dopamine. The take home message here is that paying attention involves multiple neuroanatomical parts and several complex cognitive skills.
Common Reasons We Don’t Pay Attention
We are distracted by our external environment such as noise, conversation, music, or something that catches our eye.
We are distracted by the internal dialogue in our minds. This can be driven by emotion, or perhaps reviewing our to-do lists, planning our next task, thinking about what we want to say next during a conversation, etc.
We are paying attention to something else. When we fraction our attention by trying to attend to multiple things at once, each thing gets a little bit less of our attentional resources.
How many times have you driven by something - a restaurant, beautiful park, shopping center, billboard - and only just realized that it’s been there for several years! How could you have missed it, you drive by it every single day?!
Have you ever misplaced something, only to find that it was right in front of you the whole time, or exactly where you put it?! We are quick to say “I didn’t see it”. But of course you saw it - your eyes processed the information and it registered that information in your brain. But if you didn’t pay attention to it….well, then there is no reference point. You feel as though you didn’t know it was there.
I had a recent chuckle when I left a note for a family member right on top of their keys, wallet, and phone, certain that they would see my note the next day. Later, I asked about the content of the note, and they said, “What note?”. There was no way they didn’t see it - they would have had to move the note to get their keys and phone, which they obviously did. In reality, they picked up the note and put it down without awareness, because they were focused on the contents underneath (i.e., paying attention to something else). They saw the note, of course. But they didn’t pay attention to it. The information about the note was never processed and encoded and so when asked about it later, they had no reference point or recollection for it.
Why Paying Attention Matters
Do you want to be more present in your everyday life? It’s no fun to miss the details, have a clunky connection with someone because you didn’t pay attention to what they said, or have to recover from making a mistake because you weren’t paying attention to instructions. Paying attention can contribute to being more efficient in our jobs, more connected in our relationships, and more attuned with ourselves.
The safety implications are important too. Distracted driving causes unnecessary accidents. Our personal safety can be compromised by not paying attention (ever run into something or trip because you were walking and texting?)
Cognitive Wellness Practice
This month, set the intention to Pay Attention on Purpose. Like most efforts to change our behavior, you’ll need to practice and be intentional about shifting your attention. Here’s a few ways to get started:
Give your brain it’s best chance at paying attention by controlling your environment.
Turn off the television or music when you are trying to pay attention, even if you think you are ignoring the distraction. Put your phone down, close your browsers, and put devices on silent.
Slow down. Look around. Engage.
When you are having a conversation with another person, look the person in the eye. When you have an idle moment, resist the urge to pick up your phone, and instead look around you and notice.
To combat the “where did I put that darn thing” phenomenon, be sure to be purposeful and interactive when you put something away.
We quite often open a drawer and toss something inside, when we are on our way from one room to another, in the middle of a conversation, or on our way out the door. Instead, mindfully look at the object you are putting away and engage in a small way by thinking to yourself (or even saying aloud), “This is my new pair of gloves”. When you toss them in the drawer, say to yourself, “My new gloves are in the second drawer in the spare bedroom dresser, next to where I keep my extra journals.” Later, when you go to find your gloves, you will have encoded a specific location for them, because you paid attention when you put them away.
Interested in a deeper dive? Having a consistent mindfulness practice can really help with paying attention. In fact, we know that meditation can impact areas of the brain, including those involved with paying attention.
Reach out to Brain Space for support with paying attention, developing a mindfulness practice to support purposeful attention, and cultivating your cognitive wellness and brain health. www.brainspacedenver.com