The Importance of Focus
Our ability to focus drives much of what we do in life. As the renowned psychologist William James put it, “My experience is what I agree to attend to”. What we’re drawn to determines each experience. There is an impossible amount of information to comprehend in every interaction. Because of our brain’s capacity to remove the irrelevant, our attention, becomes reality. And that shaped reality influences the self you are and will become.
What Happens When We Focus
Attention is a term for a complex neurological and behavioral system. But focus isn’t just one thing. It’s a myriad of interactions that take place in any given moment. At its simplest, our executive networks process the environment and our possible reactions. From there it creates an appropriate response. Whether it works out as intended is another story.
When you actively focus on a bit of information you allow it to affect your behavior in the short and long term. Ultimately this information may turn up useless, but for a brief moment it can alter our reality. Every one of us has some class we took in high school that turned out a waste. But our what we focused on during that time made ripples throughout our life.
If focus shapes our reality, then what happens to the thing we don’t focus on? Our limited ability to absorb information means the environment outside our attention may as well not exist. Because of this, focus is a powerful guide. Either as a motivator, or as a distraction and inhibitor.
Limitations of Focus
It’s estimated that the unconscious processing abilities of the brain is roughly 11 million pieces of information per second. Whereas the estimate for conscious processing is about 40 pieces per second. At any one moment our processing power determines conscious thought. What we’re able to process is a part of your active reality, while the brain removes the rest or stores it away.
If you watch the video below you’ll see one of the greatest examples of selective attention.
The instructions are simple, count the times players in white pass the basketball. Most individuals can get an accurate count, but as with most experiments, that’s not the actual goal. The underlying study means to test how many individuals also catch the person in the gorilla suit. Often participants aren’t even able to see the gorilla. Their attention to the ball is too strong to notice seemingly unimportant interruptions. On varying experiments meant to test the same response, over 50% of individuals miss the distraction.
We have no way of knowing what our brain will determine is important enough to pay attention to. The various modules making up our brain seek different stimulants. And, as they seek, they vie for control of attention. When one of these modules takes hold it influences our conscious to take action. Even with these strong motivators it’s possible to change our perception of a situation.
Shifting Input to Change Attention
New Year’s resolutions can shift focus and change our behaviors. Your brain may convince you to eat a slice of cake, but it also remembers your commitment to lose weight. The instant reaction is to cut another slice, but your brain starts to backpedal. Recently you’ve focused on your waist line and comments from your doctor. That influences your reaction and gives you more time to think through your decision.
As someone with a fear of heights the first couple times I went rock climbing were horrifying. So much so, that I disregarded proper falling techniques and ended up damaging my elbow. This added another element dissuading me from going climbing. Eventually, after a lot of practice and experience, I was able to shift my attention. I’d built up a store of positive moments after each climb. Instead of focusing on the immediate reaction I was able to shift towards the excitement of accomplishment and the joy of a good workout.
Selective Sustained Attention: Produces consistent results on a task over time. Common estimates for healthy teenagers and adults range from 10 to 20 minutes, though empirical evidence is scant. And what that limited time frame means is up for debate itself. After all, if we find something engaging we simply choose to focus on it again. Furthermore, experiments that espouse this time frame show no impact on information retention.
Divided Attention is the act of working through two or more simultaneous actions. It’s something we do all the time without thought. And we’re capable of doing these things because we’ve committed one of the acts to the subconscious. Actions like singing while driving or walking and talking.
At the same time divided attention can be impossible. If we try to count two different sets of objects at the same time or hold distinct conversations we will ultimately fail.
Our brains can’t handle this type of processing. Instead, we attempt to switch between both tasks retaining separate streams of information. Unfortunately we’re also pretty terrible at this, ending in failure.
What Affects Our Attention Span
How we attend to an object or task is largely affected by our motivation. Depending on our motivation we can experience identical stimuli in completely different ways. If we’ve recently eaten, our response to and focus we give a plate of food is minimal. But, if we’ve gone a while without eating or recently exercised, we’re prompted to attend to the smell, look, and taste. Here need triggers motivation and drives our focus.
Emotional prompts work to influence attention in subtle ways. If you’re feeling morose, you’ll notice unhappy emotions faster and remember negative news better than positive. Instead of taking in the entirety of a positive moment you’re apt to focus on whatever negative features you find. That’s because you’re in a state preparing you for further upset. It’s more important, in the moment, to focus on potential problems to mitigate their effects. We’d rather protect ourselves from further hurt in the moment.
Attention also changes based on our competence. The better we are at completing a task the less opportunity we have to encounter difficulties that slow progress. Instead we move through the task in a fluid state often referred to as ‘flow’. Competence, unfortunately, does have a limitation, repetitive easy tasks lose their attraction quickly. At that point we’re likely to try and find something more engaging.
The Importance of Focus
What you’ve focused on in the past has made the person you are now. And, what you focus on from this moment forward shapes the person you’ll become. Whether you focus deliberately or as a passive participant will determine your accomplishments and how you live. When you focus you create your future self, when you attend passively, you become your reactions.