What is your attention growing?
Updated: Jul 15, 2019
Attention is like a muscle. Often when we struggle with obsessive thinking, depression, anxiety, or other issues of the sort, our attention is fixated on something that is influencing these emotions.
When we imagine something our body experiences it as if it were actually happening in the present time. Over time this creates long-term biological changes, just as lifting weights does for us. For example, if we run through a potential upcoming conflict with a family member over and over in our heads, our body is responding as if that conflict were happening in the present. This potential conflict might never actually happen, but the act of running through it over and over means that it is happening to us over and over again in our biology. Over time this changes us and literally rewires our brain and nervous system. Having our attention “stuck” on this imagined event produces a number of negative outcomes.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is a highly effective, evidenced-based treatment modality for emotional regulation. In layman’s terms this means that studies indicate DBT as a beneficial treatment for individuals who struggle with strong emotions. (YES, if you have strong emotional responses and feel that your feelings run your life, I am saying that there is hope for a different future). A primary tactic that DBT incorporates is distraction. It’s interesting how effective distraction is and, once again, this is essentially a tool of attention.
Obviously we’d all agree that this is useful. Try this: don’t think about yellow elephants. Does it work? No. Why? It doesn’t work because my direction actually focuses your attention on yellow elephants. When I tell you not to think about things, electrical signals are firing in the very area of your brain that correlate with those very things. Your thoughts and attention create a firing pattern in the brain that can actually be seen in imaging. Check out this video of a fish’s brain. Those bursts of light are correlated with nervous system attention.
We know that the more this happens, the more that area of your brain grows. Dr. Dan Siegel, a pioneer in the field of interpersonal neurobiology, describes this phenomenon as “where firing goes, wiring goes.” When we repeatedly focus our attention on yellow elephants, the area of our brain that correlates with yellow elephants grows. Did you know that your brain is designed to grow, make connections, and develop throughout your life course? This is called neurogenesis. As your brain grows in response to your attention, it becomes more and more easy to think about yellow elephants, to connect yellow elephants to other things in our world, and, essentially, for yellow elephants to have increased impact our lives.
With that said, your attention is something that greatly impacts your internal environment (your biology, mind, emotions, memories, etc). What you choose to focus your attention on becomes part of your internal, biological reality and this has long-term implications. This does not mean that we ignore painful events or only look at the positives in life. What this does mean is that it is important to consider what we want to grow and strengthen in our internal worlds. For example, in marriages do we want our internal world to highlight all of our spouse’s weaknesses or our spouse’s strengths? What is the impact of increasing brain volume that stores and organizes information about our spouse’s limitations? What is the impact of the opposite? As we consider our attention, whether it is our thoughts, what we watch or look at (example: social media), or what we remember, it’s so very important to consider whether our current attention patterns match the outcomes we hope for in life. What are the outcomes you are currently moving toward? What would you like to move toward? Does your attention match that?