Take Control of Your Attention
Attention is both a marvel and a menace. Without it, we can’t focus our energy on finishing what we need to do. But with it, we are often blinded to obvious and important facts in our periphery. Attention is the brain’s filter on the world, giving targeted information privileged access to our mind so that we can be productive while minimizing distractions.
Our tunnel-vision can be used against us precisely because it is so effective. In fact, it is a magician’s primary weapon. Watch the British entertainer, Derren Brown, steal a man’s property right off his body as he talks to him here:
When attention is used poorly, like when it is scattered across the multiple forms of distracting media in our lives, we end up like a dog on a leash. We are dragged one way, then dragged another way, by companies who are fighting for our valuable mental space.
When we manage to take control of our attention, we can decide how best to use it. The first step in that process is always awareness. Mindfulness is a great tool for noticing the capricious antics of our minds, and ultimately developing a healthy mindset where attention is our servant rather than our master.
I’ve previously written in detail about mindfulness so won’t go into it again here. Instead, I’ll describe an experiment I ran back in the winter of 2014 in Hamburg, Germany. The aim of the study was to investigate the interaction between attention and uncontrollable actions in Tourette syndrome patients.
Patients with Tourette syndrome regularly perform involuntary body movements, which are called tics. Facial twitches and blinking are very common. Vocal tics are less common but can be very severe, especially when they feature coprolalia: the repeated involuntary impulse to use taboo words. Patients with the most severe vocal tics can get themselves into agonizing social situations including awkwardly calling out people’s names, and even shouting Nazi slogans in public.
Together with a group of Tourette syndrome patients, my colleagues and I wanted to understand whether shifting a patient’s attention could reduce their tics. To better understand what attention does in the brain, imagine an apple on the table in front of you.
When you look at the apple but daydream about what you’ll have for dinner, you’ll find visual cells in the brain firing as they process the image of the apple. But if you also focus your attention exclusively on the apple as you look at it, those same cells will fire more intensely. So, in some ways, attention acts as an amplifier in the brain, enhancing the signals that represent the object we are looking at. This made me wonder whether attention to tics might also make them worse by amplifying their signals in the brain.
I developed a simple game in which patients had to pinch their thumb and any other finger together once every 2 seconds. Each time they pinched, they saw a random colored circle appear on the computer screen. They were asked to remember one of three things as they did this: 1) Focus on and remember the colors of each circle in the order you see them, 2) Focus on and remember which finger you use each time you pinch, 3) Focus on and remember whether or not you tic each time you pinch your fingers. So we manipulated attention in 3 possible directions: toward the external world, toward voluntary body movements, or toward involuntary tics.
We found that patients suffered fewer tics when they focused their attention on the external world than when they focused on their tics. Surprisingly, they expressed the fewest tics overall when they kept their attention on their voluntary movements, perhaps because this is the most powerful way to capture attention and take it away from tic anxiety. Indeed, it is the mindset most closely related to mindfulness because it promotes attention to personal actions, thoughts, and feelings.
Overall, simple attention shifts had significant effects on the severity of patients’ symptoms. Focusing the mind on helpful rather than unhelpful information can improve our lives. For patients who suffer from overt disorders, it is often clear to see the advantages by measuring their symptoms. But with the rest of us, the benefits need to be experienced firsthand in our emotions and experiences.
Much of the self-help world seems to scream obvious advice at us like “feel good!”, as if seeing the instruction is enough to fulfill it. We know that our lives are too complicated for these quick fixes. The first reasonable step to any self-improvement plan must surely be to know ourselves better. What are our minds doing when we feel bad? How about when we feel good? Where did those feelings come from?
These questions help to wrestle our attention toward an inward-looking mindset focused on the present moment. Instead of getting lost in our spiraling worries and pains when we consider a past mistake, we can bring ourselves down to earth by staying focused on how we actually feel now. One of the funniest things about the human condition has to be our frequent belief that we are feeling something unique or abnormal, when in fact, everyone else feels the same way. We get away with this lunacy because we distract ourselves with thoughts of should-have-been, could-be, and wish-it-were.
Once we, as conscious thinkers, regain some authority over our attention, we realize that many of our mental states are just misdirection. Our unconscious minds are the magician, and our conscious minds are the subjects of the trickery. With a little practice in monitoring and using our attention for our own good, our conscious minds can take over the magic wand. Or, at the very least, we can become the magician’s glamorous assistant.
Take Control of Your Attention