The brain is a highly efficient energy demanding organ that gets fully utilized and, even though it is at full capacity being used, it suffers from a problem of information overload. There’s far too much in the environment than it can fully process. So to solve this problem of overload evolution devised a solution, which is the brain’s attention system.
Attention allows us to notice, select, and direct the brain’s computational resources to a subset of all that’s available. We can think of attention as the leader of the brain. Wherever attention goes the rest of the brain follows—in some sense, it’s your brain’s boss.
Without attention we naturally “mind wander”, when we mind wander without an awareness that we’re doing it, there are consequences. We make errors. We miss critical information sometimes, and we have difficulty making decisions. What’s worse is when we experience stress, when we’re in a moment of overwhelm, we don’t just reflect on the past when we rewind, we end up being in the past ruminating, reliving, or regretting events that have already happened.
Imagine a military leader missing four minutes of a military briefing, or a judge missing for minutes of testimony, or surgeon or firefighter missing any time. The consequences in those cases could be dire. So, one question we might ask is: Why do we do this? Why do we mind wander so much? Part of the answer is that our mind is an exquisite time traveling master. We can rewind the mind to the past to reflect on events that have already happened; We can go into the future to plan for the next thing that we want to do. We land in this mental time travel mode of the past or the future very frequently, and we land there often without our awareness, even if we want to be paying attention.
The solution to a stressed and wandering mind is presence and understanding. Presence has to do with paying attention to our present moment experience with awareness and with without any kind of emotional reactivity of what’s happening. Awareness is the practice of not fast forwarding or rewinding so much. This is an easy explanation but a difficult practice. Yet we all can do it with daily practice.
So, I want to end by sharing my call to action to for all: Pay attention to your attention, and incorporate mindfulness training as part of your daily wellness toolkit in order to tame your own wandering mind and to allow your attention to be a trusted guide in your own life.
Peace and Love, Jim