Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Attention and focus: the complications of trying to stay alive



Challenge is the pathway to engagement and progress in our lives. But not all challenges are created equal. Some challenges make us feel alive, engaged, connected, and fulfilled. Others simply overwhelm us. Knowing the difference as you set bigger and bolder challenges for yourself is critical to your sanity, success, and satisfaction.
Brendon Burchard

Staying alive has always been the greatest challenge for any creature. All species have developed systems to detect danger and potential threats. One of the most effective of these, is the appropriately named “fight or flight response”.  This prepares us to do exactly that, fight or run for our lives.

We detect threat by analysing the incoming data from our environment, both from the external world, and from our inner world of thought, emotion, and knowledge. Our conscious brain can only manage a tiny percentage of the information that we receive from our senses, the rest is processed at an unconscious level.

Our focus is constantly drawn to the events in the world around us. However, the systems that we use to assess threat are designed for a different world. A world in which we were prey animals and not the top predator on the planet.  They are certainly not designed for life in a modern, technological, stimulus rich world, and not for a self-aware creature, whose own thoughts and emotions can be mistaken for a threat. Is that tiny spider really a danger to life?

Focus is designed to be highly distractable, it is attracted to the smallest of details and to change.   A slight movement in the grass, or a brief glimpse of a stripe, can reveal a predator in hiding and mean that we get to live for another day.

When we notice change, our conscious attention is drawn to it, so that we can assess what it means; this assumes that our unconscious mind has not already triggered an immediate action, based on experience. This automatic response is necessary because we cannot attend to all change in our world without being overwhelmed.  If we have to make a conscious choice about everything, we run the risk of responding too late for our own survival.

Focus is designed to be highly distractable.

Virtually all animal species have developed a visual organ. The eye has evolved from many different pathways indicating how useful it is. The eye can take in huge amounts of data in a very short time, and this has significant advantages when danger is about, and our visual fields are a large part of our early warning systems.  More information reaches the brain from the eye than from any other sensory system

The volume of information coming into the brain outweighs the ability of the conscious mind to process it.  The low bandwidth that is available for conscious processing, means that much of the information has to be processed unconsciously.  Evolution has equipped us with automatic systems to check our environment and to decide what it is that most deserves attention.

These unconscious subroutines work rapidly, their responses are much faster than those we have to think about.  For this reason, in an emergency, consciousness is only brought into play when a decision is needed. This is sensible when trying to survive on the grasslands of Africa. However, in our stimulus rich, modern world it can trigger responses that are both unnecessary and unhelpful, living in the comparative safety of the twenty-first century.

Much of the information has to be processed unconsciously.

Conscious thought is a much slower process, and is better suited to making decisions about stimuli that do not reflect an immediate threat to life.  It is one of the brain functions that has only developed relatively recently, and involves parts of the brain that are the last to fully mature. The pre-frontal cortex, responsible for many of our executive functions, only becomes fully myelinated in our mid twenties.  It is involved in both focus and decision making.  This partly explains why the young make poor decisions!

There are fewer immediate threats to life in our modern world, and only rarely do we need our fight or flight response – although driving in an overcrowded, western city might convince us otherwise. The role of the conscious mind is important in helping to train our unconscious mind to be less reactive. One of the reasons that an expert in crocodile handling does not run away screaming like the rest of us.

Our high paced modern life exposes us to high levels of stimulation from several sources; the rapidly increasing population, living in a noisy urban environment, our beloved electronic technology to name a few.  Modern media are designed to attract our attention.  The result is that we are exposed to excessive stimulation, and live in a world of constant change.

The world contains so much stimulus that the conscious mind can become overwhelmed very easily, and this leaves our unconscious systems to process a massive overload of potential threat.  

We are exposed to excessive stimulation.

This results in a distracted mind that is pulled in all directions. As an indicator of the massive information overload to which we are now exposed, it is said that a week’s editions of the New York Times, contain more information than a human was exposed to in their entire life, only one hundred years ago.

Evolution has equipped us with excellent systems for being alive several hundred thousand years ago.  The rapid advances of modern life are overloading our threat detection systems with a barrage of noise, flashing lights, smartphone notifications, and constant change.  The result is an excessive stress response to minor events, increasing levels of anxiety, and contributes to the rising incidence of modern diseases such as diabetes, heart problems and dementia.

We need to use our conscious mind to counteract this rapidly progressive process. Happiness comes from mental engagement with our lives, and almost by definition requires us to live consciously. If we pay active attention to the world around us we will  be able to override the unconscious subroutines by retraining them.  If we do not, we will inevitably act from emotional and threat responses to events, triggered by the limbic system.

When we develop our attention skills we can reprogramme the brain, this reduces the reactivity of our threat systems, and trains our unconscious to respond differently.  Research has shown detectable changes in these brain areas with regular attention or mindfulness training.

Our conscious mind needs training if we are to do this.  Practices such as mindfulness are a great way to do this.

There are also more practical things we can do that go hand in hand with attention and focus training..

  1. Slow down.  If we rush from one thing to another we only succeed in adding stress to our lives. The result is increased sensitivity in our early warning systems, which may kick off more easily. this will result in greater stress.
  2. Declutter.  Remove any other source of distraction.  A tidy desk does help us to focus and concentrate better.  Living in an uncluttered environment is an extra help.
  3. Do not disturb.  When we want to concentrate or focus on something, we can tell others that we do not wish to be disturbed, put a sign on our door, let others know what a particular signal means e.g. if  my door is shut, leave me alone.
  4. Switch off technology.  Many years of research has gone into getting us to respond to our technology.  It is helpful to switch it off. No one will die we don’t check our FaceBook page for a couple of hours.  E-mails can wait until we have finished, or take a scheduled break.
  5. Close pages.  If we are using a computer to work, we can close all necessary pages and programmes to avoid distraction
  6. Use focus exercises.  There is evidence that one or two of the brain training games can help us to develop our ability to focus and concentrate.  Taking time out to watch our breathing for a minute several times a day is a simple exercise that has many benefits.
  7. Mindfulness.  More formal mindfulness exercises have been shown to cause detectable changes in the brain with as little as 20 minutes a day for eight weeks.
  8. Meditation.  Take up a meditation practice, either a sitting meditation or a movement practice such as Tai Chi, or Yoga.
  9. Down time.  Plan proper down time to spend with family and friends, and engaging in activities that we find rewarding.
  10. Exercise. One of the best aids to attention. 30 minutes brisk walking three times a week or equivalent.
  11. Sleep. We sleep so that our brain can process information and repair itself. It is not a time of nothingness but a vital period for our physical and mental health.  One simple step to a happier, more focussed life that is sadly neglected in the modern age.
  12. Diet.  Eating sensibly and avoiding too much caffeine and alcohol also show significant benefits for our ability to focus.

These practices will mean that our brain’s threat detection systems will become less sensitive, helping them to respond to real danger and not to the perceived threats that our emotional lives can generate.

If we focus our attention more wisely, we gain more control over our automatic responses, this will allow us more time to assess the situation.  The unconscious mind can also be trained to realise that not all perceived threats are equal, will we really die if we do not get a like on Twitter?


Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

2 thoughts on “Attention and focus: the complications of trying to stay alive

  1. Very good and timely writing for me as I just returned from a 10-day silent meditation retreat at a Vipassana Center. 10 days of silence with no electronics, not even reading or writing and about 10 hours of sitting meditation per day. Big time booth camp for the mind. You sum up the issue of an attentive vs. a reactive mind very clearly so I appreciate it. If I may just add what I learned at the retreat about the conscious vs. unconscious mind, is that what we call the unconscious mind is really the mind, always conscious, getting the cues directly from the body, thru its sensations not from the brain. So, the main practice during the retreat was to observe and become familiar with every sensation in the body, observing attentively how every single sensation arises, peaks and passes away. Whether it is a pleasant or unpleasant sensation, the trick is to maintain great equanimity while observing. By not reacting to the sensations, eventually, the ebb and flow becomes more uniform and subtle as the patterns of negativity from the past get dissolved. With this and mindfulness practices as you say, we can become more responsive and less reactive in our every day lives. This would be “nipping the problem in the bud” as they say. I may be wrong but that’s how I understood it. Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Glad you had a good retreat.
      Mind is an interesting concept, and what we attend to is important.
      Are a lot of automatic processes we respond to.
      My theory is that “enlightenment” is when we are aware of exactly what influences us so we respond consciously.