Read an excerpt from Peak Mind below.
You are missing 50 percent of your life. And you’re not alone: everyone is.
Take a minute to picture it—your life, I mean. Scroll through the individual events, interactions, and instances that come together over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime. Think of it like a quilt, each square a small block of time: Here, pouring yourself a cup of coffee. Over there, reading a book to your child. Celebrating a success at work. Taking a walk in your neighborhood, climbing a mountain, diving with sharks. The mundane and the extraordinary woven together and working together, forming the story of your life.
Now, take half those quilt squares and rip them out. The irregular patchwork that’s left—a cold, drafty blanket full of holes—is the part of your life for which you’re mentally present. The rest is gone. You didn’t truly experience it. And chances are, you won’t remember it.
Why? Because you weren’t paying attention.
Do I have your attention right now? I hope so—the idea that we’re missing so much of our own lives is pretty alarming. But now that I have it, I won’t be able to keep it for very long. As you read this chapter, it’s likely that you’ll miss up to half of what I say. And on top of that, you’ll finish reading these pages convinced that you didn’t miss a thing.
I say this confidently, even without knowing who you are, or how your brain might be different from the last one we tested in my lab at the University of Miami, where I research the science of attention and teach cognitive neuroscience courses. That’s because over the course of my career as a brain scientist, I’ve seen certain universal patterns in the way all of our brains function—both how powerfully they can focus, and how extraordinarily vulnerable they are to distraction—no matter who you are or what you do. I’ve had the opportunity to peek inside the living human brain using the most advanced brain imaging technologies available, and I know that at any given moment, there’s a high probability that your mind just isn’t here. Instead, you’re planning for the next item on your to-do list. You’re ruminating on something that’s been bothering you, a worry or a regret. You’re thinking about something that could happen tomorrow, or the next day, or never. Any way you slice it, you’re not here, experiencing your life. You’re somewhere else.
Is this just part of being alive? A side effect of the human condition, something we all just have to live with? Is it really that big of a deal?
After twenty-five years of studying the science of attention, I can answer these questions. Yes, it is part of being alive—in many ways, because our brain’s evolution was driven by specific survival pressures, our attention waxes and wanes, making us prone to being distractible. Our distractibility served us well when predators lurked around every corner. However, in today’s technologically saturated, fast-paced, and rapidly shifting world, we’re feeling that distractibility more than ever, and we face new predators that rely on and exploit our distractibility. But no, it’s not something we have to just live with—we can train our brains to pay attention differently. And finally, and most importantly: yes, it is that big of a deal.
The Extraordinary Impact of Attention
Tell me if this ever describes you: At times, it feels like a struggle to stay focused. Your mind toggles between boredom and overwhelm. You feel foggy—as if the crisp thinking you need to rely on is simply not there. You have a short fuse. You’re irritable. Stressed. You notice mistakes you’ve made: typos, skipped words, or or repeated ones. (Did you catch that?) Deadlines loom but you find it difficult to pull yourself away from your news and social media feeds. You cruise through your phone, opening app after app—then you look up, some amount of time later, wondering what you were even looking for in the first place. You’re spending a lot of time in your head, out of sync with the flow of all that is happening around you. You find yourself spinning on interactions—something you wish you had said, something you shouldn’t have said, something you should have done better.
You may be surprised to know that all of this ultimately comes down to one thing: your attention.
- If you’re feeling that you’re in a cognitive fog: depleted attention.
- If you’re feeling anxious, worried, or overwhelmed by your emotions: hijacked attention.
- If you can’t seem to focus so you can take action or dive into urgent work: fragmented attention.
- If you feel out of step and detached from others: disconnected attention.
In my research lab at the University of Miami, my team and I study and train people in some of the most extreme, high-stress, high-demand professions. We study medical and business professionals, firefighters, soldiers, and elite athletes, among others. They need to deploy their attention—and do it well—through extraordinarily high-stakes circumstances where their decisions could affect many people. As in critical surgeries. Deadly wildfires. Rescue operations. Active war zones. A single moment when performance can make or break a career, end or save a life. For some of these folks, if and how they pay attention is literally a matter of life and death. For all of us, it’s a powerful force that shapes our lives far more than we realize.
Your attention determines:
- what you perceive, learn, and remember;
- how steady or how reactive you feel;
- which decisions you make and actions you take;
- how you interact with others; and
- ultimately, your sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.
On a certain level, we all sense this already—consider the language we use when we talk about attention. Pay attention, we say. We ask, May I have your attention? We see and hear information that is attention-grabbing. These common phrases illuminate what we already know instinctively: that, like currency, attention can be paid, given, or stolen; that it is extremely valuable, and also finite.
Recently, the commercial value of attention has taken center stage. As the saying goes for social media apps, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” More precisely, your attention is the product—a commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder. We now have attention merchants and attention markets. All this forecasts a brave new dystopia involving trading in human “attention futures” alongside cattle, oil, and silver. Yet attention is not something that can be banked or borrowed. It cannot be saved to use later. We can only use our attention in the here and now—in this moment.
What Is Attention, Exactly?
The attention system exists to solve one of your brain’s biggest problems: there is far too much information in the environment for your brain to fully process. To avoid getting overloaded, your brain uses attention to filter out both the unnecessary noise and chatter around you, and the background thoughts and distractions that constantly bubble up to the surface of your mind.
All day, every day, your attention system is in action: In a crowded coffee shop, you zero in on your computer screen and your work, while the conversation at the table next to you or the hissing of the espresso machine seem muffled. At the playground, you scan all the kids in their colorful clothing on the slides and swings but can quickly pick out your own. During a conversation with your co-worker, you hold a point you want to make in your mind, even while listening and absorbing what she’s saying. As you cross a busy street, you notice a car moving too fast toward you, even as a hundred other distractions exist—people flowing down the sidewalk, a blinking crosswalk sign, horns honking.
Without attention, you would be completely at sea in the world. You’d either be blank, unaware and unresponsive to events happening around you, or you’d be overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer, incoherent mass of information assaulting you. Add to that the relentless flow of thoughts generated by your own mind, and it would all be incapacitating.
To study how the human brain pays attention, my research team uses a range of techniques—functional MRI, electrophysiological recordings, behavioral tasks, and more. We bring people into the lab and follow them out into their world—what we call going “in the field.” We’ve conducted dozens of large-scale studies and published numerous peer-reviewed articles in professional journals about our findings. We’ve learned three major things:
First, attention is powerful. I refer to it as the “brain’s boss,” because attention guides how information processing happens in the brain. Whatever we pay attention to is amplified. It feels brighter, louder, crisper than everything else. What you focus on becomes most prominent in your present-moment reality: you feel the corresponding emotions; you view the world through that lens.
Second, attention is fragile. It can be rapidly depleted under certain circumstances—circumstances that turn out, unfortunately, to be the ones that pervade our lives. When we experience stress, threat, or poor mood—the three main things I call “kryptonite” for attention—this valuable resource is drained.
And third, attention is trainable. It is possible to change the way our attention systems operate. This is a critical new discovery, not only because we are missing half our lives, but because the half we’re here for can feel like a constant struggle. With training, however, we can strengthen our capacity to fully experience and enjoy the moments we are in, to embark on new adventures, and to navigate life’s challenges more effectively.
Credit line: Excerpted from PEAK MIND by Amishi P. Jha. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2021.
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