We're Voting With Our Attention

Leah Pearlman

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At the base of the brainstem there is a bundle of neurons called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS acts as a kind of bouncer for the brain. Our senses take in waaaaay too information for our conscious mind to ever process, so we need to screen out data that is not relevant to us and allow through that which matters. The RAS does the filtering. 

How does the RAS know what to let through?  By focusing on something, we are telling the RAS “This is important to me.” So of all the myriad data our senses encounter, the RAS allows our conscious mind to process mostly that which we have declared important by what we give our attention. 

That's why we respond to our own names when someone speaks it in a crowded room. Because the RAS has determined that jumble of sounds is more important than other sound jumbles.   

However, the RAS, and perhaps the rest of our brain, doesn't really understand "No" or "Not." It communicates to itself in images, impressions, and feelings. If I say, "Do NOT picture a pink heart," not only will you probably picture one, but you're more likely to notice the next pink heart that crosses your path.  If you tell your brain (by thinking) "I hate being lonely" then you're likely to pay extra attention to when you're eating dinner alone, but filter out all the time you spend connecting with people on Zoom. If you worry "I’m gonna go broke", then you're more likely to notice your own spending  than the generous meal your friend just made you. The RAS is designed to let through what you have expressed is important to you by what you focus on, and exclude everything else. In these examples, it lets through evidence of lonely and broke, and excludes evidence of connection and wealth.

The more we focus on what we DON’T want, the more we see evidence of those things, and the less we notice evidence or opportunities of what we DO want. This lopsided evidence reinforces our beliefs in our problems, causing us to focus more on what we don't want, and the cycle continues. 

So how do we interrupt this cycle? We focus our attention on what we like and want to see increase. If we want to see a healthier world, then we literally have to train our brains to be able to see it by focusing on what we see that is already healthy. We look for existing examples in our lives of what we say we want, and we put more attention on that, than what we believe is missing.  As Bucky Fuller said, "You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete." The more we do that, the more evidence of positivity we will see, and the more hope we will have. And the more energized and motivated we will be to keep creating a more beautiful world.  

We are voting with our attention. 

Leah Pearlman is an artist, co-creator of the Facebook-like button, and most recently the founder of Dharma Comics. Above excerpt from her most recent newsletter.

Seed questions for reflection: How do you relate to the notion that by obsessing about things we don't want, we are training our brains to ignore what we do want? Can you share a personal story of a time you became aware that your brain's habit patterns were causing you to focus on the opposite of what you wanted? What helps you retrain your brain to focus on what you truly value?

Add Your Reflection:

12 Previous Reflections:

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    On Oct 25, 2020 Elaine wrote:
    Wow! Such an important brain function to understand and observe in daily living. Thank you so much for helping me further attend to the best daily focuses and observations ❤️

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    On Oct 14, 2020 Shyam Gupta wrote:
    We find what we seek. If we are concentrating on the negativity , we are sure to encounter that and if we are concentratingon positivity we are again sure to encounter that too. It is up to us , what we train our minds to do. When we are deeply focussed on shortcomings of a person or a thing , our mind conveniently misses the goodness in the person or the beauty of the object. I remember going on a trek. It was a beautiful place . However we started concentrating on how bad the roads were , how difficult the trek was, poor facilities and we were finding no joy in the trek . Someone pointed out that there was so much beauty around , which we were missing and the moment we started concentrating and appreciating the beauty around we almost forgot about the difficultiesof the trek. By being mindful of our thought process, we can train our mind into positive sid eof things and making it focus on them. We will find what we seek. We just need to be mindful what we are seeking.... [View Full Comment] We find what we seek. If we are concentrating on the negativity , we are sure to encounter that and if we are concentratingon positivity we are again sure to encounter that too. It is up to us , what we train our minds to do.
    When we are deeply focussed on shortcomings of a person or a thing , our mind conveniently misses the goodness in the person or the beauty of the object.
    I remember going on a trek. It was a beautiful place . However we started concentrating on how bad the roads were , how difficult the trek was, poor facilities and we were finding no joy in the trek . Someone pointed out that there was so much beauty around , which we were missing and the moment we started concentrating and appreciating the beauty around we almost forgot about the difficultiesof the trek.
    By being mindful of our thought process, we can train our mind into positive sid eof things and making it focus on them.
    We will find what we seek. We just need to be mindful what we are seeking.[Hide Full Comment]

    1 reply: Aj | Post Your Reply
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    On Oct 13, 2020 Anilkumar Pandit wrote:
    Thoughts lead to Action ; Actions form Habit ; Habit develops Character and Character reaps Destiny. Indeed very thought provoking to sync ourselves with DOs.

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    On Oct 13, 2020 Sharnita wrote:
    This is so true especially with close relationships, where we tend to focus on the negatives and now I understand why they seem to be glaring down on me each time I want to make a change for the better. The focus is so much on the errors and what things should not be like that they are pretty soon compounded and a Molehill becomes a mountain :-). I needed this lesson today.

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    On Oct 13, 2020 Martha Nelson wrote:
    We are what we think about. And what we think about expands. In our lives, in our world. Ancient concept, continued truth.

    1 reply: Shyam | Post Your Reply
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    On Oct 13, 2020 Marcia Perryman wrote:
    Paying attention to the positive in the midst of this election is important because it is so easy to be seduced into the incessant rants and anger about the present administration which will be repeated with the next one. It is really about knowing what is important and what is not... thinking of you from the peaceful place of canada.

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    On Oct 11, 2020 rahul wrote:
    Loved this articulation of voting with attention in our era where attention is being ever more deeply mined and manipulated by the most powerful corporations in the world. Training attention to stay where we'd like it is 'concentration'. Aiming concentration at the deeper layer of reality is 'meditation'. Becoming accomplished in meditation is the ultimate rebellion, the final revolution that is beyond any change we seek in the ordinary dysfunction of the world. Until the final revolution has awakened in my own being, besides voting with my attention, I'll vote with my ballot as if my life depended on it even as I attempt to hold any electoral outcome equally lightly.

    1 reply: Brenda | Post Your Reply
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    On Oct 10, 2020 David Doane wrote:
    Pearlman's essay is a complex way of saying we think about what we think about. It says the RAS lets in what we obsess about, so if we obsess about something we don't want, we train our brains to ignore what we want and focus on what we don't want. Sometimes I obsess over something. Yes, that's a brain habit pattern that is a problem. Obsessing over something leads to obsessing more over it and not thinking about other things. The cure is to break the habit of obsessing, which can be difficult to accomplish -- I've been messing with it for years. Redirecting my thinking to intentionally focus on what I value helps retrain my brain to allow in what I value and keep out what I don't want. In some situations, reducing my thinking altogether helps.

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    On Oct 9, 2020 Jagdish P Dave wrote:
    I have learned a long time ago that our mind is the cause of liberation or bondage. How do I use my mind is in my hand. If I dwell on negative thoughts negative feelings and actions I get negative outcomes. Research studies done by positive psychologists show how we create our own happiness or misery by what we think and what choices we make. We can reinforce our brain's negative bias by thinking negatively. It is up to us to decide how to use our mind. The inner light of wisdom os pure consciousness helps us to make positive changes in our mind and that way rewiring our brain. And this way we are creating positive or constructive brain's habitual patterns. It is helpful to have information about how the application of positive psychology creates positive changes in our brain and in our personal behavior and our social transactions. Transformation takes place when we apply the information in our actions.I know what I need to do to preserve and enhance my physical health. It is... [View Full Comment] I have learned a long time ago that our mind is the cause of liberation or bondage. How do I use my mind is in my hand. If I dwell on negative thoughts negative feelings and actions I get negative outcomes. Research studies done by positive psychologists show how we create our own happiness or misery by what we think and what choices we make. We can reinforce our brain's negative bias by thinking negatively. It is up to us to decide how to use our mind. The inner light of wisdom os pure consciousness helps us to make positive changes in our mind and that way rewiring our brain. And this way we are creating positive or constructive brain's habitual patterns.

    It is helpful to have information about how the application of positive psychology creates positive changes in our brain and in our personal behavior and our social transactions. Transformation takes place when we apply the information in our actions.I know what I need to do to preserve and enhance my physical health. It is hard to break the harmful habitual patterns such as what to eat, when to sleep, and when to do physical exercise. Practicing self-discipline has helped me to walk on the healthy path.

    Knowing what is good and what is helpful and doing what is good and what is helpful has been very helpful to me. Living mindfully is my way of retraining my brain. I want to be master of my brain and not its slave. This is challenging and I love it. I am with the author Leah Perlman when he says, " I'm voting with my attention."
    Namaste!
    Jagdish P Dave'




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