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Pay Attention to What You Pay Attention To

Is your glass half full or half empty? Are you more motivated by fear or by aspirations? Do you see challenges as opportunities or obstacles? How we answer those questions - how we see the world - significantly affects our neurochemistry and brain function.

It turns out that what we choose to pay attention to - what we focus on - has great influence over our thoughts and behaviors. John Lubbock, a 19th-century politician, poet, writer and philanthropist summed it up quite simply when he said, "What we see depends mainly on what we look for."

John Lubbock was born in 1834 and raised in the London Borough of Bromley. When John was 8 years old, his father came home with big news. Little Johnny thought that maybe it would be something really big like he was getting a pony or a little sister. He was disappointed to learn that the big news was nothing more than a new neighbor. Word had spread across the village that Charles Darwin and his family would be moving into the Down House.

Even though Charles was almost 20 years his senior, Lubbock was fascinated with Darwin's work and he visited the Down House frequently. The relationship that developed fueled Lubbock’s passion for science and biology but also for nature. Eventually, Sir John went on to establish archaeology as a scientific discipline. But a comprehensive look at his work revealed that he was really inspired by psychology and a vision for social progress.

“What we do see depends mainly on what we look for. ... In the same field the farmer will notice the crop, the geologists the fossils, botanists the flowers, artists the colouring, sportmen the cover for the game. Though we may all look at the same things, it does not all follow that we should see them.―John Lubbock,The Beauties of Nature and the Wonders of the World We Live in

More than a century later, we’re finding proof in Lubbock’s worldview that how we see the world becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The common distractions of checking boxes and racing through our days often prevents us from looking for what we want to see. Neuroscience now proves that how we see the world doesn't just affect our attitude; our mindset also affects our brain chemistry.

For most of us, life is busy, and often times hectic and stressful. Even with the best of intentions, life does not always go as planned. During those times, it’s pretty easy to get stuck in negativity.


If you focus on the disappointments, bad news and deficits, your brain will get stuck in what scientists refer to as the vicious cycle – a pattern of negative thoughts or emotions continually reinforced through a feedback loop. It’s not as if there are actually more negative events than positive events. When we are stuck in the vicious cycle, we are subconsciously searching for the negatives to perpetuate the cycle. The good stuff is out there, but our attention is tuned into the negatives and we fail to see it.

Each negative event reinforces the previous one, and each one generating stress hormones that, over time, weaken brain cells and interrupts activity in the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain responsible for higher-order executive functioning like planning, weighing risk and reward, and moderating social behavior.

Conversely, focusing on the good stuff will keep us in the virtuous cycle.  And when we’re in that positive head space, we’re able to short-circuit negative thoughts and continue to and keep the good brain chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin flowing. The release of these chemicals not only facilitate activity in the prefrontal cortex, but they also boost mood, self-esteem and feelings of self-empowerment.

The mind feasts upon what it focuses on. So, pay attention to what you pay attention to.



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