Antidotes for Attentional Blindness

Antidotes for Attentional Blindness

Some days, I come away from my media exposure with a mental list like this: contact senator about fill-in-the-blank global emergency; read article about how to stop using plastic and implement suggestions; examine personal privilege; forward lifesaving health drink recipe to ailing relative…Oh, and remember to Seize the day!  Sound familiar? Most often, I then realize I do not have time to spare for any of it—yet it all seems urgent—and I can end up with a dizzy feeling, like I have just stepped off a merry-go-round, as I think about what to do next. I am normally good at prioritizing, but when doing something about climate change, and Monsanto, right now, for example, seems at least as important as writing a work proposal or grocery shopping, the things competing for attention in my mind can kind of blow a circuit.

I was relieved to find out this is not a failure of my mental faculties but rather a result of overwhelm, something called attentional blindness. According to Martha Beck, “When your brain assigns equal importance to several things at once, your attention bottleneck jams. You go attentionally blind to everything.” She also explains its current prevalence: “Overwhelm is increasingly common as demands on human attention increase exponentially. The human brain just wasn’t designed to handle the environment we inhabit.” Whew. That sounds exactly right.

But what to do about it? Martha Beck offers a great six step technique based on using visual “search images,” something humans and animals do naturally to filter out extraneous information.

For me, I have found some ancient wisdom to be helpful. Overwhelm might not have been so much of a problem back in the day, but controlling our attention has always been a challenge some humans wanted to take on. And people like yogis have known that placing our attention on a single thing can be a key to wellbeing. Meditation often focuses on the breath.

Because my feeling of attentional blindness is a little dizzy, I associate it with motion. Fittingly, what works best to stop it are two related focusing techniques that I have learned in movement classes. In ballet, to prevent dizziness when performing full turns, dancers do what is called “spotting,” or choosing a single point of focus and re-orienting to it each time they turn. There is no other attempt at visual focus during the spin, only a return to the single spotting point. The equivalent for balancing in yoga is the drishti point of focus—which is a much richer concept than can be explained here, and all good for wellbeing. Anyone who has ever tried doing tree pose, or just tried to balance on one leg, knows how helpful keeping your eyes on a single point is. The drishti enhances control, and our attention follows it.

My drishti for attentional blindness is always a natural object outside, because it not only offers me a calming single point of focus; it also resets what I think of as the fake pace of life. Gazing at the gentle movement of tree branches or clouds reorients me both to eternality and to the natural pace of things. Although we can speed the leafing of a tree up to a matter of seconds via our impatient time lapse photography, in fact, this happens over the course of weeks. Watching buds opening a bit more each day is one of the most calming, grounding things I know. Slower feels better. Less feels better. These are my antidotes when I experience overwhelm or attentional blindness.

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