Every Second Counts – Selective Attention
December 05, 2019
By : Marci Narum

By Dr. Tara Feil

Did you know that every second, 11 million bits of information are sent to the brain for processing? That’s more information than the mind can possibly process in such a brief time frame. Never before in human history has the human person been exposed to as much information as we are today. With advances in technology, information is shared more rapidly — and constantly — than ever. Health professionals, myself included, have become concerned about the impact this is having on our health.

Although access to information has many benefits, the never-ending flow of information in today’s world can be harmful because of how our brains process it. Neuroscientists have shown that the brain is more adept at processing negative information than positive, which means that we are more likely to notice and process frightening, worrisome news than hopeful, helpful news. Furthermore, instant gratification offered by “notifications” from modern devices increases the production of dopamine, an important neurochemical that helps us learn and feel well. Increased dopamine makes us more likely to want to use our devices continually, leading to more “screen time” and less time focused on other important daily activities, including exercise and in-person connection with others.

Unfortunately, we have little control over the brain’s natural response to the daily volume of information presented to us; however, we can train the brain to focus on information that makes us stronger, healthier, and more balanced. Selective attention, the ability to choose what to focus on, is the only way we are able to take in 11 million bits of information per second and do something meaningful with a portion of it. By harnessing selective attention and being intentional about how we approach the massive influx of information around us, we can take charge of our world before it overwhelms us. In fact, the most effective ways to get started are truly the most intuitive and simple: 

  1. Limit input of information that’s not fostering balance and health. This might mean reducing time spent on various media sources or setting boundaries in unhealthy relationships. Negative information can’t be avoided but can be intentionally limited.
  2.  Purposefully focus on information that does foster balance and health. Spend time with people who uplift you. Read or listen to voices and material that foster a sense of hope, meaning, and positivity. Don’t wait for good things to come your way. Seek out the good and work toward creating a healthier world through your thoughts, words, and actions.
  3. Practice being mindful, intentionally paying attention, rather than allowing the mind to wander to whatever piece of information is the most captivating. Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve a wide variety of physical and mental health concerns, including heart disease, chronic pain, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Allowing our whole selves — body, mind, and spirit — space and time to practice intentionally paying attention is key to being able to successfully navigate our information-overloaded world. 

We can’t change the technological world we live in or the brain’s natural response to it, but we can capitalize on selective attention and take good care of ourselves by challenging ourselves to intentionally focusing on information that helps us become stronger, healthier, and more balanced. Every second is a new opportunity. 

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