9.18.2017

Leveraging the Attention Bias for Spiritual Growth

We typically think of biases as those bad thought patterns that prevent us from thinking rationally.
What they really are though are heuristics that make our thought life less complicated. These shortcuts are only bad if they routinely direct us to make errors in judgement. We can however take note of these problematic patterns and refocus them in beneficial ways.

Attention bias is the tendency for people's perception to be affected by their recurring thoughts at any given time. For instance, if think there is something significant about the number 13, you will start to notice it everywhere. Attentional biases explain an individual's failure to consider alternative possibilities, as specific thoughts guide the train of thought in a certain manner (see Wikipedia entry: Attention Bias). 

What this means is that whatever it is you are focused on will be amplified in your perception, your subconscious will automatically direct your attention to things you've selected as important, and ignore things that you have by default not selected as important.  Watch this short video experiment.



Most people, who follow the instructions, miss the gorilla because they are focused on counting the number of times the people in white pass the ball. In order to track the people in white, the brain suppresses information about the figures wearing black. The gorilla - which is also black - is able to walk right through the center of the group and pound his chest without ever attracting attention.

There's great potential here to distort reality, if someone's selective attention is programmed with conspiracy theories, or political propaganda, or racial prejudices for instance. These faulty premises will actively draw attention to things that support this belief, and suppress information that counts against it. This is a kind of sub-group of the attention bias, called the Confirmation Bias.

Aside from the power to distort our perception of reality however, the attention bias also has the power to draw our attention to very real things - both helpfully and unhelpfully. An example of an unhelpful focus would be focusing on all the things that don't go our way. This is something I do, and it can lead to to believe that the universe has it in for you. I often find myself thinking "nothing ever works out for me." These thoughts can result in debilitating depression.

Apparently it works the other way too though - thankfully. For instance, people who think they are lucky have a self-serving attention bias that causes them to focus on things that do go their way, and to suppress their recollection of things that do not. More importantly it probably helps them notice opportunities that a person with a negative bias might miss - and keeps them open to taking risks.

But, I'm not interested in cultivating a belief in luck. What I would like to talk about is gratitude - having a spirit of thankfulness. A lot of us believe we would feel more thankful if we had more things to feel thankful about. In truth, we probably don't have more things to be thankful about because we are not thankful for the things we have. By exercising our ability to express gratitude we become aware of the just how much God has done for us, and we free ourselves from being paralyzed by

I read this article recently titled "I Skeptically Tried Practicing Gratitute, It Completely Changed My Life." The author, Leslie Turnbull, did an experiment where she actively wrote five things that she was thankful for each day, the catch was, she could not be thankful for the same thing twice so the exercise becomes more challenging as you go. Turnbull started off like me, very cynical (I imagine post-its with smiley faces on my mirror and cheesy motivational posters). But over time her attitude began to change. She began to actually feel more thankful - and to notice more things to be thankful for.

I really want to give this a try. The reasoning behind it makes sense.  I found this app on Google Play, a gratitude journal called BLISS. It gives you a number of exercises, like "Best Possible Future." which helps you identify the things that are most important to you, "Honoring People" which helps you train your brain to focus on the positive aspects of your relationships and be a better friend. When you first open the app however, you are always greeted with "The Gratitude Exercise" where you must state something you are thankful for - including your reason.

I'm excited to give this a try.  It's unfortunate it doesn't nag you to use it every day though. My cynical self is likely to forget that its on my phone.  Hopefully not though.  I'll check back with you in a month and let you know how its going.






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