Sunday, January 08, 2006

Paying attention matters

This is a quotation from a book called The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, by Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D. and Sharon Begley:

"Physical changes in the brain depend for their creation on a mental state in the mind -- the state called attention. Paying attention matters. It matters not only for the size of the brain's representation of this or that part of the body's surface, of this or that muscle. It matters for the dynamic structure of the very circuits of the brain and for the brain's ability to remake itself."

What fascinates me most is the correspondence between our internal experience and the world around us: the micro and the macro. Paying attention does matter. Educational experiments done with children have to control for the possiblity that it is not the intervention that produces change; it is the attention itself. In politics and society, the issues that catch our attention are also the ones to which we direct dollars and change. In our workplaces, we know that people feel less stress when they have more control: when they know that their attention matters and that people are paying attention to them. Attention changes structure, often in ways that are surprising and powerful.

Those of us who are aware of the enormous complexity of unconscious processes, the incredible speed with which the brain processes billions of pieces of data, are often tempted to treat conscious awareness as if it were slow, clumsy, and not very useful. And yet, attention matters. In a world where change is inevitable, constant, and fast, attention creates stability, structure, and the promise of identity. Attention is not all we are, but without attention, we would not know ourselves.

Stories are a way of paying attention, a way of slowing down change so that we can become conscious of the transition from one state to another. When we hear someone's story, we allow their changes to become our changes. We pay them with our attention for the creation of alternatives to our own experience. We pay attention and our attention changes the structure of our brains, so that other people's stories leave footprints which become part of who we are and how we make ourselves.

Choose the stories that will leave footprints: the ones you hear and the ones you tell.

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