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Aug 08

Selective Attention

selective attentionOne morning, while I was riding a bike, I got to thinking about how mood affects attention and how that, in turn, creates a different reality for us depending on what mood we’re in. To think all these thoughts were sparked by my reaction to the image of a dead squirrel…

Several weeks ago, it had been an especially dark and rainy week, and I had a very large number of folks calling me with problems of severe depression.  All of this had an affect on my own mood.

As is my habit, I got up and went out for a bike ride along a road that I ride pretty much every day. In other words, what I saw that day was almost certainly no different than what I saw any other day.

On this particular day, I remember bicycling by a dead squirrel and finding myself struck with how sad life was and how ultimately tragic it is that all of us die and that death is everywhere that we look. In fact, that thought stayed with me through the entire remaining half hour of my bicycle ride.

I’m usually more of an optimist, and, also, this past week I got to go out skiing at my favorite cross country ski resort.

For this and several other reasons, I started out this morning’s bicycle ride in a good mood. As I was riding, I happened to see that a dog had been killed the day before and was still lying on the side of the road. However, because my mood was better, my mind naturally skipped past the dead dog to think about how beautiful the morning really was and how clean the air was and just what a generally wonderful feeling it is to be healthy enough to go out for a bicycle ride.

This is how mood affects what we observe and think about. It draws our attention to certain things in the environment that are thematically related to that mood. In fact, it does the same thing with our memories. When we are sad, we remember the sad things (when that dead squirrel of dead birds I saw earlier).

Never-the-less, mood is not something that we have to give into. If we are vigilant, we can notice the direction that our thoughts are going and then search around for something different. For instance, the next day, when I was out biking, after I saw the dead squirrel, I was better prepared. Rather than let the sight preoccupy me, I was able to turn my attention to something that was inspiring or beautiful on the ride.

I hope you are feeling good today, but if you’re not, try to pay attention to how your focus turns to things that are sad and, consciously, look for something inspiring or beautiful to focus on instead.

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