As a child I was a very picky eater. I couldn’t stomach most foods and tended toward a very bland diet.
Wise adults would counsel, “You are what you eat.”
I didn’t really know what that meant, but I suspected I must be a pretty bland person then. However, since I wasn’t sprouting french fries, clearly I wasn’t what I ate.
Some philosophers have come closer to the truth with aphorisms such as, “You are what you say” or “You are what you do.” In other words, how we behave is a direct indicator of who we truly are.
Sometimes, perhaps, but definitely not with any consistency.
A far more accurate and telling observation is this: You are what you pay attention to.
Consider this fascinating research: while monkeys listened to music, researchers tapped rhythmically on the monkey’s finger – tapping to the beat of the music. Every so often the music would change, and at random times the researchers would change their tapping from rhythmic to off-beat.
One group of monkeys was rewarded whenever they noticed that the music had changed. Another group rewarded when they identified the non-rhythmic tapping.
Every monkey received the exact same stimuli: music and finger tapping, with the music periodically changing and the tapping sometimes going off-beat. The only difference was what the monkeys were rewarded for – in other words, what they were paying attention to.
After a few weeks, the brains of those monkeys were studied, and the results were staggering. The ones who had paid attention to the finger tapping had extraordinary growth and neural activity in the brain area associated with that finger. The other group had no such change in that area of the brain, but saw substantial new growth and activity in the region associated with hearing.
The only difference between the two groups is what they learned to pay attention to. And their brain and experience of the world directly followed suit.
Think about that: what we pay attention to now shapes what we will experience in the next moment.
This “learning” happens whether we want it to or not. So, every time we focus on feelings of disappointment with ourselves or someone else, we make it more likely that we’ll do it again. And again.
As the wise Spanish philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset said:
Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.
Most importantly, what we pay attention to is completely up to us. If we want a better experience in the world, all we need to do is change our mind on what we focus upon. Our entire worldview depends on this.
Join me in Monday’s class where we’ll explore the nature of attentional focus and how we can practice making this our new habit. I look forward to seeing you then.