Inside Out: Feelings Frame Focus

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. One of contemporary psychology’s most important discoveries is the inextricability of thought and emotion.

According to “negativity bias theory” we pay more attention to unpleasant feelings such as fear, anger, and sadness because they’re more powerful than agreeable feelings. A survey of which topics we spend the most time thinking about, problematic relationships and troubled projects are at the the top of the list. We’ll work harder to avoid losing money than we will to gain the same amount. If we hear both something positive and something negative about a stranger, we’ll take the negative view. Even if something good happens, if something bad happens too, we’ll feel dispirited. We’re likelier to notice threats than opportunities or signs that all’s well.

The main advantage of paying attention to unhappy emotions is that it attunes us to a potential threat or loss and pressures us to to avoid or relieve the pain by solving the associated problem. A pessimistic focus is helpful when we’re stuck in a tough, let’s-get-to-the-bottom-of-this situation. Looking at the dark side of things can confer a certain objectivity. According to one school of thought, the depressed person’s bleak focus on life tends to be more realistic than a sanguine person’s upbeat view.

Nevertheless, focusing on negative emotions, especially when they don’t serve their primary purpose of promoting problem-solving, exacts a high cost: we spend a lot of time feeling crummy even if our life is pretty good.

Additional studies show we tend to put a positive spin on neutral situations, focus hard on upsets because they’re relatively rare, and forget unhappy events faster than pleasant ones. From this perspective, barring a profound blow such as losing a loved one or getting fired, whether we get a flat time or a raise, we’ll soon return to feeling pretty good.

If these results sound contradictory, remember that people vary both in dispositions and in their fortunes. The important point is that we have the power to interpret and change our situation. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has conducted research showing that paying attention to positive emotions expands our world, while focusing on negative feeling shrinks it. This is something we can control.

According to cognitive scientist Donald Norman’s conceptual model, the brain has three major parts, which focus on very different things and sometimes conflict. The “reactive” component, which handles the brain’s visceral, automatic functions, concentrates on stuff that elicits biologically determined responses, such as dizzying heights and sweet tastes. The “behaviors,” or routine component, attend to well-learned skills, such as riding a bike or typing. According to Norman, these two “lower” modes of brain functioning handle most of what we do, and mostly without requiring conscious attention.
Norman’s “reflective” element of the conceptual brain is consciousness. Consciousness handles the “higher” functions at the metaphorical tip of the very top of that complicated organ. Since consciousness pays a lot of attention to our thoughts, we tend to identify it with cognition, However, if we try to figure out exactly how to run our business or care for our family, we soon realize that we can’t grasp that process just by thinking about it. Norman writes, “Consciousness also has a qualitative, sensory feel. If I say, ‘I’m afraid,’ it’s not just my mind talking, My stomach also knots up.”

According to Norman’s conceptual model, the brain’s reactive, behavioral, and reflective elements pursue their own agendas, yet they also constantly communicate with each other. When an alarm triggers an argument over whether to roll over or get up and go to the gym, we experience a mild version of the kind of conflict that occurs when two or more of these networks insist that you focus on different things Offering a more complicated example, Norman says, “Take jumping out of an airplane.” On the reactive level, our brain attends to the bottom-up imperative of the earth far, far below and goes, “What the hell are you doing?” In order to proceed, we have to pay top-down attention to messages from its behavior component, where we’ve stored our routine skydiving skills, and to the reflective voice that says, “You’ll be okay, and think of how much you’ll enjoy this experience afterward.”

The chapter concludes as follows: “Thus, the first step toward getting on with your work despite a financial setback or repairing a relationship after a nasty quarrel is to direct—perhaps yank—your attention away from fear or anger toward courage or forgiveness. Thanks to positive emotion’s expansive effect on attention, your immediate reward for that effort is not just a more comfortable, satisfying affective state, but also a bigger, better world-view. Where the long-term benefits are concerned, you’ve come closer to making a habit of the focused life.”

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