Posts Tagged ‘Awareness’

Strangers to Ourselves

May 3, 2015

Consider that at any given moment our five senses are taking in more than 11,000,000 pieces of information.  Our eyes alone send over 10,000,000 signals to our brains each second.  Yet, even the most liberal  estimate is that we can process consciously about 40 pieces of information per second.  So it is obvious that a vast amount of information is outside our awareness.  How do we deal with this enormous amount of information that is outside our awareness?

Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious   by psychologist Timothy D. Wilson addresses this question.  It is only fairly recently that psychologists have become aware of this question.  Freud posited the unconscious in his psychodynamic theory, but this is in the clinical context.  The unconscious is ubiquitous and, hence, we are strangers to ourselves.  Strangers to Ourselves is an academic book, yet it is eminently readable.  It also addresses techniques for learning about this vast territory of unconsciousness in ourselves.

Wilson provides historical background in psychology and philosophy.  Whatever it is, this unconsciousness is adaptive.  Without it, we never would have survived as a species.  He has a chapter titled “Who’s in Charge?” as there are those who would maintain that our conscious mind is all an illusion.  We are like passive viewers of a movie that develops in our unconsciousness mind.  They would argue that explanations of what we did and why we did it are post conscious explanations based on what was seen in the movie.  Although there are times when data indicate that this might be the case, this is certainly not Wilson’s view.  Wilson argues that we should be in charge, but to do so we need to become familiar with our unconscious selves.

He has a chapter on knowing who we are.  He reviews relevant research and provides guidance on getting a better understanding of who we are.

Another chapter is on knowing how we feel.  Now you might think that this is a stupid question as, of course, we know how we feel.  Wilson will present evidence that this is not always the case, and we need to make an effort to come into contact with our true feelings rather than how we might think we feel, as our thinking might be misleading.

Introspection and self-narratives are techniques that can be used to come in contact with ourselves.  Wilson reviews research and techniques.  We can also learn about ourselves by looking outward and using how others react to use to foster a better understanding of our own self.

The final chapter is on observing and changing our behavior.  This is difficult to do, but it is an exercise that we should engage in throughout our lives, and Wilson provides sound guidance on how to do this.

I think this book should be read by everyone capable of understanding it,  and it should be  translated into as many languages as possible.  Courses on this topic should be offered in colleges.  And I would argue further that these topics and concept should be introduced in high school.  Were these activities undertaken, the ramifications could be impressive and widespread.

A Simple Tip to Spark Mindfulness

August 7, 2013

This tip is from the Afterword, Mindfulness and Kindness Practice, by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu, which is from A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan. The healthymemory blog highly recommends A Mindful Nation.

An easy way to remember how to be mindful in the course of a busy day, or when you are overwhelmed, preoccupied, worried, angry, or uncomfortable, is to STOP”

S – Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.

T –Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.

O – Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

P – Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness.

Mindfulness Practice: Body Awareness (or Body) Scan

August 4, 2013

The following guidance is taken from the Afterword written by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu of A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan, which is a book that the healthymemory blog highly recommends.

“ Here is a wonderful practice, that helps to ground you and tune you into your body, experiencing as it is right now. You may do this practice sitting in a chair or on the floor, lying down, or standing.

  • Allow yourself to settle into a comfortable position in which you feel supported and relaxed, yet will not lead you to fall asleep.

  • You may close your eyes or keep them slightly open with a soft gaze, not focusing on anything in particular.

  • Rest for a few moments in awareness of the natural rhythm of your breathing.

  • Once your body and mind are settled, bring awareness to your body as a whole. Be aware of your body resting and being supported by the chair, mattress, or floor.

  • Bring awareness to different parts of your body. You may choose to focus on one particular area of the body or scan your body in a sequence like this one: toes, feet (sole, heel, top of foot), through the legs, pelvis, abdomen, lower back, upper back, chest, shoulders, arms down to fingers, shoulders, neck, different parts of the face and head.

  • For each part of the body, linger for a few moments and notice the different sensations, their quality, intensity, and constancy.

  • The moment you notice that your mind has wandered, return your attention to the part of the body you last remember.

Mindfulness Practice: Awareness of Breathing

July 31, 2013

The following guidance is taken from the Afterword written by Dr. Susan Bauer-Wu from A Mindful Nation by Tim Ryan, which is a book that the healthymemory blog highly recommends.

“ Do this practice at a time of the day and location when you’re less likely to have interruptions or feel sleepy. It may mean that you close your office door and turn off your phone and computer in the middle of the work day, or you get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning, or in the evening you go into a separate room in your home and ask your family to not disturb you for a little while.

There is no need to have a particular goal in mind. You’re not trying to feel a certain way, do anything special, or get anything specific out of it. You’re simply being present in yourself by stilling the body, tuning in, and quieting the mind for a few minutes. The breathing practice below presents a practice you can do over and over again whenever you choose, You can find more details in the books mentioned at the beginning of the resource section (In the book by Tim Ryan).

  • Settle into a steady and comfortable sitting posture—in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. The back is relatively straight, but not rigid, allowing the breathing to be open and easy. Hands can be placed on the thighs or resting loosely on the lap. The head and neck are balanced. You may either close your eyes or just lower them in a soft gaze.

  • Bring your awareness to the sensation of your body touching the chair or cushion, your feet touching the floor, the feeling of the air in the room.

  • Gently bring awareness to the breath as it moves in and out.

  • Notice where the breath is most vivid for you. This may be at the nostrils or at the chest as it rises and falls, or maybe right at the belly as you notice the expanding and releasing.

  • You may be aware of the brief pause between the in=breath and the out-breath.

  • Notice the rhythm of your breathing, and be aware of the sensations of the air coming into and filling your body, and then releasing itself and leaving your body.

  • Stay present with the experience of breathing. Just allow yourself to breathe in a natural and comfortable way, riding the waves of in-breath and out-breath.

  • If your attention has wandered off the breath (and it will), gently escort it back to awareness of breathing. Allow thoughts or emotions to arise without pushing them away or holding on to them. Simply observe them with a very light and gentle curiosity. No need to get carried away by them, or to judge or interpret them.

  • That’s it.”

Improving Selective Attention

May 16, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with improving selective attention. Selective attention involves the enhanced activation of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex.

Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation for improving selective attention. The following section, copied for your convenience from the immediately preceding Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Self-Awareness”, is how Dr. Davidson recommends that you begin mindfulness meditation.

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at

He recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

He also recommends the Body Scan, which is also copied from the preceding Healthymemory Blog post for your convenience.

Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

      1. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

Dr. Davidson also recommends the following focused attention meditation, also known as one-pointed meditation.

“1. In a quiet room free of distractions, sit with you eyes open. Find a small object such as a coin, a button on your shirt, or an eyelet on your shoe. It is important that your focus of attention be visual, rather than on your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.

      1. Focus all your attention on this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.

      2. If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.”2

        He recommends that you do this daily for about ten minutes. Once you are able to maintain your focus of attention for most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month until you reach one hour.

You can also modify your environment to improve your selective attention. Minimize distractions, clear out your environment eliminating as many distractions as you can. Close your door. AND DO NOT MULTITASK!

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2 Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. p.239.


April 22, 2012

To this point, the dimensions of the Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 that have received more detailed consideration, Outlook, Resilience, Social Intuition, and Context Sensitivity are fairly obvious dimensions of emotional style. However, some might be confused by Self-Awareness. How could someone not be aware of their emotions? There is a condition, alexithymia, in which people have difficulty identifying and describing their feelings. In fact, there is a scale to assess the severity of this problem. Understand that these people have feelings, the problem lies in identifying and describing these feelings. And it should be apparent what kinds of difficulties one could have if they do not understand what they are feeling.

There is a brain structure, the insula, which receives signals from the viscera and the somatosensory cortex, that is at the root of this problem. High levels of activity in the insula support high degrees of self-awareness, and low levels of activity in the insula result in low levels of self-awareness. Researchers have found through neuroimaging techniques that people who are more accurate in estimating their heart rate have larger insula. The larger the insula, the more accurate the estimate. Now people who have devoted a large portion of their lives to meditation, Buddhist monks for example, not only are aware of their heart rate, but are actually able to slow their heart rates to what some of us might regard as alarming.

This deficiency in understanding ones physiological responding goes beyond emotions. Some people suffer from chronic dehydration because they are unaware that they are thirsty. They have to be reminded to follow a strict schedule of hydration, even when they don’t feel like it, to avoid dehydration.

It should be noted that self-awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable. It is possible to have “too much” self-awareness. Ultrahigh levels of insula activity can produce excessive degress of body awareness that sometimes result in panic disorder and hypochondria. People with these disorder are hypersensitive to pulse, respiration rate, temperature, and other estimates of anxiety. The tend to overestimate and over interpret.. They might feel a slight uptick in heart rate and fear an impending heart attack.

There is one more emotional dimensions that needs to be discussed in more detail, attention. The next blog post will deal with attention. After that, techniques for modifying emotional states that Dr. Goldman has developed will be discussed.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.