Attention & Intention
Attention is the seat of will. The effort which goes into the exercise of the will is really the effort of attention; the strain in willing is the strain of keeping the attention focused.
– Rollo May
To over-ride the influence of cause-and-effect principles so you can exercise your will requires the ability to shift from the emotional reactivity of the creature you inhabit to the detached perspective of the rational entity who is sensitive to your core motivation.
Salience Versus Meaning
Salience refers to how bright or attention grabbing a stimulus is, not necessarily how meaningful it is. The picture of one child suffering as the result of an act of war is more salient and thus more effective in provoking a state change in the audience than are statistics of thousands killed.
Your psychological state is, to a large extent, determined by the stimulus that captures your attention. Some stimuli are so salient that they can elicit a state change without your conscious intention.
Threatening stimuli are naturally salient. After all, we are descended from the organisms that noticed threats; those who did not are not our ancestors. If you observed a genuine threat, say a rattlesnake inches from your feet, you would certainly experience a trance formation. Your psychological state would change from whatever it is now to fight-or-flight. Reading this text would no longer seem important, and rightly so because the fight-or-flight reaction would be more adaptive under such circumstances than considering abstract principles. In this example, the snake is both salient and meaningful.
Now consider an individual with a snake phobia: The idea that there might be a snake in his back yard elicits fear in the absence of an objective threat. In this example, the snake is salient but meaningless—that is, the thought or image of the snake is effective at capturing attention and evoking state change, but the resulting state-dependent phenomena are not well matched to the objective reality.
When there is a mismatch between salience and meaning:
In the best of worlds, we would focus on things that are meaningful to us and not spend it on activities we consider to be a waste of time, or, worse, counter to our interests. In the real world, stimuli that promote relapse tend to be more salient than stimuli that provoke you to act in accord with your interests and principles.
There are always competitors for your attention. The principles of cause-and-effect seem to conspire to favor stimuli that promote relapse:
- Relapse fantasies are hotter than imagery of successful coping:
- The image of you relapsing is “hot” either because you get to imagine using the incentive, or you get seduced by the salient negative imagery of the shame and demoralization of the violation. On the other hand, the image of you behaving as you intend to behave seems ordinary and not especially interesting.
- Bias toward accepting a negative rather than a positive belief about yourself:
- A popular misconception is that there is an authentic you and pretending to be better than you are would simply be prideful self-delusion. In fact, there is no authentic you. The one that shows up at any given time is the one that emerges from your current subjective reality. Barry performs better socially when he perceives himself as clever and attractive than when he feels socially inept and shame-worthy. Even though the former appraisal is more accurate and helpful than the latter, Barry acts as if the more salient suggestions were valid. By so doing, Barry transforms these negative suggestions into objective reality through his state-dependent performance.
Hypnosis and Selective Attention
Attending to salient but meaningless stimuli, such as thoughts of using the incentive or critical self-judgments for having such thoughts, elicit pathogenic trances. You do have the power to change the contents of your consciousness and the target of your attention. So rather than accepting high-risk emotional states such anger or desire, have the courage to selectively attend to efficacy-enhancing thoughts and images.
It is easy to perform well when you are cool and confident and doing something you know you are good at. The heroic challenge is to perform well during a crisis. A good part of this heroic challenge is learning how to access the state-dependent phenomena that will help you cope with an ongoing crisis.