Think of your life as a television set with four channels. Your brain is the remote control you use to switch between these four channels. Of the four channels, there’s a nature channel, an all sports channel, a 24-hour news network, and an arts channel.
You can switch between these stations at any time, and each will give you a radically different perspective of the world.
If you are like most people, you’ll gravitate to one or two channels and stay there. The other channels you’ll click to when the show is important or you’re bored, but for the most part you’ll watch even mediocre TV because it’s comfortable to you.
THEORY OF ATTENTION
According to a sports psychology theory designed by Robert M. Nediffer PhD, the analogy I described isn’t far from how our cognitive processes work. It’s called the Theory of Attention and it was developed to help coaches, trainers, and performers gain easier access to optimal internalized conditions like The Zone and Flow State.
The Theory of Attention is a powerful cognitive model that can help you better understand how your mind perceives life and the world around you, and how to change your reality as easy as a TV set.
The core of Nediffer’s theory is that the average person shifts between four separate and distinct states of attention in response to the changing demands of performance. These “attentional styles” shift along two dimensions: from broad to narrow (horizontal) and external and internal (vertical).
Each attentional style has specific strengths and characteristics, as you’ll see below.
Broad-external focus is used whenever you need to be aware of your environment, which is why I likened it to the nature channel. The enlightened Siddhattha Gotama advocated this attentional state as a way to detach from oneself and alleviate suffering.
Switching to the broad-external perspective is an effective mental strategy for endurance athletes to disassociate from pain and exhaustion during competition.
Your mind switches to narrow-external to perform an action like reading a book or kicking a ball, which is why it’s analogous to a sports channel. World-class athletes have a dominant narrow-external focus.
Broad-internal focus is represented as the news network because it’s where information of all kinds is gathered, analyzed and/or synthesized into strategy and vision. Broad-external is the dominate perspective of business leaders, inventors and visionaries.
The arts channel is narrow-internal focus. In the Theory of Attentional and Personal Style [PDF] Nediffer writes,
“You use narrow internal focus of concentration to systematically rehearse information or to assess and manipulate your own internal state in some systematic way.”
Narrow-internal is also where we invent stories about ourselves. It’s where the ego is. When being introspective or anxious, we are deep in narrow-internal territory. We hardly notice others around us. Some psychologists refer to that behaviour as “high interiority”. Obsessive personalities are dominated by internal focus of concentration.
It’s important to remember you can switch attentional styles with your mind at any time. You decide what story to tell by the lens you choose to look through. If at any given time your frame of mind is not useful, change the ‘channel’.
It’s your mind and it’s your life. Take control.
In the next article, we’ll go deeper into the subject of attentional styles, and expose the secrets of top athletes and thinkers on how they manage high pressure situations and achieve optimal performance states like the Zone and Flow State.