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What gets your attention?

We all notice, don’t we? The thing that wasn’t there before. The thing that isn’t but was. The thing that’s different from one image to the next. Heck, that’s a puzzle I loved to do as a kid! Find all 10!

Yes, if we’re paying even the slightest attention, we notice when something has changed, been moved, seems out of place or is acting strangely. That’s why airport security admonishes us, “If you see something, say something.”

The funny thing is, we were made for this. It’s a survival mechanism. Really. Our perceptors (my new word: receptors for perception) are designed to alert us when something might be dangerous. Did you know that your body responds more quickly and forcefully to a critter crawling UP your arm than to the one crawling DOWN? Yep. One is a threat to the jugular; the other may only nibble a finger or toe. No biggie.

So, given this design, it’s not surprising to find that something moving quickly in our peripheral vision draws our attention. Someone behaving oddly gets our gaze. Someone dressed distinctively gives us pause. Honestly, when something or someone is different, it is hard to look away — even when it’s impolite to stare.

I find it at least a little bit comforting to realize that it isn’t just my socio-cultural bias at play here: a good bit of this responsiveness is programmed in. I’m designed to notice different and be wary, AND I’m drawn to seek the similar because it brings me comfort. It’s our instinctive nature to distinguish among and between in order to seek safety, security and well-being. It’s the same for all the animals in the animal kingdom. Draw close; protect your own.

Today’s world, though, is demanding more of me and of us. It is calling us away from the basic animal in our nature toward what is unique to our human nature. Yes, we have biases — ingrained, learned and polished over years of practice. There’s no disputing: We do prefer this to that. We understand this and not that. We accept this and reject that. But our humanity has been dealt a brilliant extra card: a mind that can notice its bias and reject it.

It’s a small thing really, to catch myself in the act of assigning a story to someone I see but don’t know, whether it’s on the TV, in the news or in the parking lot at my local shopping center. I have discovered that I can nip that thought right in the bud, though. In fact, I’ve taken to giving myself a little swat on the thigh to say, “Stop that right there, you!” That’s what you’d hear if your earbuds were listening in to my brain. I trust you aren’t, but the Big Someone Else surely is.

So, I figure I ought to listen, as Lincoln put it, to the angels of my better nature. They’re telling me to: lead with forgiveness, err on the side of generosity, assume the best in the other — until further notice. Lotta grace flowing down that stream. Grace I don’t always even give myself. Got a lot to learn.

Ironic, the difference between what gets your attention and what you give your attention to. Every animal in the kingdom comes pre-programmed for survival. We humans have the capacity to discern, decide and re-direct. Thought by ever-loving thought.

Do our brains grow toward what we choose?

Our brains our changing. At least mine is. It has to, in order to keep up with the constant influx of information, sensory input, and data. To analyze it properly and make the right decision. I read and process information differently. My brain is adapting, as a  survival strategy.

I’m not sure what that means, exactly. But, it seems, based on information provided by the new technology of brain study that we may actually be laying down new neural pathways, repairing some and pruning away others, all the time. In the “old days” – which by scientific standards was only 15 years ago – we didn’t think so. We thought that the brain’s circuitry, at least after a period of pruning from “excess” neurons that happened early in our lives, was fixed and unchangeable. After this, we had to live with whatever we had left. (Thus, the significant concern for some of us who were “killing off brain cells” with our brain-altering recreation.)

But what if our brain’s structure continues to adapt and grow in response to our thinking? What if we actually grow brain pathways toward what we are thinking about. More pathways to the frequent thoughts. More scattered pathways if we head in lots of directions.

This isn’t so far-fetched.  Exercise and its increases to brain blood flow apparently result in enhancement of executive processing function and stimulate the production of brain growth factors. Do these repair nerves? grow them? re-route them?

This is exciting…and dangerous. It means that our brains are more like the rest of our bodies than we thought. The “use it or lose it” threat we address to our bodies may apply to our minds as well. Which means the things we focus on, that we learn and pattern and practice, are enhanced. The neural highways to (and from) those places are firmed up, bolstered, paved in concrete and there to stay. Pathways to those things we dismiss or fail to attend to would shrivel, get grown over, fall to disrepair and die.

What if our thoughts and actions actually act as our own pruning mechanism? A self-fulfilling brain circuitry. This sounds pretty good if we’re rightly directed. But, if we give into temptation or satisfy our pleasure center at the expense of other things, those pathways will be the ones enhanced. And, the highways to them will become easier to travel. The more connections we make, the more likely we re-visit.

Could addiction happen just this way? Can temptation that leads to sin be this simple? At some point is an “urge” truly irresistible?

No wonder God wants us focusing on Him. Because the world is full of distraction that tempts us away. Marketing and media and online ads flash to get our attention. Do we click – harmlessly, just to see?

During Advent I have downloaded a Christmas devotional playlist on Spotify, the free version because I have not paid extra for the “ads free” version. Today I play “Make Me A Servant”… and in the margin of my computer screen scroll a line of attractive men, the faces are photos like we used to take in the photo booths, one on top of the other, with a different expression on each. Though my ears hear…make me a servant today…my eyes see the message that pops up, “Do you want a boyfriend in Herndon?” All I have to do is click on the age group I prefer. Even in our devotion, Satan lurks.

To protect my brain from engaging the images I close my computer screen and focus on the listening. The Maranatha Singers sing…

Make me a servant, humble and meek

Lord, let me lift up, those who are weak.

And may the pray’r of my heart always be;

Make me a servant, make me a servant,

Make me a servant, today.

This is what I seek, but the world would draw me away.

Is the attraction and the paving and the same with you, Lord? Does the pathway to you grow stronger when I pray? Is making a way in the wilderness of our minds something we are meant to live? The more we seek and the more we search and the more we attend to things as you intend them, can we discover, uncover and lay down our way to You?

Are we otherwise, in fact, shaping our own brains according to our own will, own ways in our own circumstances, based on our own choices?

Let me choose You! And keep choosing you. Until the way to you is the only way I see.

What if Order is Essential and Distraction Denies?

My mind works differently now and I think it’s technology’s fault. I don’t think I’m alone. Everybody’s doing it. Flitting from one screen to the  next, one conversation to the next, one opportunity to the next. All without taking a breath. And we have to, right? I mean how otherwise could we Black Friday shop and follow the football play by play at the same time? Don’t get me started on texting and driving.

But now that I’ve mentioned it…adults, especially older or middle-aged adults are the worst. We think we can be on our screens and drive, deftly diving from one to the next without compromising either. No. Young people are more adept at this. They can actually accomplish texting and driving, giving little to no dedicated thought to either. Their brains are agile, jumping from one to the other. It’s when a “really good conversation” captures them that the driving takes a back seat. This is unfortunate when you are in the driver’s seat.

Okay, I’m back now. How I process information is surely changing. I scan instead of reading in depth. I look for bold print or bullet points so I can get the main idea without investing too much attention. I have multiple sources in front of me as I consider the latest topic. I scroll through multiple posts or links or articles, and my mind knows this. In fact, it expects it, and I feel like modifications have taken place so it can dabble instead of diving. Occasionally I stop to consider or to comment, but rarely.

Undivided attention, focus, deep reflection – these have gone missing. I watch my kids working on projects or papers. They have multiple tabs open, the tv on, the radio blaring, their phone receiving texts or emails or a words-with-friends prompt…and I am astounded. I wonder at the competition between the senses. How do they know which to attend to? Whatever happened to order? To first things first? To one thing at a time? How indeed can we know what should come first?

I have this on the brain as I read Matthew 9:1-8. Jesus heals the paralyzed man whom the friends brought, saying your sins are forgiven. Then, as if to drive the point home, Jesus tells the man to stand up and walk. True confession, this story has always confused me. Perhaps my modern day understanding is lacking the historical relating sins to sickness, but which one gives better evidence of Jesus’ authority, forgiving sins or physical healing? And in what order?

In a brief moment of deep reflection (with thanks to Robert Stephens, the author of the Upper Room meditation on November 30) I realized that order makes all the difference. Once Jesus healed the spirit, walking came easily to the man. The latter, testifying to the former.

Of course! First things first! Restoring order is what Christ is about on this earth. From the first thing, all the other things come.

Otherwise, everything either becomes:

  1. Me first – now lead yourself  OR
  2. Everything at once so no one goes first. Then you have mobs like Herald Square on Black Friday (and even Thanksgiving Thursday) where $300 purses have zippers torn open as they are flung aside for the next shiny item.

Personally, I prefer order. Stand in line and wait your turn. Or go online at a time of your choosing. But first, adopt the mind of Christ. Then, it may not make sense to waste all that time in line or online. There may be something much more important to tend to. One thing, from which all the others follow, naturally.

In fact, focus on that one thing may be exactly what is needed to solidify that pathway. To actually learn, commit it to memory and make it available for retrieval. A firm foundation rather than a flimsy stalk of an idea. Otherwise, in our rush to build here… no now over here…oops, now back this way… our brain may begin to resemble a graveyard of unfinished pathways waiting to be rattled, tipped or concussed by the next strong force that comes our way.

In a society where attention is on the decline and ADD and concussions are on the rise, could it perhaps be wise to spend some dedicated time focusing on what comes first? Call it prayer or meditation or the great cloud of knowing, but can we focus on One thing?

Order, it may be just the cure our society’s ills dearly need.

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