All available evidence suggests that the brain has enormous flexibility to do a lot of different things at one time. Mental focus is hard because it forces the brain to concentrate its resources, something it is naturally inclined to do only with the prospect of reward or in the face of threat.
We lose sight of brain flexibility in emotions in part because when we express an emotion, it seems like we experience only one. Thus we confuse the limitations of expression, particularly linguistic expression, with the multi-tasking of actual brain function.
One example of the brain's spectacular flexibility is the arousal of sensory and emotional processes within milliseconds, to react to change in the environment. The brain does not activate individual senses and emotions - that would be an incredibly inefficient system whose enormous error rates would limit survival chances. Rather, the brain activates families of senses and emotions and potentiates (makes ready) all senses and emotions.
The internal change in sensory and emotional salience (intensity), like an alarm system, focuses much slower thought and judgment on the change in the environment. Conscious attention then increases the salience of one or two particular senses and emotions over the others. Here's how it works:
You're sitting at your computer and a change occurs in your environment, breaking your assumption of stable predictability in your surroundings. You see a mouse run across the floor. You become afraid or furious or ashamed or distressed or saddened or disgusted or curious or delighted, or more likely some blend of these, depending on your current physiology and (we'll keep it simple for now) the meaning you give to the event.
You were aware of seeing a mouse and experiencing a single emotion. In reality, you saw, heard, and smelled the mouse and had several emotional responses, before focusing on one sense and one emotion, thereby increasing their salience over the others, all within about two-tenths of a second.
You were predisposed to focus on a particular sense or emotion by internal factors, including the current state of your vulnerability, capacity for response, and personal habits. In addition, your focus on a particular sense or emotion was influenced by external factors, such as the abruptness, proximity, and dimensions of the environmental change. (Predisposition will be the subject of a future post.)
The goal of this post is to demonstrate how to test the illusion of certainty about your senses and emotions, which should lead to greater understanding of yourself and your environment.
Testing the Illusion of Certainty with Senses
Focus on your senses right now. You will probably go first to vision. As you focus on what you're looking at, you begin to notice more detail about it. Notice shape, thickness, color, light-refraction, etc. The harder you look, the more you see. Now express out loud what you see.
Focus on your hearing, and note the number of sounds that become apparent. Note their variation and nuance. Express out loud what you hear.
Focus on touch. Note the subtle variations in texture and temperature of things you touch. Express out loud what you sense through touch.
Focus on taste. Note the variety of sensations in your mouth at this moment. Express out loud what you taste.
Focus on smell, and note how the room comes alive with variations of scent. Express out loud what you smell.
You will be more sensitive in some areas than in others, due to habit and physiology, such as allergies and deterioration due to age and disability. But in general, you should notice that sensory experience increases with focus and still more with expression. You do not merely focus on and express sensory experience; you strengthen it in the process.
Testing the Illusion of Certainty in Emotions
The following test will work with any strong emotion; I will use anger, because it's the strongest in terms of energy and illusion of certainty.
Think about an event in your recent past that triggered your anger. Imagine it in as much detail as you can. Think of what you were telling yourself, e.g., "I can't believe this is happening," "Here we go again," "This is so unfair," "There not going to treat me like that," etc. Now ask yourself:
What could I possibly be afraid of? (Write down your answer.)
What could I possibly be ashamed of? (Write down your answer.)
What could I possibly be sad about? (Write down your answer.)
What could I possibly be disgusted about? (Write down your answer.)
What could I possibly be curious about? (Write down your answer.)
What could I possibly be compassionate about? (Write down your answer.)
Chances are, you noticed that a number of emotional responses were available to you and that expressing each emotion made it stronger. You do not merely focus on and express emotional experience; you strengthen it in the process.
Why you chose anger over the other available emotions is the subject of another post. The point here is that you have a choice, as long as you reject the illusion of certainty that goes with emotional arousal. Testing your illusions of certainty about your emotions is the key to happiness, better relationships, healing, and growth.