Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Good Distraction/ Bad Distraction

Distraction works some of the time. You decide.

Distraction is a valuable tool in moderation. It can help you get rewards and avoid pain. For example, if a monkey sees low-hanging fruit while climbing toward higher fruit, he's better off. Distraction leaves you open to new rewards.

It can help you avoid pain, too. Your reptile brain is always scanning for potential danger, both physical threats and emotional threats. Distraction gives you a break from these threat messages.

Your brain decides when to let distractions in, and when to screen them out. You're deciding where to focus your attention every minute of your life. Newborn babies choose where to focus their attention, and toddlers make more complex choices based on their stored experience. Your brain never stops trying to figure out where your best interest lies.

Your brain is always trading off present rewards against future rewards, and present pain against future pain. When a future reward means enough to you, you screen out distractions in order to get it. When a future pain seems threatening enough, you tolerate present pain to avoid it.

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Sometimes you do the opposite. You ease present pain by shifting attention to something more pleasant. You enjoy immediate rewards instead of staying focused on future rewards. You stop and smell the flowers...on your favorite media...instead of worrying about the future.

The decision to do this can be hard to notice because it happens without words. You don't tell yourself "I think I'll shift my attention from X to Y." You simply allow the electricity in your brain to flow. Like water, it seeks the path of least resistance. It flows into the channels that have grown big and fat from frequent use.

You are capable of diverting that flow into new channels. But most of the time you "go with the flow" because it feels natural. Doing something different requires over-riding what feels natural. That's why habits are hard to break. You can build new channels that flow toward new choices, but they don't build themselves. It takes lots of repetition to build a new neural pathways. No one can do it for you, and you can't do it for someone else. (More on this in my book, Meet Your Happy Chemicals).

You can make a habit of ignoring distractions. You can keep your focus wherever you decide is in your best interest. It takes some effort at first, but soon you will have pathways that lead to the trade-offs you want.

 

 

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is the author of Meet Your Happy Chemicals and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute.

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