Just Shut Up for One Second: How Our Thoughts (Literally) Blind Us to Reality

Yesterday, I went out for a run. It was hot and sunny, and I was listening to an audiobook (Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, coincidentally enough, as it turned out). As I approached Mt. Tabor park, one of my favorite destinations to sit and clear my mind (again sort of ironically), I had to stop at a red light.

I pressed the crosswalk button, and soon enough, the little green man showed up, and I jumped out into the crosswalk. I wasn’t three steps into the intersection, when I realized that the car opposite me at the light was midway through executing a left-hand turn, a maneuver that would have left me flattened on the pavement had he had his way.

I yelled, jumped backwards, and slapped my hands on the hood of his car. In a fraction of a second, he slammed on his brakes, and I jumped out of the path of his car. He drove a few feet past me then stopped and reached both hands pleadingly out of his window. I could see the look of realization on his face and read his mouth saying “Oh my god… I’m so sorry…”

How does this happen? How did I enter an intersection without looking for oncoming cars? How did he try to execute a left turn, the trickiest move in such an intersection, without looking to see if anyone was crossing? And how often do we do exactly these kinds of things and skate by only because of luck.

The answer is ‘constantly.’ We do these things because we are not, by physical limitation, multi-taskers. As Mr. Gilbert, himself, says:

“…when we ask out brains to look at a real object and an imaginary object at the same time, our brains typically grant the first request and turn down the second.”
— Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

Typically. But not always.

In fact, when we focus our intention on the imaginary object or situation, and when the real seems so ordinary as to not require our attention, the brain gives way to the imaginary. We are left blind to the real world. Our eyes see, but our brain’s vision processing center is occupied with our imagination. We’re on lizard brain in a primate world.

We’re, effectively, sleep walking through our lives at that point. If you’ve ever come close to rear-ending someone in a traffic jam because you were off in your head, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Our attention drifts in and out like someone watching television and trying to carry on a conversation with someone in the room. Sooner or later, you confuse the stories or lose track of one entirely.

The confusion lies in our giving both of the stories equal weight. Whenever we’re talking to someone but can’t concentrate on the conversation because of the television in the background, another conversation at a nearby table, or our own imagination, our minds are re-allocating cycles from a real situation– the interaction currently taking place– to a fiction. The TV doesn’t care about us, the people at the other table don’t want us listening to them, and our internal dialog is the most unfocused, pointless, repetitive story of all.

It’s a common implicit belief that we should be worrying. If we’re not fretting, we must not care. There’s a part of most of us that feels like by merely grinding on our concerns, we’re doing something, and something’s better than nothing.

But, really, it’s not. Something is much worse than nothing because it occupies our resources, in this case, our visual and auditory cortexes. Instead of allowing ourselves to focus fully on what’s really happening, we time-slice our mental capacity and apply a portion to a pointless rehashing of the past or imagined future, neither of which we can control.

Don’t want to get run over or rear-end the car in front of you? Try this. Every time your brain is thinking about this posting instead of what’s really happening around you, take notice. You’re thinking of a story. Did this post make you mad? How dare he? I never do that! Or are you fully attending to how your body feels, the sounds and scents around you, or what the person in front of you is saying?

Every time it crosses your wandering mind, take a break. Feel your breath going in and out of your mouth and nose. Feel your feet against the ground. Let go of the background story for now. Smell the air, and feel the sun or rain against your skin. It only takes a minute, and you’ll feel like you’ve snapped out of a dream. The more of your life that you can live outside of the dream, the more time you’ll be productive and make real connections. You’ll enjoy your life more because it won’t be constantly competing with all the things that should have been or might be someday.

Best of all, you won’t get run over because you’ll look both ways before you enter a crosswalk. And that’s a win-win.

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