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The Brain's Floodlight


(Attention Factor #2)


I can remember walking down a dark side street or camping in the middle of nowhere and hearing a strange noise or seeing (imagining) movement and being totally creeped out. My heart was racing, my eyes were scanning for another movement and my ears were heightened for any sound. My senses were on high alert. This is the brain’s flight-fight-freeze response through the amygdala, the brain’s alarm. Julian Ford, Ph. D., says that it’s “primary function is to call you to attention, to mobilize or shut-down your body and mind so that you’ll survive.” Adrenaline rushes through our body which is the first signal that we need to pay attention to our environment.


Dr. Ford explains that’s why we get nervous before a big presentation or a test. Every time I lead a workshop, I’ll be a little nervous. This may not be as urgent as, say, avoiding an oncoming car, but the signal is still clear – pay attention to what you are doing. Acknowledge your nerves to see what you need to do to succeed. Dr. Ford suggests that “we simply pay attention to it (the alarm) and respond to its wake-up calls intentionally.” A simple step away, figuratively or literally, will help us bring our best self to that situation and reduce the stress response. The answer is not to shut off the alarm, but rather to notice, listen and observe.


That’s what I try to do when stressed with an important presentation or phone call. I don’t run from it, but rather be with it and navigate through it. I’m afraid of heights and have been on many a backpacking trip or hike that alarms my brain to my fear. Rather than succumbing to it, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other and trusting myself to get through it. I sharpen my awareness to my foot and body placement, yet my brain and body are on high alert.


I have a motion-detector floodlight on my garage to help alert me when someone may be coming into the driveway. I also have a camera on my doorbell. They provide a bit of safety and security. That’s exactly what the brain’s alert system does. By alerting us to our surroundings or a potential mistake, the floodlight shines a wide light on what we are doing or what is happening. We don’t always know what we’re looking for, but we know there is something we need to be paying attention to. Amish Jha, Ph. D., says that when we’re on alert (real or imagined) you won’t be able to focus or plan. She says that this isn’t a failure of attention, rather it’s exactly how it’s supposed to work: 1) focus when we need to; 2) notice when we need to; 3) plan and manage our behavior.


The next time your alert system comes on, don’t fight it. Use that time to step back and assess what is happening. Are you about to make a mistake? Have you listened to the person talking to you? Are you about to make a damaging decision? Is something just bugging you to think through something a little more carefully. You’ll feel better that you paid attention and honored the floodlight to make a better decision!

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