Friday, April 24, 2009

Who's driving your eyes?

You look out into the world and believe that you are seeing everything but in fact, you see just a tiny percentage of reality.

From the 2005 book "On Intelligence":
At any moment in time, you can directly sense only a tiny part of your world. That tiny part dictates what memories will be invoked, but it isn't sufficient on its own to build the whole of your current perception. […]
It is my memory model of the world that predicts […] by analogy to past experience. Most of what you perceive is not coming through your senses; it is generated by your internal memory model. (Hawkins, p. 202)

So if we perceive only a tiny part of the real world, which parts do we focus on? And based on which parts we do perceive, how do we fill in the missing pieces? The answer to these questions is highly individual and will, in large part, determine the emotional state of each individual.

The parts of reality that we focus on is determined by our "attentional focus" or, where your brain directs your attention. A person who has lived through trauma, or who is insecurely attached, will tend to focus on the fearful parts of the reality before them. From the article "Attentional Fixation in Panic Disorder"
Beck and Emery (1985) proposed that anxious individuals are characterized by the heightened activation of a ‘‘danger’’ schema, which orients them toward threat in their environment and directs cognitive resources toward processing threat cues at the expense of safety cues (p. 65).

So here, fear is directing the attentional focus. To give an example, take a pair hand carved jade bookends. For most observers they are a beautiful sight to behold but to fearful eyes, they represent potential blunt force weapons.

A person who has developed low self esteem and "learned helplessness" (for example, after being raised by abusive, addicted or mentally ill parents), will tend to focus on unpleasant aspects of themselves, others and life in general. Having been trained to have a bias towards hopelessness, they will tend to see difficulties as permanent and and will focus on obstacles while ignoring possible solutions.

A third type of person is not focused on the fear inspiring or the depressing aspects of reality. Instead, they are focused on finding support for their own presumed superiority. This person's attentional focus is keenly tuned to find flaws and faults with others. The origins of this critical type of focus is a bit more complex. The first major component is the rejection of early attachment needs. From the book Attachment in Psychotherapy:
At 12 months, he could be seen to actively avoid his mother, presumably in response to her consistent rejection of his earlier bids for physical and emotional contact - or her intrusive, controlling and overarousing parenting, as other researchers have suggested.
Almost invariably, the parents of avoidant children were classified as "dismissing" - in part because they seemed to so regularly to minimize the importance and influence of attachment relationships. (p. 88)

Having been frustrated in the need for human attachment, this person begins to relate to objects. This preference for objects extends to the objectification of other people, who come to be measured by looks, income and performance.

The second component is that these disowned emotional needs are submerged underneath an outward appearance of independence and self sufficiency. And what they have learned to reject in themselves, they must now condemn in others. People who have emotional needs are viewed as weak, defective and as objects of pity.

Combine this objectification of people with a disdain for emotional needs and you end up with a person who directs their attentional focus to all the flaws in others, while turning a decidedly blind eye to their own.

The last type of attentional focus I will discuss is embodied by mindfulness and acceptance. I would describe mindfulness as being aware and fully engaged in the moment, without the need to judge, classify or form opinions. In this mindset, your eyes are observant but not motivated to find any particular subset of reality. And acceptance is taking life as it comes, not wishing that you had more of this or less of that. It means working with the cards that you were dealt and making peace with the circumstances of your life.

The tricky part about choosing an attentional focus is that it is largely an unconscious choice. Very few people wake up in the morning and think, I think I'll just focus on all the depressing aspects of reality today. They just do it. And in the case of those who focus on the flaws in others, there is a a great difficulty is accepting any flaws of their own, including their own distorted attentional focus. But a determined person can be observant and learn what they tend to focus on. It is the kind of self discovery that can lead to significant personal growth.

It is a large question and one that only the brave dare ask. Who is driving my eyes?


Hawkins, J (2005) On Intelligence. New York. Owl Books/Henry Holt & Co.

Wenzel A, Sharp I, Sokol L, Beck A. (2006) Attentional Fixation in Panic Disorder. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. 35(2), pp. 65–73.


  1. I just have a quick comment on the first paragraph: you approach what is true through a constant back and forth between reality and your experience of reality.

  2. From what I have read, we perceive just a small subset of reality. If we can learn what we focus on (and even better, why we focus on it), we can adjust for distortions in the same way a sophisticated telescope adjusts for atmospheric distortions.