Why We Can’t Pay Attention When We’re Upset

If you look at my brain logo, you will see that it is a labyrinth. A labyrinth, FYI, is different from a maze in that all paths lead to the center; there are no dead ends. There are two arrows, and two paths. One represents information coming from our inner world (it starts in the spinal cord), and one represents information from the outer world (it starts in the occipital lobe, the visual center of the brain). This image is meant to convey the brain’s main function (beyond keeping all our body systems functioning), which is to integrate information from our outer and inner environments – the world around us and world inside us – our body and our mind.

The Emotional system directs the Executive system. That is, we attend to what has the biggest charge on it – positive or negative. For the brain, we either want it or we’re afraid of it. We focus on getting it or avoiding it. Why do we procrastinate? Because it is not until the last minute that the negative charge of not doing the thing (writing the paper or preparing our taxes) becomes stronger than the negative charge on doing it. The charge on the thing in the world can be more or less positive or negative depending on our internal state. This is where the brain’s integration of the two sources of information comes in. We may not be interested in eating a particular kind of sandwich, unless we become very hungry. We may be too afraid to make the dentist appointment, until our tooth becomes very painful.

When our mind is calm and our mood is neutral, we can attend to what is going on around us. We can think and communicate clearly. But when we are upset – caught in a wave of anxiety or anger, or distracted by our “inner soundtrack” of endless thoughts and images of the past or the future and what other people may be thinking or doing, we cannot attend to what is going on around us. A mindfulness practice can enable us to both feel better and function better, by improving awareness and control of where our minds are going throughout the day.