5 Ways to Wellbeing, Part 3: Take Notice

Take notice. Pay attention. Be aware.

That’s the third of the 5 Ways to Wellbeing, and it’s one I write about constantly.

So far in this series we’ve looked at connecting and being active. Still to come: Keep Learning and Give.

But today we have naming of parts taking notice.

(That was a poetry joke. There’s another one later – see if you spot it. And did you notice what I just did there?)

Why taking notice is important

What you pay attention to shapes your brain, and your brain shapes your experience.

I say “brain” and I mean “brain”. It shapes your mind as well, of course, but your brain physically changes when you consistently pay attention. Whether it’s a practice of meditation (which is a deliberate way of paying attention in order to shape your experience), or whether it’s a daily habit of complaining, what you take notice of is what constructs your world.

And what you don’t take notice of is what controls you.

You have several brains (despite what your friends may occasionally say), and one of them is kind of like a crocodile’s. It can identify, by a primitive kind of pattern-matching, which of the three “Fs” a situation calls for: fighting, fleeing or mating. Beyond this level it gets a bit lost. Just as trolls count “one, two, three, many”, the crocodile brain goes “fight, run, mate, too complicated”.

If you don’t pay attention to it, the crocodile will control you.

Another of your brains is a bit like a rabbit’s. It lives in a kind of eternal now, in a mist of ever-changing emotions, each of which is total reality for as long as it lasts.

It has a bit more range than the croc: it can do sadness as well as fear and anger, but it still relies on primitive pattern-matching to decide whether this person I see before me is someone to nurture or to be nurtured by, to run from or to attack, to eat or to have sex with.

If you don’t pay attention to it, the rabbit will control you.

You have a brain in your gut, as well, because digestion is a complex matter and needs its own brain. It’s linked in with the brain in your head, to the crocodile and the rabbit, and signals them using both nerves and body chemistry. The crocodile and the rabbit experience these signals about the state of the digestion as moods and desires, some of which have no obvious connection with food.

If you don’t pay attention to it, the gut will control you.

There’s another brain outside your head, too. It’s called your culture. It remembers lots of things (not always very accurately), but it’s not that great at conscious thought. Despite this, it constantly helps you to decide what to do, because it’s not only outside your head, it’s also inside your head, speaking in the voices of the people who raised you. (More and more these days that includes people who you only saw or heard on the television.)

If you don’t pay attention to it, the crowd will control you.

Storm Crowd
Creative Commons License photo credit: JD Hancock

Taking notice changes your life

The only brain you have that thinks consciously is the heavily-grooved, small-melon-sized, grey squishy thing wrapped round the rabbit, which is wrapped round the crocodile. Even then, it’s mainly the front part that is really conscious and makes decisions, and only some of the (usually) left side that does rationality and words. Relative to the rest of the brains, your rational, conscious part is heavily outweighed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be big when you’re smart.

The rabbit and the crocodile can only pattern-match, and then act based on the match that comes up. But the conscious mind can reflect on causes, consequences, alternative explanations. It can question whether that match really was a match. It can insert a small, but growing pause for thought between the pattern-match and the reaction, between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, between the emotion and the response.

That means that the croc, the bunny, the gut and the crowd aren’t in control any more. They have a voice, they even have a vote, but they can be overruled by the Speaker.

How to take notice

The New Economics Foundation has some good advice on taking notice.

Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the changing seasons. Savour the moment, whether you are walking to work, eating lunch or talking to friends. Be aware of the world around you and what you are feeling. Reflecting on your experience will help you appreciate what matters to you.

Here are seven specific suggestions.

  • When you see something beautiful, interesting, unusual or odd, say something about it (to yourself, if necessary).
  • Keep a journal and record things you notice.
  • Take photographs. Start a daily photographic log. It can transform your seeing.
  • Keep a mood diary. Record anything that might affect your mood – exercise, food, weather, medication, circumstances – and your mood rating on a 1-10 scale. Read over it once a month or so and draw conclusions.
  • Blog about personal development! (It works for me. I’m always thinking about the significance of things I see, do and experience, because I know I’ll need something to write about.)
  • Take up a meditation practice which involves paying attention. At its simplest, spend 10 minutes a day noticing your breathing.
  • Each day, choose a routine thing, a part of your day that’s become “background”, and foreground it. Ask why you do that, who put that there, what that’s all about. Do observational comedy on it!

How are you going to cultivate a habit of taking notice, paying attention, reflecting and being aware?

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2 thoughts on “5 Ways to Wellbeing, Part 3: Take Notice

  1. Pingback: Your Challenge for 2012: Have a Great Year | How to Be Amazing

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