According to a recent Fast Company article, selective attention can be a neurological advantage.
‘Glial cells’ are the gardeners of your brain—they act to speed up signals between certain neurons. But other glial cells are the waste removers, pulling up weeds, killing pests, raking up dead leaves. Your brain’s pruning gardeners are called ‘microglial cells.’ They prune your synaptic connections. The question is, how do they know which ones to prune?
Researchers are just starting to unravel this mystery, but what they do know is the synaptic connections that get used less get marked by a protein, C1q (as well as others). When the microglial cells detect that mark, they bond to the protein and destroy—or prune—the synapse.
This is how your brain makes the physical space for you to build new and stronger connections so you can learn more.” —Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane
A garden in which we don’t both prune and plant is likely to yield weeds.
Pollack and Cabane explain that adults need quality sleep to prune neural connections that aren’t used often: daytime naps and nighttime sleep allow the brain to build the connections it needs and release those it doesn’t.
That’s the biological insight. There’s a psycho-spiritual one as well: be mindful about what you attend to.
“Think about the things that are important to you,” Pollack and Cabane suggest. They offer examples of a person reinforcing feelings of anger and vengeance rather than seeking out ways to complete an important assignment: whichever outcome that person repeatedly focuses on is the outcome their brain will build new connections for. Over time, that outcome will become easier to imagine, and perhaps also easier to create.
There’s a more poetic version of this in the Epistle to the Philippians:
Finally… whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” —Philippians 4:8
That’s a challenge at times like this, but there’s something intuitively sensible about choosing where to attend, where to focus energy. In her book Reweaving our Human Fabric, Miki Kashtan explores what’s necessary for personal transformation to become widespread social change.
If the neurologists are right, many of us are frittering away energy by failing to rest and by focusing more on what we don’t want than on what we do.
Consider how, even in the face of perpetual violence and other kinds of heartbreaking news, you can intentionally reset your attention on the world you want to live in and the work that’s yours to do to help us all inhabit it.