Pay Attention to Yourself

I was driving my car the other day and I decided to run some experiments on my consciousness (yes I know, brilliant time to decide to play with consciousness). I was thinking about how automatic so much of our behavior is. How amazing it was that such incredibely complicated behavior can be done all under the radar. I thought it would be neat to pay extremelly close attention to motion and action I made and see what it felt like.

It was an odd feeling. And the following will sound paradoxical, but paying close attention to my movements (movements that I was already doing) gave me the oddest sense of control that was lacking before. The gas, the break, the clutch, the shifting, these motions weren’t just going on while I was listening too music and thinking about whatever crazy thoughts normally run through my head, these actions were things I was doing!

I decided to take this a step further. At this point I felt like I had more control, but to a certain degree I was still just along for the ride. In a weird way, I felt like I was predicting the future, but I wasn’t necessarily causing it. I was paying close attention to my actions, but I wasn’t actually willing them into being consciously. I decided that for each movement, I would actually think about my intended action before letting my body go through with it. This proved nearly impossible. First of all, you don’t realize how many things you do concurrently that it’s just impossible to plan in the spur of the moment. Let’s say that I wanted to slow down my car. The first thing I thought was, “I need to shift this car into a lower gear”. And as I reach for the shifter, before I’m even aware of it, my left foot goes the clutch, my right foot goes to the break, and my left hand moves on the wheel to compensate for the missing right hand. All I did was think about one particular action, but this thought was enough to initiate the motor sequences of every other action connected to it. When I actually tried to think through each and every motion in the series before I did it, I found it to be impossible. There simply wasn’t enough time to think about each motion consciously and still drive in any sort of safe manner. Let alone the times I tried to consciously control my actions as a turn came up or I came to a light. My body was doing 5 different things at once before I could even contemplate what was going on. I was astounded by how out of control I really was.

But this isn’t really true is it? It’s not that I was completely out of control, it’s that I only had to think of a higher order command, to initiate all the underlying motor sequences necessary to achieve my goal. I think “turn” and everything necessary for “turn” starts happening. This isn’t magic. At some point every one of these mini sequences of muscle action had to be learned consciously. Had to be given my full attention. Each mini sequence itself might have had it’s own mini sequences that needed to be learned. This is true of much more than just driving, and is one of the truly amazing aspects of our conscious lives. Without the attentional aspect of consciousness we couldn’t learn to do anything. And yet, once we learn to do it, all that’s needed to do an incredibly complex series of events is a simple thought. A simple idea. Turn. Run. Play a C-chord. Type; I’m not even paying attention to a single thing my fingers are doing right now, and yet this sentence came out perfectly. Once we are familiar with something, we live a world of ideas and concepts, separated from the behavior our concepts initiate, so much so that we can barely make sense of it when we try to pay attention. Do you remember learning to tie your shoe laces? Do you even pay attention while you tie your shoes anymore? Just try explaining to someone (not showing them) some complex skill you’ve acquired and see if you can even figure out all the parts without actually doing them. Next time you’re in your car and engaging in some complex series of action, just remember how thankful you should be that you don’t have to pay attention to each and every one of those things!

Has anyone else ever experienced these sorts of moments? Please share below!