What we pay attention to, and the length of time we pay attention to it, ultimately determines our reality and the quality and content of our lives.
What we pay attention to literally shapes our brains! In order for new neuronal pathways to develop, we need to be paying attention to our thoughts or actions as we repeat them over and over again. Check out this blog for a recap.
We can’t pay attention to everything…
The thing is, we can only focus on so much at a time. Our attentional capacity at any given time is limited. This makes perfect sense as there's an infinite numbers of things happening around us, both internally and externally at every moment in time - if we noticed them all we would certainly go insane!
Interestingly, if we aren’t paying attention to something, it practically ceases to exist for us. Check out this film clip of an experiment by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris. The participants were shown footage of people passing a basketball around and asked to count how many times the people wearing white passed the ball. Meanwhile, a guy in a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the game, did a little shimmy and walked off again. Of course, anyone would notice this, right? Amazingly, about half the participants were completely oblivious to the gorilla. To them the Gorilla didn't even exist!
This isn't necessarily a bad thing!
This sounds troubling, but it’s not necessarily a negative when it comes to performing. If we can put all of our attention on the constructive, positive elements of performing, then there is literally no attentional ‘space’ left for worries or negative thoughts.
Choosing what to think about when you perform
There are an infinite number of things we can think about whilst performing, some of which are more useful for us than others. We can think about the audience: do they seem to be enjoying themselves? Are they impressed? Bored? Interested? We can think about ourselves: How does my outfit look? Am I performing well? Am I better than the other people performing? Or we can think about the music: how can I interpret this music? How can I shape this phrase? How can I communicate and express the emotions of this character? Whilst it may be tempting to think about yourself and the audience the only place your attention can usefully be is with the music and the story; this is all you have control over when performing. You can’t control how you look (that’s already been determined) and you can't control the opinions of the audience, except by paying attention to the music and creating the best rendition possible at that moment in time.
When we’re nervous we pay attention to threats
The problem is, if you don’t train your attention then it will behave like a little child's, consumed by whatever seems most interesting at the time, with no sense of consequence for not being on task. This is bad news for performance, because when we’re feeling anxious - when our fight or flight response has been triggered - we tend to start paying attention to anything that feels threatening. This would make sense if we were actually in a life threatening situation; we would want to make sure we were acutely aware of any further dangers in the environment. However, in performance, where truly life-threatening events are unlikely(!), we still tend to perceive threats - a member of the audience may yawn, an adjudicator might frown or somebody might walk out midway through your performance. Regardless of the infinite number of reasons for these events, which may have nothing to do with you (perhaps they had a bad night’s sleep, were upset from a fight with a loved one, or just found out that their child had been injured!), we tend to see them in the most personally threatening manner possible; an indication that they don’t approve of our performance! This is the last thing we want to be focussing on during a performance as it will only make us more nervous and distracted. We need to be focused on what we can control, or at least be able to choose not to react to distracting stimuli, and return our attention back to where it’s needed.
So how can we train our attention?
There are a number of different ways to train your attention to remain focused on the elements of your performance you can influence. A particularly useful method is Mindfulness training. It’s easy to think of Mindfulness as simply a form of relaxation, but one of the most valuable components of Mindfulness for performers is actually it's ability to train our attention. Through the training of attention onto a particular object (for example, the breath) and the continuous refocusing of attention without engaging in our thoughts, Mindfulness develops sustained attention, response inhibition and attentional shifting - three skills that are invaluable for performers. For a recap on Mindfulness and how to practise it, check out this blog.
Also, check out this article on how attentional training can reduce emotional reactivity to threatening stimulus.
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