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How we see things - selective attention, perception and neuroplasticity

I’ve always been fascinated by the brain. It gets top-billing when considering our human abilities and is an incredibly powerful organ, capable of processing vast amounts of information at lightning speed. However, despite its impressive abilities, our brain can also be highly fallible, and sometimes it can trick us into seeing what we want to see, rather than what is actually there.

This phenomenon, known as selective attention, has been well-documented in scientific studies. One particularly striking example comes from a 1999 study by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, where participants were asked to watch a video of people passing a basketball and count the number of passes made by one team. During the video, a person in a gorilla suit walked into the frame, beat their chest, and walked out again. Amazingly, almost half of the participants did not even notice the gorilla, despite it being in plain sight. Crazy, right?!

This and other similar studies illustrate the power of selective attention and the extent to which our brain can filter out information that it deems unimportant or irrelevant to the task at hand. While this may be a useful survival mechanism in some contexts, it can also lead us to miss critical information, whether it's in our personal or professional lives.

Moreover, it is not just our attention that can be selective, but also our perception. Our brain can literally change what we see based on our expectations and biases. In a famous 2007 study, researchers at the University College London used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan participants' brains while they viewed ambiguous images. They found that participants' brains actually altered the images they were seeing based on what they expected to see. For example, if they were primed to see a face, their brain would enhance the areas of the image that looked like a face, even if it was not a face at all.

This phenomenon has important implications for our understanding of the world around us, particularly when it comes to the idea of receiving messages from the universe. Many people believe that the universe sends us signs and messages to guide us on our path. This can be really powerful when we need a little reassurance and encouragement, but it can also be really useful to be aware of this to highlight our own biases and expectations. It is easy to see patterns and meaning where there is none, and this can lead us down the wrong path. By bringing awareness we create choices.

An additional factor that plays a role in our brain's ability to see what we want to see is the concept of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life, in response to new experiences or changes in the environment.

This means that our brains can physically change based on what we focus on and pay attention to. For example, if we constantly focus on negative thoughts, our brain can become wired to see the negative in situations, even when positive aspects are present. On the other hand, if we focus on positive thoughts and experiences, our brain can become wired to see the positive in situations, even when negative aspects are present.

This concept has been demonstrated in various studies, including one conducted by Richard Davidson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which found that long-term meditation practice can actually change the structure of the brain.

This means that with awareness and intentional practice, we can change the way our brain perceives and processes information, allowing us to see beyond our biases and assumptions. By intentionally cultivating positive thoughts and focusing on the present moment, we can train our brain to see the world in a more balanced and nuanced way.

In conclusion, our brain's ability to see what we want to see can be influenced by various factors, including selective attention, perception, and neuroplasticity. By staying open to new experiences, questioning our assumptions, and intentionally cultivating positive thoughts and habits, we can train our brains to see the world in a more balanced and nuanced way, allowing us to make more informed decisions and live our lives to the fullest.

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