Why you don’t notice the pickpocket and techniques for changing that

December 6, 2013 by  
Filed under Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

woman stealing a wallet from man's back pocket isolated

In this post we’re going to look at why you don’t notice the pickpocket and techniques on how to change that.

No one wants to have their pocket picked. It has to be one of the most personal of violations secretive and un-noticed as it is.

Your attention is precious and limited. It is the light that you shine on the world and as with a physical torch without light there is no vision and without attention there is no awareness. Attention is the most precious resource your brain has. And it is very miserly about where it puts it. Only salient and important things get any. All the rest goes unnoticed.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: Focusing your attention

A pickpocket has learnt one very important and obvious truth. And this enables them to do what they do with relative impunity.  It is this. You have difficulty focusing your attention on something that is less noticeable while something more noticeable is happening.

You feel a bump on the shoulder as you exit a train. It is only minutes later when you try to buy a coffee that you realize you no longer own a wallet. You have been pick pocketed. The bump on your shoulder attracted your attention while the gentler feeling of the wallet being removed did not enter awareness and so went unnoticed.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: Your brain

We tend to think our brain records all experiences in ways akin to a video recorder and therefore we should be able to record everything. That isn’t how it works. Your cognitive and sensory systems tend to take in very little information.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques:  Answer this question.

Can you feel the soles of your feet on the floor? …Now you can!  But before your attention was directed to them you were sublimely unaware of your feet doing their job. Things which don’t require any attention don’t get any, because attention is a limited and precious resource.

pickpocket-techniques-feet

Much of your body requires minimal ongoing attention. The sensory neural structure of your skin is set up to mostly register changes in state: when you touch and let go, when you sit and stand, when temperature or air flow change. It is the changes in things that may require an action otherwise if nothing changes you don’t need to have any awareness of it.

You are usually more aware of things that are in a state of change but even then the most salient; most important of these, will grab the lion’s share of your attention and the gentle pressure of the wallet slipping from your pocket will go unnoticed.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: Negative thoughts

However, it is not only the sensory experiential system that is miserly with its allocation of awareness. I chose the story of the pickpocket because I think it nicely captures the way negative thoughts steal your precious attention and use it for ‘no good’.

pickpocket-techniques-distracted

Because attention is limited and therefore precious, only things that seem important get any. Let’s examine how this effective process can ultimately be incredibly self destructive. You may recognise that there is a constant flow of thoughts passing across the internal screen of your mind. Much of it goes unnoticed but thoughts that seem important can grab the full amount of your attention and focus it like a powerful search light.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: Attention grabbing thoughts

What kinds of thoughts grab your attention with such a powerful tug?

‘I might die’

I am a failure and everything I touch testifies to his’

I am unloved and unlovable’

‘I am no good’

I am a horrible person’

I will be found out’

I am not good enough to succeed’

They are thoughts that seem to be threats to your existence and viability. Of course, this is only a selection of the kinds of thoughts that create and maintain anxiety and depression.

These are thoughts that seem to be really significant threats to your ability to work, form important relationships and to succeed in the world. If accurate, these would certainly seem to be important issues warranting your attention on them. Hence they have the ability to grab your attention with a hefty pull.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: You have levels of attention

You have a several levels within the attentional system simultaneously working all of the time. Obviously, there are unconscious levels. These are where all of the autonomic processes like digestion, heart variability, blood pressure monitoring, sweating, hormone secretion and regulation occur.

pickpocket-techniques-sweat

You also have a whole unconscious level of thoughts (below awareness) where thoughts, mental images and dialogue go on inside your brain. Then of course we have the rather limited level of conscious thought etc and this is the only part you are aware of.  Think of it as a high jump bar. Any thought that approaches the bar either goes under it, where you will have no awareness of it or it goes over the bar and enters your awareness. Important things are supposed to go over the bar and unimportant things go under the bar.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: The role of evolution

Before humans had developed meaningful language abilities and hence the ability to create symbolic thought (thought is predicated upon language) my view is that mostly only external threats would have had the ability to pass over the bar capturing attention. More or less everything else would have been of less significance and gone under the bar of awareness.

This evolutionary process has left us with several side effects that have both good and bad aspects to them.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: Side effects

When you focus your attention on something your brain assumes that it is important, otherwise your attention would not be directed to it? The bump of the pickpocket grabs your attention because it seems an important event and may signify something. It doesn’t but the thing that was important didn’t get any attention at all. The wallet slipped unnoticed away to find a home in another pocket.

The moral of the story is that your sensory systems work very well, pickpockets are uncommon and in general it is sensible to focus attention on things that seem important and to ignore things that seem unimportant.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques:  The pickpocket steals your money; the inner critic steals your value

Humans may have evolved beyond the capacity of the attention system to be optimal for our modern way of living.

pickpocket-techniques-evolution

With the development of language and consciousness we have developed the ability to be self aware. This is our greatest achievement. It is responsible for the massive spurt in development of the human race over the last 5,000 years. But it has brought with it the consequence that we can now be self critical.

Before language and consciousness self criticism had no vehicle for expression. Our self criticism is now so powerful and pointed and is often focused at the level of catastrophic threats to self esteem, and survival that it often gets our full attention.

Hence it picks our pocket and steals our attention from whatever we are doing and takes it to a place of self defeat and worthlessness.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: Directing our attention

But like dealing with the pickpocket we can learn that this happens. We have the ability to direct our attention wherever we want it to go.

pickpocket-techniques-light

Just because the brain automatically focus attention on what it perceives to be important does not mean that we have to let it rest there. If you knew beyond any doubt that a pickpocket would attempt to pick your pocket within the next hour you would be alert to sensitive touches and you would mostly ignore the big bump.

Well the inner critic will try and steal your value within the next hour. So you need to be sensitive to any attempt to capture your attention from your ongoing tasks. Don’t allow the inner critic to insert a really negative thought into your mind with the intent of capturing your awareness.  Learning to become mindful of the flow of your attention and being able to notice the places it get directed is a really good step towards learning to negate the effects of the inner critic.

Avoid the pickpocket – techniques: Exercise

Try practicing a free floating awareness of where your attention and awareness goes. This is not intended as additional pressure, to get it right, but simply as a way of engaging you with an automatic process that may need some recalibrating to serve you better.

Now you know that your attention will get stolen you can be on guard, with conscious awareness comes choice; let it go or decide to keep it.

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