The aim of this site is to give us all a better understanding of our minds, starting with the experience from inside, but including the science insights of today. Each article takes some aspect of what we experience, and uses a game or animation to help floaty, difficult ideas a bit easier to get your head around, or to take some familiar ideas and look from a different perspective.
To play the game in its own window, click here (best for mobiles)
For example, this illustration called concentration, asks you to imagine you can drive the focus of your attention around a sea of thoughts, to try to capture a thought and keep it in focus. Annoying anxieties and worries keep following you and drifting into your focus, reducing you concentration. This isn’t showing you how your brain works to allow you to concentrate, it’s just taking something you do without thinking about, and uses a game that makes you think differently about it.
What does it mean to concentrate?
If I give you a tough piece of mathematics to work on, unless you happen to love maths, you may find that your mind struggles to get a grip on it. Your mind may find other thoughts to focus on, or you will find you can stare at the page with problem on it, but it’s just words, symbols and diagrams. No meaning or engagement is happening, and you may find that annoying, totally unrelated thoughts start to intrude:
What time do I need to leave work today?
Is that pain in my knee back again?
I am rubbish at maths
What is Kevin saying to Trudy now?
Oh look! There’s a cute dog outside.
I am so hungry right now!
You know the sort of thing. These could push in front of your goal (of the maths task) because they are genuinely more important to you, or because you actually want an excuse not to work on it (and your mind will always oblige). It is also possible that your subconscious mind decides you need to know about them (because of some other priority), and you have not dealt with them yet.
Your ability to concentrate depends on being able to (and wanting to) push that problem up your priorities. If it doesn’t matter to you, your mind will provide other food for thought. It could matter to you because
Actually, you really love doing maths problems for fun
It’s your homework, due tomorrow
If you practise this kind of problem, you can pass your exam
Solving this problem actually lets you achieve something in your real world (design that bridge, build that rocket, choose the right widget)
Someone promised you a treat once you have done it (correctly)
Each of these appeals to a different drive or priority for the mind, some way that the mind considers as likely to produce something it wants, something with a reward. Rewards are part of a very special, hot topic in psychology and neuroscience at the moment and I will save this for another discussion. For now look at each and think about what the drive is in each case above. Is it some immediate benefit to my impatient, pleasure-seeking self? Is it a delayed reward (do something less pleasant now, but get a bigger win later). Am I doing something for my much longer term benefit? Am I doing it out of fear (to avoid something unpleasant)? Does it reaffirm some idea I have about myself? You can see how each of these frames the reasons to do something difficult (and the reasons not to). You can also see how each of the distracting thoughts above might score more highly on some of these measures.
Sometimes the thought you are trying to lock down is just too big and abstract or too unfamiliar for your mind to weigh it up in the fairly simple terms it likes to work with. Your focus just sort of slips off onto something more manageable. You’ll know this feeling from the example above with the big maths problem, or if you sit down to do something huge like plan your wedding, or deciding to change careers.
The point is that your mind is mostly working to meet pretty simple desires and drives. It will always satisfy the highest priority need, and those priorities are a fairly basic set of goals, not suited to the sophisticated, modern life of a human. These goals do not really take account of long term aspirations, greater good, deferred gratification. It’s more about me, now, gimme!
There are some ideas here that need more unpicking and future posts will look at this in much more detail. This is just a taster to show you my approach.