We have two independent systems in our head that control us. Daniel Goleman calls this a bottom-up and a top-down system (Daniel Kahnemann calls them System 1 and System 2). Some scientists also refer to the bottom-up system as the autopilot. It controls many of our behaviors and emotions and is active in the subconscious. The autopilot has access to routines and beliefs which we have learned throughout life. If a corresponding trigger comes through our senses, the appropriate routines are unwound. But the whole thing happens unconsciously and we have no control over it. The top-down system, on the other hand, is subject to our conscious control. Here we can consider, weigh arguments and make decisions. In this way we can consciously direct our attention to the important things in life and focus. We are thus able to act strategically.
When we are not focussing, the brain automatically turns on the autopilot. This is the basic state of the brain. In scientific experiments it was be shown, that this state occupies more than 50% of the time. The brain then deals with distractions from the environment that can have an impact on one’s own life. The system looks for evidence of threat. As soon as something threatening is recognized, the body is put into an active state in order to flee or fight. The system avoids dangers and threats.
You can easily notice this condition by closing your eyes and trying not to think about anything. Then your thoughts start to wander and the subconscious is active. It reacts quickly, is sensitive to emotions and thinks short-term. In the course of life, however, our subconscious has also learned some routines and thought patterns that are not helpful (biases, etc.). Often, we are not even aware of this.
In which way do we focus? The prefrontal cortex, i.e. the one behind our forehead, plays a key role in regulating our attention and behavior. He controls our attention and directs it like a spotlight on the things that we would like to perceive and think about. Developing this focus takes training and practice.
The great antagonist of the autopilot is our consciousness, which enables us to carefully research situations and to get a new perspective on the situation. Consciously directing one’s attention to something, or focusing, costs energy. In order to be able to deal with a certain task, the activity of the autopilot is inhibited. This top-down system switches off the autopilot in order to consciously make clear decisions and to concentrate on what you want. In contrast to the bottom-up system, it is slow and requires a lot of energy.
Our autopilot would like to control our lives. We can also say that our subconscious would like to take over our life. Because that is extremely energy efficient. Focus costs a lot more energy. We notice that every day when we want to concentrate on something. One hast to and can learn to concentrate on one thing. Focus helps us to rethink various options, to play through different scenarios and to consider as much information as possible about a topic, i.e. to live more consciously. Focus is like a muscle that we can train. The more we use it, the better we get at it. Focus is important for conscious thinking and helps us to get into the flow.
D. Kahnemann, Fast Thinking, Slow Thinking; Penguin Verlag 2016
D. Goleman, Focus; Harper 2014
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow. The secret of happiness, Klett-Cotta 2019