Emotions and attention: the connection that shapes our perception

Tamara Kryvorotko, Invited Expert March 14, 2024

Girl Interrupted at Her Music by Vermeer, 1658

In our lives, we constantly deal with a vast amount of information: even for performing routine daily tasks, such as choosing what to wear or preparing food, we must process a large amount of data. Our brain’s capabilities are limited: we cannot thoroughly process all the information that reaches our senses. Because of this, the brain must choose which information to process as a priority, dismissing what is considered less important.

Consider whether you pay special attention to the shade and shape of clouds or the clothing of random passersby when you are walking in the park with friends. Probably not, although you have access to this information, your brain will likely “filter” it out, as it is not important for that specific situation.

How exactly do emotions determine our attention?

Most of what captures our attention is of value to us, often from an evolutionary perspective. For example, on the street, you are more likely to notice someone who is brightly dressed or whose behavior triggers strong emotions in you. For instance, a crying child or someone playing a musical instrument in the middle of the street, rather than any other person who is just passing by; a bird that suddenly takes flight from the sidewalk right in front of you, rather than a static object, such as a street bench. Such filters help us focus our conscious energy where it is needed and automate most other processes as much as possible.

Typically, these filters are well-adjusted; however, their function can change in the presence of various mental disorders. Moreover, in some cases, poor performance of such a filter can itself increase the risk of developing a mental disorder. Thus, if our attention is overly focused on negative emotions and cannot switch – this will instantly affect our mood.

The Role of Emotions in Setting Priorities

Imagine you’re in a café, comfortably settled with a book, while someone nearby at another table is enjoying their coffee. Suddenly, the atmosphere is pierced by the loud sound of breaking glass.

Think about what will capture your attention and remain in your memory for a long time? Most likely, the presence of another café visitor would have been merely background to you, not as intriguing as the sudden and sharp sound. This unpredictable noise would undoubtedly provoke anxiety, making you momentarily forget about your book and look around to determine what happened and assess if there’s any danger to you. This emotionally charged moment will, without a doubt, seize your full attention for a while, even if there’s no real threat.

Reactions to such stimuli can be not only instantaneous but also excessively intense, especially if you are prone to anxiety. If your mood was already affected by negative emotions, the sound of breaking glass could provoke not just a distraction but deep anxiety or even an irrational sense of threat. Even though you understand on a rational level that broken glass poses no danger to you, this anxiety can so dominate your attention that returning to your book becomes impossible. Eventually, this state may compel you to leave the café, unable to continue what was previously a pleasant and enjoyable activity.

The Power of Positive Emotions

Positive emotions can serve as a powerful catalyst for our attention, especially when it comes to actions related to obtaining rewards or pleasure. When we are filled with joy or enthusiasm, our brain intensely responds to such stimuli, enhancing our focus on the brighter aspects of our experience. These feelings not only boost our productivity, but also promote emotional well-being, painting the world around us in more positive hues.

By studying how stimuli attract our attention and how emotions influence this, we learn to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Anima helps you recognize what you pay attention to and what you unconsciously avoid, offering a straightforward path to self-discovery and a better understanding of your reactions.


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