Whenever I look at something with all my attention – look so that I’m soaking it in and really seeing – everything else stops. It’s why for me going out for a walk is such a good way to unwind, because I can’t go far before I see something that I want to stop and gaze at.

We have a choice about the things we look at and concentrate on. In fact we have a choice about whether we really look at all. At times it would be easy to go through a day without stopping to look (and also to listen, touch, and smell) and sometimes it can even be hard to do it at all. This is what depression is about, when it feels as if you are locked in and don’t have a choice, and then it doesn’t matter what you look at, you can’t make the connection or escape from this imprisoned state of mind.

(A quick note, though, about the picture above – I couldn’t resist using it to illustrate that last sentence, but I didn’t take the photograph while feeling depressed! Far from it, in fact. I love the wonderful richness of the texture of the wall and the wood of the shutter, the pattern and contrast of the bars and the mesh, the subtlety of the colour and the mysteriousness of what might lie inside, behind the open window….)

If you’re depressed you tend to go about not seeing at all, or worse, noticing only things that reinforce feelings of bleakness and despair, so I’ve learnt that it’s important to maintain good habits all the time. I find that going out every day to take photographs but more importantly, to look, is much more than gathering source material and hoping that I’ll stumble upon something exciting. It’s more than taking some much needed exercise. More than anything else it’s about deliberately being aware, and paying attention.

In fact recently, I’ve learnt something astonishing – that simply by paying attention to the right things and making a habit of it, over time we can – and in fact, do – actually change the way our brains are wired.

This is from an e mail newsletter that I subscribe to called Just One Thing, by Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist from California:

“Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: is it for better or worse?

In particular, because of what’s called ‘experience-dependent neuroplasticity,’ whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.

Therefore, controlling your attention – becoming more able to place it where you want it and keep it there is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better.”

I’m still not sure exactly why, but this idea got me really excited. Possibly it’s because I like the tangible fact that something I’ve always felt to be true is actually a scientific fact. More probably it’s because I am so preoccupied with landscape and the way water erodes and changes it that I find this such a powerful metaphor, and now I can feel myself creating new channels in the landscape of my mind. If my brain is continually changing its structure, I’m determined to try to make it for the better!

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