Each of us possesses five fundamental, enthralling maps to the natural world: sight, touch, taste, hearing, smell. As we unravel the threads that bind us to nature, as denizens of data and artifice, amid crowds and clutter, we become miserly with these loyal and exquisite guides, we numb our sensory intelligence. This failure of attention will make orphans of us all.
Simply walking in nature – or, as the Japanese call it, shinrin-yoku – has been shown to reduce blood pressure and increase relaxation. Attuning to nature’s rhythm has also been associated with reduced neural activity in brain areas linked to risk for mental illness and inspired the attention restoration theory, which holds that nature replenishes our ability to concentrate and pay attention. Paying attention to the moment during a walk shifts focus away from the internally generated, anxiety-provoking scenarios, creating much-needed space.
A present-oriented mindset is one of the hallmarks of resiliency, the ability to beneficially reshape our emotional landscape during and after a stressful event (such as a global pandemic). Neuroscience research has shown that mindfulness in highly resilient individuals operates much like a conductor leading a soothing melody while the DMN keeps the lights dimmed low. In a similar vein, deep listening – the practice of giving attention to what is perceived both acoustically and psychologically – has been shown to not only foster personal resilience but to bridge divides between those of different backgrounds. In the same way that negative attentional bias can create fear-based perceptions, positive attentional bias can increase social engagement and decrease emotionally withdrawn behavior. If we can control what we pay attention to, why not refocus our lens towards the positive aspects of the present moment?
A study from 1954 found time disorders in 13 out of 23 people under the influence of psychedelics. Most of them felt a “sense of temporal insularity,” where only the present was real and the past and future were far, far away. “One subject experienced a ‘timeless, suspended state; a few felt time to be slipping away very quickly, while in others the passage of time was slowed down,” the review wrote. “In one case where the mood fluctuated between elation and depression, the passage of time was experienced concurrently as rapid and slow.”