Many of us have the illusion that we think comprehensively, but we don’t. We cannot take in multitudes of information, assimilate it, and make it valuable in any meaningful way; we take in information in sequence. It isn’t possible to simultaneously process in parallel multiple potent stimuli and do it effectively. You can demonstrate this to yourself by performing the following thought experiment.
Visualize the alphabet in capital letters.
How many letters have “curved” lines in them?
Notice how you think. You see the letters flash before you “one by one,” sequentially, not spontaneously. It’s like watching a slide show. We think no faster than the speed of life. If you are still uncertain, try counting forward to 100 by threes, and backwards by sevens simultaneously.
Because we think sequentially and no faster than the speed of life, we cannot pay attention to everything effectively. Our attention becomes too scattered to be of any use. You’ll find that your intention will create criteria, which will determine what—out of the vast range of possible experiences—you are attending to at the time, will help you reach your goal. In short, what you intend determines what you perceive in your world.
Let us imagine that your intention is to make a canoe. You will have, at first, some idea of the kind of canoe you wished to make. You will visualize the kind of canoe you wish to make. You will visualize the canoe, then you will go into the woods and look at the trees. Your desired outcome will determine your criteria for the tree you need. Your criteria might involve size, usefulness, and beauty of the tree. Criteria both filter your perceptions and invest a particular situation with meaning and thereby, informs your experience and behavior at the time. Out of the many trees in the woods, you will end up focusing on the few that meet your criteria, until you find the perfect tree.
You will cut the tree down; remove the branches from the trunk; take off the bark; hollow out the trunk; carve the outside shape of the hull; form the prow and the stern; and then, perhaps, carve decorations on the prow. In this way you will produce the canoe.
The process is so ordinary, so simple, so direct that we fail to see the beauty and simplicity of it. You have the intention to make a canoe, visualize an outcome, and give birth to something whole, a canoe. Your intention to make a canoe gives you direction and also imposes criteria on your choices, consciously and unconsciously.
Intention has a way of bringing to our awareness only those things that our brain deems important. You’ll begin to see ideas for your canoe pop up everywhere in your environment. You’ll see them in tables, magazines, on television, and in other structures, while walking down the street. You’ll see them in the most unlikely things, such as a refrigerator, that you use every day without giving them much thought. How the brain accomplishes such miracles has long been is one of neuroscience’s great mysteries.
Your Thoughts are Tiny Spins
We have all played with magnets when we were children. A magnetized object consists of a multitude of tiny little elements called “spins” (see the illustration). Each spin has a particular orientation corresponding to the direction of its magnetic field. In general, these spins will point in different directions, so that their magnetic fields cancel each other out (disordered spins are illustrated on the left). Spins pointing in opposite directions repel each other, like the north poles of two magnets that are brought together.
However, when the temperature decreases, the spins spontaneously align themselves, so that they all point in the same direction. Instead of cancelling each other, the different magnetic fields now support each other, producing a strong overall pattern. Spins pointing in the same direction attract each other, like the North Pole of one magnet attracts the South Pole of another magnet. Magnetization is a good example of how forces aligned in the same direction attract and reinforce each other to create a dynamic, natural pattern. In the image on the left, the pattern is inconsistent and incoherent, while in the image on the right, the pattern is straight, coherent, and dynamic.
Think of your thoughts as tiny spins in your brain. If you have no intention to be or to do something, your thoughts are disordered, with no direction, much like the tiny spins on the left. When you have a real intention to be or to do something, your thoughts now have purpose and automatically align with each other to form a dynamic mental state of awareness aimed in the direction of the intention.
This mental state is evident in the work of Hashem Akbari, an environmental activist and a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who is always thinking of ways to offset carbon dioxide emissions. His intention to offset carbon dioxide guides his observations in daily life. One day he noticed a house with a white roof that reminded him of the large white structures in the Iranian desert that he saw as a child. The white structures captured the night wind to cool the building, keeping the people inside comfortable.
This observation startled him because he realized that “dark” materials absorb heat; and whereas if roofs were “white,” the roofs would reflect the heat. Musing, he wondered about what the effect would be if all roofs were white. After making a study of the matter, he concluded that, if the 100 largest cities in the world replaced their dark roofs with white surfaces, and their asphalt-based roads with concrete or other light-colored materials, it could offset 44 billion tons of carbon dioxide. According to Akbari’s Island Group, this is equivalent to taking the world’s approximately 600 million cars off the road for 18 years. That amounts to more greenhouse gas than the entire human population emits in one year.
Akbari’s intention tuned his brain to a higher level, which substantially increased the likelihood of him noticing opportunities in his environment. Your brain processes only a tiny portion of your environment at a time. It risks being overwhelmed by the volume of information that bombards you every waking moment. Your brain compensates by filtering out the 99.9 percent of your environment that doesn’t matter to you.
“Intention” works. Try a simple experiment: focus on a penny. Visualize it. Now say to yourself silently that you are going to find a penny on the ground. Then, look for the penny every time you take a walk. Concentrate on finding a penny. After you find a penny, go looking for a second one. How long did it take to find the first penny? Compare the time it takes to find the second penny with the time it took to find the first? Now look for a third, fourth, and fifth, and so on. You will amaze yourself with the number of lost pennies on the ground that you previously did not see even though they were right before your eyes.