The Attention Span of Trees

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I’ve been noticing trees. Perhaps because it’s early winter and the trees stand tall and naked against the contours of the land. Or maybe it’s because of the Halloween Nor’easter that dumped over a foot of heavy wet snow on saturated not-yet-frozen ground. Massive trees and telephone poles lost their footing in the soft soil, leaving coastal Mainers without power for days. As I went on my familiar walks after the storm, the regular landmarks were gone, buried under these giant fallen soldiers. With their root systems exposed, the trees looked like they had two neural networks—an underground matrix mirroring the tangle of branches and leaves that usually stretch skyward.

It got me wondering, with both an above and below ground “brain”, what might a tree be paying attention to?

Like all living things, a tree’s single imperative is to GROW. Everything moves in concert towards that aim. It’s all very tactical: make the most efficient use of any available light and moisture.

Trees are way ahead of us in maintaining their single-minded focus. They don't have squirrel brains worrying about the approaching winter [future], concern about where the last cache of nuts was hidden [past], so that they are distracted from enjoying the acorn in their grasp [present].

It turns out that we are evolutionarily wired to be distracted. Those of our earliest ancestors who were able to stop mid-action and turn their attention to a new threat or opportunity were more likely to survive. Social media and other modern trends amplify that human predilection for distraction. Unfortunately our brains haven’t evolved to where we are efficient in discerning the value of new data. At first glance, everything that hits our brain seems equally urgent. Sound familiar?

In contrast to the evolutionary advantage of being distractible, there are significant benefits to being able to maintain focus. To name just a couple:

Stress Reduction Stress correlates with disruption. Jobs that involve more interruptions tend to be more stressful. Think about the difference between a productive and a non-productive workday. It is usually tied to whether you were able to finish what you started, and that requires sustained focus. Interruptions often come from the outside, which we can’t always control; they can also come from the inside. In other words, we interrupt ourselves. This is in our realm of control.

Time Management Focus can change our relationship with time. Picture an Olympic athlete. Anecdotally they describe being able to slow down time through the power of their concentration. No wonder they appear super human. They have more time than the rest of us to jump higher and spin faster. Speaking of super powers, I personally think Superman’s laser vision is an amped up version of what we could do if we really focused our energies on one thing at a time.

So what is the most effective way to train our brain to combat the deluge of daily distractions? The answer is surprisingly simple. Basic meditation exercises can help us flex the re-focus muscle. Just like our bicep, the more we use it, the stronger it becomes. We don’t need to do much to reap the benefits of mindfulness. A few intentional minutes each day can establish new neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex. Here are two resources that have been particularly helpful to me:

Many meditation exercises start with focusing on the breath. Over time you expand your attention to take in the senses, first internally and then externally. Ultimately you cultivate a form of awareness that takes in everything yet attaches to nothing.

This, I imagine, is what it feels like to be a tree, simultaneously sensing the earth and the heavens. But as humans we can do something a tree can’t. We are able to experience an expanded situational awareness that extends beyond the tactical to the strategic. Inspired by a larger vision or dream, we have the ability to make transformational choices. We can pick up our roots, cross an ocean, and settle in a new land. And there we will find other tree varietals to remind us that it all starts with paying attention long enough to figure out what really matters.

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