The affective downside of these default attending processes

The experiential downside of these automatic movements of attention results from two associated features. First, its vigilance function means that attention’s everyday focus is more or less threat-based. The second feature derives from the automaticity with which biological arousal levels follow the valence of the object of attention, meaning that the threat-based perceptions result in some measure of arousal-related bodily constriction. The feeling tone associated with these constriction- or tension-related sensations is to some degree unpleasant, with the degree of constriction-related unpleasantness depending upon both the perceived level of threat and our perceived capacity to deal with it.

These very rapid default movements of attention would not be a problem to our ongoing felt sense if the alerts were transitory and arousal naturally rapidly returned to a quiescent state. This appears to happen with animals in the wild, and possibly did for earlier hominids when physical survival was their primary concern. Survival in the face of immediate physical danger required attention to be predominantly awake to their senses and, the changing conditions of their bodies, and the physical surroundings (sights, sounds, tastes, and tactile and kinesthetic sensations). The physical danger of the proverbial saber-toothed tiger was seen, arousal levels spiked, it was dealt with in some way, and arousal levels went down once again.

Today, with our needs for physical survival largely met through the institutions of society, concerns associated with the second-order social safety-related needs for relationships, status, and power have become predominant in our attention. And, unlike immediate physical safety, satisfying and maintaining these needs entails ongoing cognitive activity involving imagination and complex planning. Because these also depend upon the indeterminate behavior of others, even a momentary satisfaction is then threatened by changing circumstances. And so this cognitive ly-driven vigilance never stops; attention continues to scan for imagined threats and circumstances perceived as important in maintaining the need’s satisfaction.

The result of attention repeatedly defaulting to, and dwelling upon, threat- based themes is some degree of elevated arousal, its accompanying measure of muscular tension, and the attendant less-than-pleasant sensations of constriction. The everyday rub, then, of this gift to our survival is that we rarely feel completely relaxed and at ease in life, and at times experience the intense mental suffering that can result from this tendency.

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