A human brain can only concentrate and pay attention to one thing at a time.
This fact is a reality for us all… that even with the most accomplished or expert brain, focusing on more than one thing at a time is just not possible.
Multi tasking is a myth…. I know all you female readers reading this – you all thought that you could multi task while your male counterparts could not, but the reality is that neither man nor woman can multi-task.
Our brains are the most remarkable things to be found on this planet (in my opinion) but they can’t multi-task.
Now, I know what you are thinking… that is not true because I can do the washing up while reciting my times table, so I can multi task. And in this way, yes we can.
We can perform a well habituated and deeply wired motor task (such as washing up on auto pilot) and undertake something that takes a higher level of concentration and effort, such as reciting a times table, at the same time… But we could not recite a times table and write a shopping list at the same time.
If we do try to undertake more than one task that requires a higher level of brain function together, then the brain will not be focused on both at once but will ‘task-switch’ between two or more tasks. This can happen very rapidly so that we can have the illusion that we are doing both together but the brain is only focusing on one thing before quickly switching to the other.
The danger of task switching is that when we do so, because we are not putting proper sustained attention and concentration to either of the tasks we are trying to perform in sync with one another, our performance at both tasks will suffer and we will either risk an accident or we will achieve results that are not as great as they could have been if we had just taken each task in turn with our full attention.
But what has all this got to do with eating disorder recovery, I hear you ask!
Well, let us apply this now to recovery…
When we are focused and paying attention to something that takes higher brain action then all our other behaviours at that same time will necessarily come from our subconscious and autopilot.
This is actually a great design of the brain… it needs to pay attention to key things, so anything that can be done subconsciously and habitually saves energy and mental space for other key tasks in the day that need focus.
The problem is that if you have an eating disorder that is hard wired and part now of your subconscious and automatic behaviour patterns then when you are focused and paying attention to other things in your life, your brain will only be able to go to the autopilot that it knows well when it comes to eating or resting (i.e. habitual disordered behaviours).
In order to recover, we cannot afford to let our automatic and hard wired, disordered habits continue to reign. Therefore we need to put our full attention in recovery to a higher, conscious level of control to override the automatic patterns when it comes to food, rest etc. And we have to do this day in and day out and every moment of the day that an eating disordered automatic habit or behaviour is likely to strike!
Try to focus on recovery and other things in the day that take a high level of attention and the brain may go to ‘task switching’ mode, trying to complete both tasks but then we risk failing at both or at best not getting the results we could in either.
Therefore, because our brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time, paying full attention to recovery is the ideal and should be our priority for a period of time, until we have had a chance to form new and recovery focused behaviours, patterns and habits which go against all that feels right but eventually become hard wired and more automatically performed from a subconscious level than the disordered ones were.
Science also tells us that neural rewiring happens more effectively and rapidly when the thing we want to rewire in our brains is approached with focus and intent… So put in the mental effort and focus and it will bring rewards.
But it’s not easy and this is why eating disorder recovery is also SO mentally exhausting and why letting even tiny life distractions get in the way can be so dangerous… Recovery takes full focus (or as much as we can give) for a long time on a conscious level and repetition to ingrain it.
Life distractions that shift attention are to be avoided….
If you were learning to ride a bike, you would not expect to be able to ride and wave to your friends while simultaneously texting on your phone… You would fall at the first pot hole (probably sooner!)….
Expecting to be able to focus on developing new recovery behaviours while dealing with ten other things demanding your attention at the same time is no different… try it and you will crash and fail, leading to frustration and a false belief that you cannot ‘do recovery’.
But, just as the rewiring video in an earlier post of mine shows, truly focus on something that you want to rewire (like recovery or riding a bike in the case of the video) and in time, when it is learnt and wired in.. then you can shift focus to other things and feel safe in the knowledge that this new behaviour is hard wired and will happen on autopilot each day, no matter what else demands your attention.
I thought for years that I could ‘do recovery’ while simultaneously holding down a full time and demanding career, looking after a home and keeping busy with a million other things each day…. Naturally, when I tried to recover while focusing on everything else each day, the eating disorder thrived as it was my auto pilot, it was routine and habitual and I did not apply the focus necessary for changing eating and exercise habits multiple times a day. I thought I was a failure because I could not ‘just do recovery’ while also doing life… But now I know why – my brain is not that smart. No brain is that smart.
Ultimately, if we want full recovery and a brain that learns that the new, recovery focused behaviours are better than the old disordered ones were and for these to become hard wired then we have to apply as much full focus to our recovery as we possibly can (ideally more!). And then, when we have, we can safely and happily give all our attention to everything else we value in life… although still one thing at a time ideally!!