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The benefits of ignoring things

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Chances are most of us are familiar with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s thought experiment, or some variation of it, from Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (though, if you’re like me, you probably didn’t know it before today). In Winter Notes, Dostoyevsky quipped, “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” Perhaps you’ve heard of a similar challenge with a purple elephant or some other creature. Either way, the basic premise is the same: the more you try to ignore something the more persistently it sticks in your mind. As The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance notes, that principle is called Ironic Process Theory and, until recently, was thought to be beyond dispute.

However, a new study from John Hopkins challenges that assertion in an important way. While Dostoyevsky’s observation is initially true, researchers found that our brains can learn to disregard that which we tell them to ignore. The key to such improvement appears to be two-fold. First, we have to be sufficiently familiar with what we’re trying to ignore in order to recognize it without having to spend time processing its presence. Essentially, the sooner we recognize something, the sooner we can move past it to focus on something else. That brings us to the second key: having another target to replace the thing we are trying to ignore. Being told to ignore something is only helpful if we are given something else to focus on or search for instead.

To illustrate these principles, researchers used experiments like asking people to find a “T” in the midst of similar shapes of different colors. They then asked the same people to repeat the exercise, but with the hint that the “T” would not be red. The basic idea was that once the people knew what to ignore, finding their target was simplified. That may not seem like a ground-breaking revelation, and in many ways it’s not, but the possible applications in fields from radiology to baggage screening excite the lead researchers. They hope that, as they come to understand these principles better, they can help us become more efficient at learning how to ignore the irrelevant to focus on the important in other aspects of our lives as well.    

Paul talks about a similar idea in his letter to the Philippians. In chapter 3, he writes, “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way” (Philippians 3:13–15). In this passage Paul argues that if we want to live as God intends, we have to forget (essentially ignore) the sins to which we were slaves prior to our salvation by actively focusing on the pursuit of perfection in Christ (Philippians 3:12).

However, to effectively and consistently ignore those sins we must first be aware of the ways that they manifest in our lives. We must rely on the Holy Spirit’s presence to help us recognize when sin begins to surface and temptation creeps in around us so that we can refocus on the goal to which we are called. That’s no small task and is one that requires us to be in constant communication with the Lord. However, the ability to ignore Satan’s lingering presence in our lives results in a level of intimacy with our heavenly Father that could not happen any other way.

Henry Ford once said, “Obstacles are those frightful things we see when we take our eyes off our goal.” If we can’t learn to move past the sin in our lives and block out temptation by keeping our eyes focused on Christ, then we will stumble and fall short of his will for our lives. Where is your focus today?