STAN LAJUGIE explains the science behind focus and attention, and the role of meditation in helping us develop these vital mental skills.
When we focus on one object, the brain mobilizes its resources to identify the target. Once identified, it has its aha moment, and it requires time to redirect them toward the next activity or target. This is called the attentional blink.
Helen Slagter at the University of Amsterdam found out that a 3-month intensive meditation course can shorten the attentional blink and improve the accuracy of attention. This suggests that meditation can help in developing a high level of awareness and a greater capacity to manage our limited resource of attention. This was observed when performing both repetitive and new tasks, meaning mental agility.
Unfocused 50% of the time
Richard Davidson found: during sharp focus, key circuits of the prefrontal cortex synchronize with the object of attention1 in a state he calls “phase-locking.” As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information onto what we already know, making new neural connections. We become more efficient at understanding, learning, and memorization.
The ability to stay focused on one target and ignore everything else is due to the brain’s prefrontal circuitry, which boosts the strength of incoming signals to concentrate on what we want and dampens those we choose to ignore. Also, focus demands that we tune out our emotional distractions. So those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, and remain unflustered in a crisis.
Whereas, when we lack focus, we store no memory of what we are learning. We are also more prone to mental or emotional agitation.
A research study done in 2010 by Killingsworth and Gilbert2 found that:
- 47% of the time participants of his study were doing one thing, but thinking of something else, drifting into mind wandering.
- People were less happy when their mind was wandering than when they were not.
- It is not unhappiness which makes us unfocused, but lack of focus which leads to unhappiness.
Let’s try to understand why.
Negative by default
Neuroscientists have discovered that when people are doing nothing in particular, their brains are still very active. It is the autopilot mode of the brain known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is associated with:
Self-referencing: personal information and memories, future goals, and events. In short, me, myself and mine, worrying what I have done or what I should do.
Social comparison: me and others, wondering what others think of me, or what would they think of me, if am I better or they are better, etc.
Rumination: repetition of the same thoughts.
Do you sometimes see yourself in that state?
No wonder a wandering mind causes unhappiness! Our thoughts may not be our friends!
While it is good to be able to focus well, sometimes being too focused can be an obstacle. We may miss the trees for the forest. To understand how this works, watch the video at https://youtu.be/ubNF9QNEQLA.
Regular practice of meditation supports both the development of high-resolution focus and the ability to zoom out to a broader perspective. The ability to switch between micro and macro is important. This is the type of awareness that we naturally develop in Heartfulness Meditation.
Meta-attention is our awareness of paying attention. After directing the attention to one object, we may have difficulties holding it there, as it may drift away. With awareness of that attention we can gently bring it back to our original activity. And this is exactly what we practice during meditation.
Judson Brewer found that the DMN is less active during meditation, enabling a greater ability to refrain from worrying.
He also found that the DMN was easily deactivated when practicing meta-attention or focusing on feelings, which also develops naturally in the Heartfulness practice as we bring our attention to the heart.
Even better, in regular meditators, the DMN was not only deactivated during meditation but also after the practice, which suggests a change in baseline brain activity.
During meditation, we activate parts of the brain related to sensing, feeling, and being in the present moment. We are free of mind-wandering thoughts and fully engage in what we are doing. This supports performance and a sense of happiness.
During meditation, we activate parts of the brain
sensing, feeling, and being in the present moment.
We are free
of mind-wandering thoughts and fully
engage in what we are
doing. This supports
performance and a sense of happiness.
In other words, we change our daily consciousness from an “interpretive world” of worrying about the past or future, interpreting what others think, and ruminating on these concerns, to an “experiential world” with our attention grounded in the present, moment to moment, experiencing what is happening.
The suspension of mind chatter frees us from worries of all sorts, and allows us to fully focus on the present moment and performing our activities. This leads to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness.
To sum up, focus is at the base of performance and mental and emotional stability.
Unfortunately, it is easy to be unfocused nearly 50% of the time, and this mind wandering leads to a sense of unhappiness.
Fortunately, meditation helps us to turn off this default functioning of the brain, so that we are present in the moment. Heartfulness practices support such transformation as it naturally trains us to develop focused attention, meta-attention, and tuning in to our feelings.
1 Goleman, D., 2013. Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence, Harper USA.
2 Killingsworth, M.A. and D.T. Gilbert, 2010. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind, Science, Nov 12, 330 (6006): 932.