What Can Attention and Concentration Do to Your Life and Brain?

Posted: July 15, 2011 in Attention, Compassion, Concentration, Meditation, Sadhana, Spiritual Life, Spiritual Practice

The University of Wisconsin neuroscientist, Richard Davidson, says: “…people who have greater activation in very specific left prefrontal regions — not the whole hemisphere — report and display more of a certain positive emotion — not simply ‘happiness’ — that’s associated with moving toward your goals and taking an active approach to life.”

Their rigorous practice of rapt attention over many years has created particularly striking differences in the nuerophysiology and daily experience of some of Davidson’s most accomplished subjects: Tibetan Buddhist monks who have spent at least ten thousand hours in meditation. Even when they are not engaged in the practice, Davidson suspects that the regions in their left prefrontal cortexes, which are associated with positive emotionality, are much more active than those of control subjects or novice meditators; and he’s currently investigating that thesis. Moreover, average subjects, who had completed an eight-week meditation course, showed significantly increased activity in the left prefrontal regions that are linked to this optimistic, goal-oriented orientation.

The discovery that a focusing regimen can have profound impacts not only on a person’s ability to concentrate but also on his basic emotional disposition is particularly significant — because temperament has traditionally been regarded as highly stable and resistant to change. In Davidson’s view, however, the genes you inherit “set very coarse boundaries” for your identity and behaviour, but they don’t determine it. What really counts, he says, is your epigenetics, or the way in which your genes are expressed in the real world; this function can be strongly modified by your experience, which in turn greatly depends on how you direct your attention. As Davidson says, “That’s the priocess that ultimately determines who you are and what you do.”

Not only how you focus, but also what you focus on can have important neurophysical and behavioural consequences. Just as one-pointed concentration on a neutral target, such as your breath, particularly strengthens certain of the brain’s attentional systems, meditation on a specific emotion — unconditional love — seems to tune up certain of its affective networks. In experiments, when monks who are focusing on this feeling of pure compassion are exposed to emotional sounds, brain activity increases in the insula, a region involved in visceral perception and empathy; and in the right temporo-parietal junction, an area implicated in inferring and empathising with others’ mental states. These data complement research done by Barbara Frederickson (a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and others showing that concentration on positive emotions improves your affect and expands your focus. Davidson speculates that delibrately focusing on feelings such as compassion, joy, and gratitude may strengthen neurons in the left prefrontal cortex and inhibit disturbing messages from the fear-oriented amygdala.

Training your brain to pay more attention to compassion for others and less to the self’s narcissistic preoccupations would be a gaint step toward a better, more enjoyable life. When you aren’t doing anything in particular but are just “at rest”, your brain’s so-called default mode kicks in. This baseline mental state often leads to inward-looking, negative ruminations that tend to be, as Davidson puts it, “all about my, me, and mine.” Before long, you find yourself thinking, “I actually don’t feel so great,” or “Maybe, the boss doesn’t really like me.” Davidson is investigating whether the brain areas associated with this “self-referential processing” may be much less active in the monks, whether they’re mediating or not; indeed, he speculates that superadvanced practitioners may perceive little or no difference in the two states.

Research increasingly shows that just as regular exercise can transform the proverbial 110-pound weakling into an athlete, focusing workouts can make you more focused, engaged with life, and perhaps even kinder. “My strong intuition is that attentional training is very much like the sports or musical kinds,” says Davidson. “It’s not something you can just for a couple of weeks or years, then enjoy lifelong benefits. To maintain an optimum level of any complex skill takes work, and like great athletes and virtuosos, great meditators continue to drill intensively.

The above is an excerpt from Winifred Gallagher’s work called “Rapt” (pgs. 72-73), which is a book on ‘attention and the focused life’. [The author is an acclaimed behavioural science writer. In the said book, she has made the radical and compelling argument that much of the quality of our lives depends upon what we choose to pay attention to.]

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