Posted: Tue, March 11, 2014 | By: Brain Health
by Aaron Moritz
Before you read this article, I’d like you to do me a favor. Close your eyes and focus on the sound your breath. See how long you can maintain this focus. When you notice thoughts intrude, try not to be frustrated, and gently return your attention to your breath. Notice how many times you get distracted before this 5 minute timer runs out.
If you are like most people, chances are that it took about ten, maybe fifteen seconds before your attention was broken. You probably lost count, in that short five minutes, of how many times you lost focus. For some of you, this might be the first time you’ve noticed how hard it can be to maintain your attention — even for five minutes.
(this essay was first posted at Aaron’s blog HERE)
Many people live their entire lives existing with this fragmented and turbulent state of mind, and modern society certainly doesn’t help. Our smartphones, tablets, and computers are constantly abuzz with notifications about everything from important calls from family members and invitations from strangers to play Dragonville on Facebook. We have no shortage of distractions (and distractions from those distractions), and the myth of multitasking has served to further dilute our attention.
At its heart, the ability to maintain attention is about impulse control. When confronted by distractions — internal or external — how well can we resist breaking focus? Not well, for most of us.
This lack of attentional autonomy has a striking effect on our lives. We have less ability to stay calm and focused in difficult situations, or to remain attentive and connected to our loved ones in everyday conversation (and moments of intimacy). We are less effective at our jobs — or perhaps more importantly — at achieving any goal we may set for ourselves, personal or otherwise.
We all experience attentional fragmentation; however, today’s medical model of ADD addresses only the most extreme cases. Many researchers believe that the problem is an in-born, often genetic, trait. The solution they propose is stimulants, which help to increase attention span and promote impulse control. They do this by stimulating activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that helps us evaluate and (when necessary) interrupt impulses from the older, more reptilian brain core. ADD involves a chronic under-activity of the prefrontal cortex, and stimulants help correct that — but not without potentially dangerous side effects.
Luckily, there is another way that we can improve attention spans and promote impulse control. It is free of negative side effects and backed by thousands of years of practice.
I am talking about meditation.
Meditation refers not just to one, but to a diverse set of practices, with a rich history weaved throughout various religious and spiritual traditions. While not necessarily always the intention, almost all forms of meditation involve (or result in) the cultivation of sustained attention. Despite its religious history, meditation is not a faith based practice. Modern scientific research is confirming what these spiritual teachers have been saying all along: practicing meditation has many positive benefits.
One of the most popular and highly studied forms of meditation is called ‘mindfulness’. I described the basic technique in the first paragraph, but allow me to elaborate:
Sit quietly and comfortably. Relax. Take a few deep breaths to settle in, and then breathe naturally. Direct your attention to the sounds and physical sensations of the air entering and leaving your body. The feeling in your nostrils. Your chest as it rises and falls. No need to control the breath. Thoughts will arise. Distractions will happen. Don’t fight them; just notice them and allow them to leave your mind, just as they entered. Gently return your attention to the breath. Stay relaxed. There is no need to clamp down mentally. No need to force anything. No need to worry, but if you do, it’s okay. Just remember that when you notice your mind wandering (which will likely be the majority of the time, in the beginning), you will gently return your attention to your breath.
Of course, in order to get sufficient insight into this practice, that single paragraph will not suffice — but it’s a good start. Mindfulness meditation can be learned through many free or inexpensive courses around the world, or through books and online materials. Guided meditations can be especially helpful. I will include some useful resources at the bottom of this page.
Anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, chronic pain, substance abuse, sleep disorders, attention deficit disorder, and even cardiovascular disease have all been shown to be positively affected by mindfulness meditation. While the potential to relieve various physical and psychological ailments is certainly significant, the real value of meditation is in its potential to optimize and improve our lives. Not just to alleviate problems and bring us back to normal, but to make us better than normal.
It is also worth mentioning another meditation technique called ‘Transcendental Meditation’, which involves the inward repetition of a mantra. It has also been thoroughly studied, and shows similar levels and kinds of benefit. While it is beyond the scope of this article to present a thorough overview of all the research into meditation, it is well worth looking into and there will be some useful links at the bottom.
One of the most interesting scientific findings is that long-term meditation practice is associated with physical changes in the brain, such as positive shifts in brain electrical activity that persist even when not meditating. But there is another finding that is far more interesting: mindfulness meditation — with as little as 40 minutes of practice per day — has been shown to literally thicken our prefrontal cortex, as well as increase regional gray matter density in other important areas.
This is powerful evidence. Remember that the prefrontal cortex is in charge of impulse control and attentional stability, and is underutilized in people with ADD. By continuing to gently redirect our attention back to the breath, we begin to learn to maintain that attention for longer and longer periods. We flex our focus fostering muscles. We change our brains. Adepts and committed long-term practitioners are often able to direct their attention for sustained periods of time onto any object or task of their choosing, but even modest amounts of practice will yield noticeable results.
Meditation and yoga — which many view as a form of ‘moving meditation’ — have both played large roles in my own (ongoing) recovery from social anxiety and depression. It hasn’t been easy or smooth path, however. I first took a shot at meditation 6 years ago when I attended a Transcendental Meditation course. After a few months of spotty practice, I fizzled out, not to try again for quite some time.
Two years ago, after weaning myself off of some anti-anxiety medication I was taking, with the encouragement of my partner, I tried again. This time with a mindfulness practice. Since then, I’ve had bursts of daily practice, lasting anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks, spotted with equally long periods of avoiding meditation. I have recently recommitted myself, and am currently on my longest streak yet – 81 days!
In his book ‘The Attention Revolution’, Buddhist practitioner and author B. Alan Wallace describes the two major barriers to vivid and continuous attention: excitation and laxity. Excitation involves distractions, intruding thoughts, feelings, etc – I like to think of it as an excited child who can’t help but try to run after a hundred different leaves as they scatter in the wind. Laxity is the opposite – it is what many ADD sufferers refer to as ‘tuning out’. Rather than having your attention diverted by something else, it simply lapses into nothingness. The phrase ‘brain fart’ may be appropriate.
Lucid, meaningful, and stable attention requires a balancing act between these two opposing forces. While I used the muscle-flexing metaphor earlier, meditation isn’t like lifting weights. It’s as much about effortlessness as it is about effort. One must be relaxed yet vigilant. Trying too hard can thwart your practice just as much as not trying hard enough. Rather than being a simple ‘on’ or ‘off’, attention can also have different qualitative aspects. We’ve probably all experienced the extremely pleasurable state of mind that psychologists call ‘flow’, where one is actively immersed in and focused on the task at hand. Outside distractions fall away, and things seem to easily fall into place, one after another. This particular state of heightened attention is pinpointed and directed towards a specific task.
When we travel, and become immersed in new locations and cultures, we experience a kind of heightened attention that is in some ways opposite to flow. Most of us can make the trip from home to work without noticing a single thing about our environment. Make the same sort of trip in a brand new location, and you will notice almost everything. New situations like this open up our field of perception rather than narrow it. We have heightened attention, but it is not focused, it is omnidirectional.
Meditation can help achieve both of these types of attention, and actually put some control over which is being experienced in the hands of the experiencer. One practice may ask you to focus very discreetly on just the tips of your nostrils as the air passes through them, while another may ask you to attend simultaneously to all of the sensations you are currently experiencing.
Learning to resist the constant, turbulent, and distracting onslaught of our mental chatter has another important benefit: a truer experience of reality, without many of the filters of our preconceived notions. The goal of ‘seeing things as they are’ is central to Buddhist philosophy, and using meditation as a tool towards achieving that goal makes a lot of logical sense.
When we experience anything, but especially something that is emotionally charged or troubling to us, we don’t just have the experience alone. We are simultaneously bombarded with judgements, rationalizations, worries, hopes, resistances, defenses, and so on. The experience itself, the reality of the situation, is often drowned out and sublimated by this mental cacophony of competing squawks and shrieks. By separating our direct experience of the present moment from the judgement and mental chatter that accompanies it, we can gain valuable new perspectives and objectivity in regards to our issues and problems.
I’m not saying that we can completely eliminate these ruminations from our psyches, but that we can learn to know them and (perhaps counter intuitively) embrace them. We can take from them only what is useful, while discarding what causes needless suffering.
While I am far from having conquered this frontier myself, I see glimmers of change. When the rush of my mental stampede starts to trample my true experience, there is the recognition, however faint, and however often it is railroaded, that I have the choice as to whether or not to let myself get carried away. And that choice gets easier and more clear with each passing day.
This is yet another way that attention is related to happiness and general well-being. The quality and tenor of our moment to moment experience of reality is almost always the most important factor in our well-being. This is precisely what meditation helps us improve, and why it is important.
One of the greatest strengths of our technologically interconnected society is that we have direct and instantaneous access to the combined wisdom of nearly every surviving human culture. Contemplative eastern practices have much to offer modern western life – and don’t require anything be taken on faith. Experiment for yourself. It takes discipline and it takes commitment, but it might be exactly what you are looking for.
(this essay was first posted at Aaron’s blog HERE)
Sources and further resources:
Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.
Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.
Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice.
Philosophy, technique, and guided meditations:
How to do Mindfulness Meditation – Shambhala Sun
The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind by B. Alan Wallace
Calm.com – Easy to remember, helpful visualizations and sounds, guided meditations.
The Mirror of Mindfulness – Two guided meditations by atheist author Sam Harris (Two of my favorites)
Free Guided Meditations – UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center