Attention and the Brain

One day a man of the people said to the Zen master Ikkyu:  “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?”
Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.”
“Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?”
Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.”
“Well,” remarked the man rather irritably,“I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.”
Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running:  “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

The Three Pillars of Zen, by Philip Kapleau

Scientists have discovered that the brain is always changing and that we have the power to change the way our brain works. We do it in large part through attention.

Every time we have a thought or emotion or we do a behavior, large numbers of brain cells, neurons, are firing together. A particular thought or memory or behavior will involve a particular pattern of neuronal firing. When these mental actions are repeated, we develop a neural pathway. Eventually, with enough repetition, the neural pathway becomes strong and  a habit is formed or learning and mastery occurs. In either case, the brain activity becomes easier and familiar.

Contrary to what brain scientists used to think, the brain does have the ability to grow new cells. Even more significantly, it has the ability to rewire itself. Neurons communicate by reaching out and almost touching each other. One brain cell has, so they say, the capacity to communicate directly with about 10,000 other brain cells. Where they reach out to each other is a tiny gap called a synapse. Between that gap, neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine flow. Those neurotransmitters trigger action in the neurons that makes them change their electrical charge. If a behavior is repeated, the connections between neurons becomes stronger. More brain cells get involved. New synapses develop. Unused ones may disconnect.

If you are not paying attention, the neurons don’t get too excited.  You can be a passenger in a car and not remember the route you took to get where you went. But if you were driving, you are much more likely to know the route you took and be able to find it again. The difference is largely that you were paying attention. When we focus our attention, we make physical changes in our brains.

The implication of this is profound. It means that through our will, we can change our brains and consequently the behaviors we do, the type of thoughts we have and the quality of emotions we experience. We exert our will by focusing attention. As William James said, “Effort of attention is the essential phenomenon of will.” As we direct our attention, we rewire our brain circuitry. As we change our focus or hold our focus, we alter our availability for the types of experiences we are focused upon.

Mindfulness and meditation are practices that hone our attentional skills. Through them we can get better at directing our attention. Thus we gain more control of our will. Through intentional acts of will, we become more effective in managing our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We become more the cause of what happens to us, rather than the victim of our own experience.
Check in with yourself more often to note what you are attending to, or not attending to.

When multiple stimuli call for your attention, be conscious of the choices you make among them. For instance, if the TV is on and a person is talking at you, notice how much you are attending to each and consciously decide how you will respond.

Develop intention about where you will focus your attention. Will you focus on wholesome or unwholesome thoughts? Will you focus your attention on how victimized you are or on how you can effect change? Will you focus on escape from your stressors or on skills for managing them?

When tempted to engage in old habitual or addictive behavior, remind yourself that doing so just reinforces old neural pathways associated with the behavior, and if you try something new you will be building new wiring for your brain that gives you different options. Remember that the more you practice the new behavior, the stronger the new neural pathway becomes and the more in charge you become.

Reference: Jeffrey M. Schwartz, MD and Sharon Begley, The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, HarperCollins, 2002.

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© 2007 Tom Barrett