Attention and the BrainOne
day a man of the people said to the Zen master Ikkyu:
“Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the
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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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