Directing your attention is the answer to calming a busy brain that jumps around from one anxiety-inducing thought to another. Bringing your attention back to the present can immediately stop your brain from ruminating about painful memories. Being able to direct and sustain your attention to a specific desired place is the foundation of changing your brain through experience-dependent neuroplasticity.
Your happiness, baseline disposition, and how you respond to the world, interact in relationships, and think of and talk to yourself are largely determined by your subconscious. Your brain’s subconscious material is primarily made up of implicit memories from your childhood and past, which are below your conscious awareness and cannot easily be measured or retrieved. However, this subconscious chatter carves your default brain patterns which heavily influence your happiness and relationships and can contribute to psychological disorders like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
In order to change your subconscious chatter, you have to change your brain’s default pattern of operation. Luckily, you already have everything you need to do that.
You sculpt your brain with your attention.
How Attention Happens in Your Brain
Specific brain regions are responsible for selecting an object of attention and sustaining focus. Your brain’s parietal cortex is like the steering wheel pointing your focus in a general direction and zeroing in on a particular target. The prefrontal cortex then has the task of holding your attention (or not) on that one spot.
When focusing is problematic, the prefrontal cortex is underactive, and attention is stimulus-driven. In this case, every little thing around you may catch your eye and turn your head. Improving attention is a matter of increasing the activity of and strengthening the connections between the prefrontal and parietal cortices.
If someone gets so into what they’re doing that they don’t even hear you talking to them or are so locked onto one aspect of a situation that they can’t see the bigger picture, their neural attention pathways might be over-focused. In this case, a person’s attentional circuit in their brain is too active and needs to be calmed down.
Your Attention Changes Your Brain
Because of neuroplasticity whatever you hold in your field of attention physically changes your brain. Rick Hanson Ph.D., author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom says:
Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and yourself.”
The good news, though, is that you can rewire your brain for better relationships. You can change your old ‘relationship brain’ neural pathways and develop new and improved ones using simple, 2,500-year-old mind training techniques that are more precise than a neurosurgeon’s blade and without all the mess. The ancient practice of mindfulness meditation, as it turns out, produces real, measurable changes in the brain in key places so that deeper connections, better love, and healthier relationships can take hold.“
The third step in Jeffrey Schwartz’s “Four Rs” thought reframing practice is “refocus.” The Four Step program has become the established treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder and has been verified to physically change brains in studies using brain scans. In Four Steps to Take Control Of Your Mind and Change Your Brain, I explain:
Refocus – In the first two steps, you clear your cognitive field. Then, you focus your attention in the moment in the direction you want to go and consciously do something constructive. This step can be as simple as directing your thoughts back to the present or engaging in an activity that is healthy and productive — even while the deceptive brain messages are still there and bothering you. It’s through the refocusing of your attention that the brain gets rewired.”
Working Your Attention Muscles
You may have seen headlines recently about your attention span decreasing in the digital age. While it’s true that there are more things competing for your attention these days making it harder to focus on one thing for any length of time, your attention is task-specific. How long you can pay attention depends on your particular brain, your interest, and the demand. In any event, attention is like a muscle, the more you work it, the stronger it gets.
Just as you can work out to build up muscle, you can exercise areas of your brain to build your attention skills. One study showed that three months of meditation practice showed that mental training could significantly affect attention and brain function. Focused attention meditation showed higher levels of activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices translating to better focus.
In his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them, Richard Davidson explains how to do focus attention meditation:
- Sit comfortably, with your eyes open, in a quiet room free of distractions. Find an external, visual object on which to focus. For example, a single carpet thread, doorknob, button on your shirt, or candle flame would work. But you don’t want to concentrate on your breath, a mental visualization, or a mantra.
- Keep your eyes glued to that one object and all your attention focused on it.
- When your mind strays from the object, it most definitely will gently guide it back to the subject again and again.
Davidson suggests practicing daily for ten minutes and increasing the practice time as needed when you find your focus improving.
How to Cultivate the Neural Factors of Attention
In the article Pay Attention, Rick Hanson offers the following suggestions for training your brain to pay attention:
You can use one or more of the seven factors below at the start of any deliberate focusing of attention – from keeping your head in a dull business meeting to contemplative practices such as meditation or prayer – and then let them move to the background as you shift into whatever the activity is. You can also draw upon one or more during the activity if your attention is flagging. They are listed in an order that makes sense to me, but you can vary the sequence. (There’s more information about attention, mindfulness, concentration, and contemplative absorption in Buddha’s Brain.)
Here we go.
- Set the intention to sustain your attention, and to be mindful. You can do this both top-down, by giving yourself a gentle instruction to be attentive, and bottom-up, by opening to the sense in your body of what mindfulness feels like.
- Relax. For example, take several exhalations that are twice as long as your inhalations. This stimulates the calming, centering parasympathetic nervous system and settles down the fight-or-flight stress-response sympathetic nervous system that jiggles the spotlight of attention this way and that, looking for carrots and sticks.
- Without straining at it, think of things that help you feel cared about – that you matter to someone, that you belong in a relationship or group, that you are seen and appreciated, or even cherished and loved. It’s OK if the relationship isn’t perfect, or if you bring to mind people from the past, pets, or spiritual beings. You could also get a sense of your own goodwill for others, your own compassion, kindness, and love. Warming up the heart in this way helps you feel protected, and it brings a rewarding juiciness to the moment – which supports #4 and #5 below.
- Think of things that help you feel safer, and thus more able to rest attention on your activities, rather than vigilantly scanning. Notice that you are likely in a relatively safe setting, with resources inside you to cope with whatever life brings. Let go of any unreasonable anxiety, any unnecessary guarding or bracing.
- Gently encourage some positive feelings, even mild or subtle ones. For example, think of something you feel glad about or grateful for; go-to’s for me include my kids, Yosemite, and just being alive. Open as you can to an underlying sense of well-being that may nonetheless contain some struggles or pain. The sense of pleasure or reward in positive emotions increases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which cive distractions.
- Get a sense of the body as a whole, its many sensations appearing together each moment in the boundless space of awareness. This sense of things as a unified gestalt, perceived within a large and panoramic perspective, activates networks on the sides of the brain (especially the right – for right-handed people) that support sustained mindfulness. And it de-activates the networks along the midline of the brain that we use when we’re lost in thought.
- For 10-20-30 seconds in a row, stay with whatever positive experiences you’re having or lessons you’re learning. Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” this savoring and registering helps weave the fruits of your attentive efforts into the fabric of your brain and yourself.
I so appreciate this information and these instructions, Debbie. It’s very illuminating, and I like the exercises for strengthen attention, and also on strengthening our attention on the positive. I had to laugh when I read the instruction to “glue” your eye on the object. In my experience, this can create strain and tension. I like Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s instruction not to try to “spear” the object with your eyes. I always tell people to gently place their attention on the object. For me, it’s all about a balance of being relaxed yet alert.
That’s a good way to put it, Sandra – relaxed yet alert. Thank you for the comment on the “glue your eyes” instruction. I like your suggestion much better. 🙂
This is very interesting, Debbie. With all that is going on in our lives, paying attention is a skill that I’m sure has lessened in many of our brains. I appreciate the information on how to do focus attention meditation. That sounds like it could be helpful. It reminds me of when I’m in yoga and trying to balance, I focus on something very small to hold the pose.
I like the yoga example, Cathy. I find, in yoga, that if I can hold my focus steady, it does help me balance physically…and also emotionally outside the yoga room. 🙂
Thank you for the wonderful content as always Debbie! It’s interesting that Richard Davidson specifically says NOT to focus on your breath, a mental visualization or mantra. Is that for practical purposes (that it’s just too challenging for most and not practical to stay with it) or is there an inherent advantage to focusing on an exterior object in the room?
Good to know. Thanks for the additional info, Mike. I think everyone should experiment to see what works FOR THEM. It’ going to be different for everyone. There is no ONE right way. Focusing on my breath always works for me. 🙂
“For 10-20-30 seconds in a row, stay with whatever positive experiences you’re having or lessons you’re learning. Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” this savoring and registering helps weave the fruits of your attentive efforts into the fabric of your brain and yourself.” This is so brilliantly simple Debbie and makes so much sense for keeping in an energy vibration that can change your life. Love it.