you are what you pay attention to

The simple reality is this: you are what you pay attention to. Or, to be more precise, you are what you do with what you pay attention to.

For the psychologist, Rick Hanson, attention functions as a vacuum cleaner with a spotlight: it illuminates what it rests upon, then sucks it into your brain. This means that your thoughts, impulses, and actions take shape from what your mind repeatedly rests upon. Another analogy he uses is that of the mind being Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good experiences: the implication being that the bad stuff sticks while the good stuff slips away. Of course, this has particular resonance in our current digital age as our attention is being relentlessly fried by so many competing demands.

But why is our attention so volatile? Probably it's due to the stage we are at in the evolution of the brain. The evolution of the matter you have sitting in your skull has taken approximately 657 million years. The breakdown of that evolution is as follows: some 400 million years for the brain stem (otherwise known as the Reptilian brain) which is concerning itself right now with just keeping you alive through unconscious self-regulatory features such as the beating of your heart and the functioning of your respiratory system. Next up is the Limbic system, (the emotion and memory part of the brain) that has taken up to 254 million years to evolve. Then there is the Cortex (the thinking cap part of the brain) that has taken between 500,000 and 3 million years to evolve. Now my numeracy is fairly rudimentary but if you were to take 3 million as a percentage of 657 million you would find that it comes out at something under 2 percent. So we can say that at this present stage of our evolution our attentional capacity is pretty low, thus ensuring that we are prey every few seconds or so to the vagaries of a distracted and wandering mind.

The problem is that the stuff we are distracted by leads fairly consistently to a propensity for negative thoughts which in turn has an impact on our wellbeing. Research tells us that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind and that there is in fact a brain region in the mid prefrontal cortex that has been identified and labeled as the default mode network causing thoughts to gravitate towards negative, ruminative content. However, the good news is that we can train our minds to recognise rumination and build a wiser relationship with the thoughts and feelings that emerge and therefore find that ‘we can use our mind to change our brain to change our mind.”

Meditation is attention training. The problem is that our minds are all over the place. Think of a puppy dog and the mess it makes. That’s your mind. Quite often the analogy of ‘the spotlight of attention’ is used during meditation guidance, and this is quite appropriate as we do need to learn how to tether our attention, shift it more towards the Task Performance Network of the brain, in the same way as we place a lead on a puppy dog to ensure that it doesn’t wander off and cause itself – and others –harm. It’s also succinct as an image because we know that if we are going to train a puppy we not only need the lead we also need to cultivate an attitude of firmness, patience, and kindness to ensure that the puppy grows into a happy and wholesome being. This attitude is an absolute necessity for meditation because your mind will pull and yank you into all sorts of unexpected directions, possibly every couple of seconds, and the only way you’re going to be able to bring it back (to present moment awareness) is through this cultivation of what is known as right attitude, the ingredients of which are kindness, patience, gentleness and compassion. And what’s more, you will fail and fail and fail and fail, and fail again – and then fail some more – when trying to do this, especially if you want to get to the destination of right attitude, because, (and here’s the trick) the way you get it right is by accepting that getting it wrong is actually getting it right. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times that I have felt this and have heard others tell me this after meditating. Something along the lines of: “I’m really bad at this” without realising that being ‘really bad at this’ is a sign of being mindful.

Some neuroscience. Hanson tells us that in the process of attention training there are some measurable changes going on in terms of the neuro-structural function that are very interesting. And the good thing is, you don’t have to be a perfect meditator, and you don’t have to go on retreat all the time, in order to experience the benefits of meditation practice. It’s not a dosage thing. Rather, it’s a lot of little things over time. Essentially, the more episodes of practice you have and more depth of engagements in your episodes of practice will yield lasting benefits: hence the now-famous phrase, neurons that fire together wire together. If you repeatedly meditate you tend to build cortex, layers of tissue that help in building up more synaptic connections and bringing more blood flow to parts of the brain in the frontal regions that help regulate attention and emotion, and action. It would seem that it helps build the insula in the limbic system, which is important because the insula helps us tune into ourselves, and that’s what you’re doing when you’re meditating. You’re regulating attention, you’re becoming more self-aware and you’re getting a bonus benefit because the insula is very involved in empathy for the feelings of others, so that’s a very reliable result. Another major result is that you build up more tissue in a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is good because it puts things in context and calms down the alarm bell of the brain called the amygdala. Also, people with long-term practice tend to increase activation of the range of what is called gamma brainwaves. That’s important because gamma is fast, roughly thirty to eighty beats per second, which means you’re synchronising millions, potentially billions, of synapses so they’re all firing synchronously thirty to eighty times a second, thus ensuring that they’re really integrated with each other; and that supports that sense of wholeness and integration that develops over time with meditation. This is called the unification of consciousness, singleness of mind, which is another benefit from long-term practice. We also have evidence that it helps to increase the immune system, calms down the stress response system, and enables faster recovery from being upset. And as an added bonus, just in terms of the brain, there are these little ridges at the ends of DNA molecules called telomeres that get shorter as we get older; they shrink, and as they shrink we become more vulnerable to age-related illnesses of various kinds. Some recent findings have shown that meditative practice helps protect telomere planks, these strips of atoms on the end of a super complicated molecule of DNA so that we’re more able to go into old age gracefully and live well.

Hanson finishes by telling us that we should be seeing tons and tons of ads for meditation because of absolutely solid evidence for its benefits for physical and mental health. If the pharmaceutical companies could bottle these benefits they would be worth billions!

(This post is based on a transcription of an interview with Dr Rick Hanson Ph.D, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, during the online conference, The Science of Meditation)

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