Attention, the Key to Everything

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(This is the second installation in a six part series on the known benefits of mindfulness and meditation. For the intro, click here.)

As humans, we all have the natural born ability to direct attention.

For example, right now, with very little effort, you can place your attention on your right foot. You can feel the sensations of the right foot, know the temperature of the right foot, feel whatever it is the right foot is touching, whether the carpet or the texture of your sock. You can then place you attention on your tongue, or on a sound you are hearing. In fact, you can even place your attention on something and keep it there for a little while.

So far, so good, right?

But here’s the amazing part: This innate ability, known as attention regulation in the scientific literature, can be trained.

Italics added because, for the longest time, Western society didn’t seem to know this.

For example, William James, the great late 19th century American ponderer who founded the psychology department at Harvard, wrote in his classic Principles of Psychology, “The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will.”

And: “an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence” (As quoted in Richie and Dan, p. 124).

However, he then went on to say, “But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.”

In other words, learning to direct and sustain attention is the most important thing, but we don’t know how to train that ability.

Except we do!

As I have written before (click here for the full post), one of my earliest experiences with meditation training was that I went from being a shabby student to being a really pretty good student in my late teens. How? Simply by training my attention in a months-long meditation retreat.

But that was back in 1996, a decade before science had anything of substance to say about using meditation to train attention. So I knew it had worked for me. But I couldn’t really say why, and I couldn’t really say it would work for others.

But now, with many, many well designed studies on the topic published in gold-standard scientific journals, we can say a lot more.

We could even say, as Richie and Dan do, that, at its very root, meditation retrains attention.

For example, the classic breath meditation. In this mindfulness exercise, we place our attention on the breath. Then it wanders. Then we place it on the breath again. Then it wanders. Repeat, ad nauseum, for the entire ten or twenty or thirty minutes that you’re sitting.

Over time, though, we get better at it. Experienced meditators can sustain attention on the breath for minutes at a time without interruption, and for some truly advanced meditators, the mind stay effortlessly with whatever object of attention they choose.

Here’s some results for you, straight out of Richie and Dan’s book (pg. 144):

  • MBSR strengthens selective attention
  • Long-term Vipassana practice enhances it quite a bit more
  • Five months after a three-month retreat meditators still saw increased ability to sustain attention
  • Attentional blink (see here for an explanation of this cool little measure) went way down after a three-month retreat
  • But attentional blink even went down somewhat after just seventeen minutes of mindfulness training
  • Ten minutes of mindfulness healed the break in concentration associated with multi-tasking
  • Eight minutes of mindfulness decreased mind-wandering
  • Ten hours of mindfulness over two weeks increased both attention and working memory
  • That same ten hours led to increased scores on the GRE

If you think about it (as William James clearly did), everything we do depends on the ability to direct and sustain attention. The more clearly and steadily we are able to utilize this skill, the better we will likely get at whatever task we have set ourselves to.

Of course, most of the hype around attention regulation has been of the “life hack” variety: improved work performance, increased sports performance, improved everything performance. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Those things are probably true.

But in my experience the greatest impact of increased attention regulation has been relational. Think of the last time someone gave you their full attention. Felt pretty good, right? Now think of developing that ability and offering it to others. I can’t say I always manage this little feat of awareness, but when I do, it’s transformative. And that, for me, is a real motivation to bring my attention back to my breath again and again and again.

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Devon and I will be teaching in Kauai, Ashland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Denmark, and other destinations in the next few months. For more info, please click here.

 

Craig Hase