What is Attention? Can Mindfulness Help? See “The Science of Meditation” Summit

I am fortunate enough to have a tiny bit of spare time now to tune in to Shambhala Mountain’s wonderful summit on “The Science of Meditation” with presenters ranging from the wonderful Susan Piver to Patheos contributor Rick Hansen and a list of the who’s who of meditation, mindfulness, and Buddhism research and practice. If I understand correctly, the videos from every day will be up and available to the public for two full days, so the one below, for instance, will still be available until tomorrow (Friday) at 5pm PT / 8pm EST.

Here I’ll just put up some notes and thoughts (to return to later perhaps, or spur discussion) on the videos I watch over the next few days.

One today is from Dr. Amishi Jha, “a Principal Investigator, Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research & Practice Initiative, University of Miami. Her research focuses on the brain bases of attention, working memory, and mindfulness-based training.”

Her talk covers (from the site):

  • the relationship between sustaining attention and “mind wandering”— and how they can interact through practice to create more stable attention
  • how some of our conceptions on rest might actually be making us more un-rested, and get tips on how to transform those into new modes of rest and relaxation
  • resilience and how it can be achieved through attention training

The attention vs “mind wandering” part is of special interest to me now, as in it she discusses the Default Mode Network (DMN). This network is four or five specific regions that activate when we’re not paying attention to anything in particular and is said to give rise to our sense of self insofar as we begin to “chatter” to ourselves about ourselves and our situation. This state is the opposite of Flow – when we’re fully focused and attending to the situation at hand and immersed in our activities.

I’ve heard one speaker describe the DMN as almost like a break pedal that can interrupt Flow states (our gas pedal). So things that quiet the Default Mode Network, taking the foot off the break, can open us up to being present and attentive in every moment in everyday life.

Dr. Jha says that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” in the video, pointing to this and taking us to the topic of happiness. Attention (the opposite of a wandering mind), she tells us, is involved in three key functions:

  1. Orientation: it acts like a flashlight – what we point it at is what we notice in the world, or in our own mind
  2. Warning system: allowing us to be in a readied state
  3. Executive control: ensures that our plans and execution align

Our orientation function might be thrown off, as in depression where we are constantly re-oriented to negative thoughts/feelings. This, of course, is where many therapies come in to try to re-orient thoughts, feelings, behaviors etc. The warning/alerting system might be thrown off as in anxiety – or in any situations where we become hyper-vigilant. Adrenal functions go out of whack and health, mental and physical, suffers. And the Executive system can be thrown off as things like ADHD.

Mindfulness of breathing gives us an insight into all three of these:

  1. We orient our minds to the breath – aiming our flashlight at the sensations of breathing
  2. Yet we maintain awareness of the mind; we notice/watch for wandering and
  3. Bring it back whenever it does wander

So a mindfulness practice can train all three of these aspects of attention.

Studies (using a cell-phone app) have shown that people’s minds are not attending to what they’re doing about half of the time. This could vary; it may be more like 30-60%. Sometimes this mind wandering is okay, or even productive, when it is consciously done (a.k.a. conscious internal reflection / daydreaming); as opposed to those time when we want to focus on X, but we are consistently wandering off of it.

Getting back to the DMN, Dr. Jha notes that activity in this area is anti-correlated with activity in the parietal lobe and pre-frontal cortex, which are active in tasks where we are paying attention. For an incredibly fascinating talk going further into the Default Mode Network and the experience of nearly silencing it, check out the talk at the bottom by Gary Weber, Ph.D. (worthy of a post of its own at some point).

Never, so long as we’re alive, Dr. Jha notes, is our brain ever truly silent. And the myth that we only use 10% of our brains – is a myth. We use 100% of our brain. Watch and learn and share your thoughts. I’ve only written on the first 22 minutes of the 44 minute video, so there is still plenty to learn from viewing:

And, “The End of Suffering and the Default Mode Network”:

See more at Shambhala Mountain Online.

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