Walk to Strengthen Attention

Walk to Strengthen Attention

It seems like stepping outside for a walk should be enough to clear our minds, but when we head outdoors, our attention tends to stay anchored in our heads. What we need is a practical focus strategy and more realistic expectations about how our minds respond to such a challenge.

Training Individual and Collective Adaptive Capacities

"It's really important to be able to come back to the present moment. This is where change can happen. This is not just adaptive capacity for individuals, but it resonates out to collective adaptive capacity: more resilient organizations, more resilient communities, more dynamic, flexible institutions. These are the capcities that can face any possible future. We don't have to be able to predict, because we can't. Humans can't. But then we can really show up and meet any experience."

~ Dr. Elizabeth Stanley, from "Optimizing the Caveman within Us," TEDx Talks, October 2013   

See also:

  • Mind Fitness Training
  • "The Biology of Risk," by John Coates, The New York Times, June 7, 2014 
  • Clark, T. (2011). Nerve: Poise under pressure, serenity under stress, and the brave new science of fear and cool. New York: Little, Brown and Company. (library)
  • Linden, D. J. (2008). The accidental mind: How brain evolution has given us love, memory, dreams, and God. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap. (library)
  • Ryan, T. (2012). A mindful nation: How a simple practice can help us reduce stress, improve performance, and recapture the American spirit. Carlsbad, California: Hay House. (library)
  • Stanley, E. A. (2009). Paths to peace: Domestic coalition shifts, war termination and the Korean War. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press. (library)

My Only Audience

From "The Self-Reflecting Pool," by Bonnie Tsui, The New York Times, Feb. 14, 2014:

Most days, I get into the neighborhood pool by 8:30 a.m. Even when there’s frost on the ground, the water is warm. Unless you’re the lifeguard, blowing the whistle when you want me to get out, I don’t know you exist. For 60 blessed minutes and 3,200 yards, I’m my only audience.

There’s nothing to look at, once the goggles fog over. Sound? The sloshing of water pretty much cancels out everything else. Taste and smell are largely of the chlorine and salt variety (though, at my old pool, I used to smell burgers cooking from the cafe downstairs). Despite all the tech advances of the last few years, you won’t see many swimmers wearing earphones or bone-conduction music devices: They just don’t work that well.

We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We sing songs, or make to-do lists, or fantasize about what we’re going to eat for breakfast. Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too... 

For better or worse, the mind wanders: We are left alone with our thoughts, wherever they may take us. A lot of creative thinking happens when we’re not actively aware of it. A recent Carnegie Mellon study shows that to make good decisions, our brains need every bit of that room to meander. Other research has found that problem-solving tends to come most easily when our minds are unfocused, and while we’re exercising...

The enforced solitude is at odds with where we are as a culture. Our gyms are full of televisions tuned to SportsCenter and cable news. We’re tethered to our devices, even at bedtime. With that pervasive lack of self-control, who has the willpower to turn off technology for any meaningful period of time? I submit: Sliding into the water is the easiest way to detach from your phone.

Read the entire editorial...

See also: Creswell, J. D., Bursley, J. K., & Satpute, A. B. (January 01, 2013). Neural reactivation links unconscious thought to decision-making performance. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(8), 863-9. http://scan.oxfordjournals.org/content/8/8/863.short 

Qualities of Mind are Skills We Can Cultivate

"Evidence for the connection between happiness and attention is found in neuroscience: attentional control is located in the pre-frontal cortex. Those with a weak pre-frontal cortex also have an inability to inhibit their limbic system (to control their emotions).  Most major mental health conditions are associated with a weak pre-frontal cortex.

Neuroscience has also found evidence for 'experience-dependent neuroplasticity.'  In other words, our brains change with experience.  We get good at (and grow thicker neuronetworks to support) the mental activities we engage in repeatedly. The most powerful way to change your brain is not medication, but behavior, and in particular, mental behavior.

With physical exercise, we can tell which muscles have become the strongest through exercise. Our strongest mental habits are the ones most easily activated, that are quickly and effortlessly available to our consciousness...the good news from neuroscience is that positive qualities of mind such as attention, kindness, and compassion are skills we can cultivate through practice and training. Contemplative studies point to an array of these practices to grow new mental habits."

~ Carrie Heeter, from "Why A Neuroscientist Would Study Meditation," Jan. 12, 2014

See also: Britton Lab

The Value of Concentration

The Value of Concentration

Meditation and mindfulness: the words conjure images of yoga retreats and Buddhist monks. But perhaps they should evoke a very different picture: a man in a deerstalker, puffing away at a curved pipe, Mr. Sherlock Holmes himself. The world’s greatest fictional detective is someone who knows the value of concentration, of “throwing his brain out of action,” as Dr. Watson puts it. He is the quintessential unitasker in a multitasking world.

The Work is Up to You

"A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary."

~ Thomas Carruthers

From "What to Look for in a [Meditation] Teacher," by Ken McLeod, Unfettered Mind, July 2012:

There are three roles a teacher plays. He or she reveals to you possibilities, shows you how to train and develop the skills and capabilities you need, and puts you in touch with the patterns in you that inhibit your being awake.

You may find these three roles in one person, or, possibly, in three different people.

For the teacher as possibility, your interaction may be through ritual, it may involve transmission, or it may be just being with them.  Periodic interact is helpful: you see what being awake looks like in actual life. Regular interaction is not absolutely necessary. It is enough that your interaction awakens new possibilities in you, and you set out to cultivate them.

For that, you need an instructor. With the teacher as instructor you do need to have regular interaction. You first learn a practice, do it on your own,  and then go back to tell your instructor about your experience, what you have assimilated, what questions you have. You learn and assimilate, and then you are ready to learn more. As you develop the skills and the ways to build abilities, more and more responsibility shifts to you. You first learn how to do the practice, then do it until it becomes second nature, and then train still further until there is nothing left in you that inhibits it.

And that last level brings up the need for the teacher who points out patterns. You can't always do it on your own  — you need actual interaction, in person. Directly or indirectly, the teacher points out what you've been doing for years without ever being aware of it. It can be tough, experiencing this viscerally.

This is not psychotherapy, i.e., working with your therapist to work through the patterns. The teacher's role is to point out the patterns and show you how to apply your training to them. The work, then, is up to you.

Many people approach a teacher, or approach spiritual work, in order to give, or receive, or exchange a certain kind of attention. If you approach practice this way, you are reinforcing reactive patterns, the antithesis of waking up.


Find and Create Rest in the Body

Find and Create Rest in the Body

Our attention is habitually drawn to problems. However, we can train ourselves to notice rest and relaxation hiding within our regular routine. Setting aside some time to get more acquainted with what rest feels like in the body can support this exploration.

The Potential to Change the Physical Structure of the Brain

The right orbito-frontal cortex, shown here, is one of the areas of the brain that appears to be enlarged due to meditation."Our results suggest that long-term meditators have white-matter fibers that are either more numerous, more dense or more insulated throughout the brain. We also found that the normal age-related decline of white-matter tissue is considerably reduced in active meditation practitioners.

It is possible that actively meditating, especially over a long period of time, can induce changes on a micro-anatomical level.

Meditation, however, might not only cause changes in brain anatomy by inducing growth but also by preventing reduction. That is, if practiced regularly and over years, meditation may slow down aging-related brain atrophy, perhaps by positively affecting the immune system.

[However], it's possible that meditators might have brains that are fundamentally different to begin with. For example, a particular brain anatomy may have drawn an individual to meditation or helped maintain an ongoing practice — meaning that the enhanced fiber connectivity in meditators constitutes a predisposition towards meditation, rather than being the consequence of the practice.

Meditation appears to be a powerful mental exercise with the potential to change the physical structure of the brain at large. Collecting evidence that active, frequent and regular meditation practices cause alterations of white-matter fiber tracts that are profound and sustainable may become relevant for patient populations suffering from axonal demyelination and white-matter atrophy."

~ Eileen Luders, a visiting assistant professor at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, quoted in "Is Meditation the Push-Up for the Brain?" by Mark Wheeler, UCLA Newsroom, July 13, 2001

See also:

Noting and Labeling

Noting and Labeling

Mindfulness practice involves tracking aspects of ordinary experience as precisely as possible while allowing these observations to come and go with less interference. The noting technique creates a structure for maintaining both of these qualities of attention. Using mental labels is a technique that supports noting.

The Holy Grail of Brain Training

Illustration by Peter Arkle for Newsweek Excerpt from “Can You Build a Better Brain?” by Sharon Begley, Newsweek, Jan. 10 & 17, 2011:

The rule that “neurons that fire together, wire together” suggests that cognitive training should boost mental prowess. Studies are finding just that, but with a crucial caveat. Training your memory, reasoning, or speed of processing improves that skill, found a large government-sponsored study called ACTIVE. Unfortunately, there is no transfer: improving processing speed does not improve memory, and improving memory does not improve reasoning. Similarly, doing crossword puzzles will improve your ability to?.?.?.?do crosswords. “The research so far suggests that cognitive training benefits only the task used in training and does not generalize to other tasks,” says Columbia’s Yaakov Stern.

The holy grail of brain training is something that does transfer, and here there are three good candidates. The first is physical exercise. Simple aerobic exercise, such as walking 45 minutes a day three times a week, improves episodic memory and executive-control functions by about 20 percent, finds Art Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His studies have mostly been done in older adults, so it’s possible the results apply only to people whose brain physiology has begun to deteriorate—except that that happens starting in our 20s. Exercise gooses the creation of new neurons in the region of the hippocampus that files away experiences and new knowledge. It also stimulates the production of neuron fertilizers such as BDNF, as well as of the neurotransmitters that carry brain signals, and of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. Exercise stimulates the production of new synapses, the connections that constitute functional circuits and whose capacity and efficiency underlie superior intelligence. Kramer finds that a year of exercise can give a 70-year-old the connectivity of a 30-year-old, improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity, and multitasking. “You can think of fitness training as changing the molecular and cellular building blocks that underlie many cognitive skills,” he says. “It thus provides more generalizable benefits than specifically training memory or decision making.”

The second form of overall mental training is meditation, which can increase the thickness of regions that control attention and process sensory signals from the outside world. In a program that neuroscientist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami calls mindfulness-based mind-fitness training, participants build concentration by focusing on one object, such as a particular body sensation. The training, she says, has shown success in enhancing mental agility and attention “by changing brain structure and function so that brain processes are more efficient,” the quality associated with higher intelligence.

Finally, some videogames might improve general mental agility. Stern has trained older adults to play a complex computer-based action game called Space Fortress, which requires players to shoot missiles and destroy the fortress while protecting their spaceship against missiles and mines. “It requires motor control, visual search, working memory, long-term memory, and decision making,” he says. It also requires that elixir of neuroplasticity: attention, specifically the ability to control and switch attention among different tasks. “People get better on tests of memory, motor speed, visual-spatial skills, and tasks requiring cognitive flexibility,” says Stern. Kramer, too, finds that the strategy-heavy videogame Rise of Nations improves executive-control functions such as task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and reasoning in older adults.

Read the entire article…


Attention Fitness

Attention Fitness

"Paying attention, for long periods of time, is a form of endurance athleticism. Like running a marathon, it requires practice and training to get the most out of it. It is as much Twitter’s fault that you have a short attention span as it is your closet’s fault it doesn’t have any running shoes in it. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention fitness." ~ Clay Johnson

Don’t Quit

Excerpt from “Why Exercise Makes You Less Anxious,” by Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times, November 22, 2009:

“It looks more and more like the positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms,” says Michael Hopkins, a graduate student affiliated with the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory Laboratory at Dartmouth, who has been studying how exercise differently affects thinking and emotion. “It’s pretty amazing, really, that you can get this translation from the realm of purely physical stresses to the realm of psychological stressors.”

The stress-reducing changes wrought by exercise on the brain don’t happen overnight, however, as virtually every researcher agrees. In the University of Colorado experiments, for instance, rats that ran for only three weeks did not show much reduction in stress-induced anxiety, but those that ran for at least six weeks did.

“Something happened between three and six weeks,” says Benjamin Greenwood, a research associate in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, who helped conduct the experiments. Dr. Greenwood added that it was “not clear how that translates” into an exercise prescription for humans. We may require more weeks of working out, or maybe less. And no one has yet studied how intense the exercise needs to be.

But the lesson, Dr. Greenwood says, is “don’t quit.” Keep running or cycling or swimming. (Animal experiments have focused exclusively on aerobic, endurance-type activities.) You may not feel a magical reduction of stress after your first jog, if you haven’t been exercising. But the molecular biochemical changes will begin, Dr. Greenwood says. And eventually, he says, they become “profound.”


Feeling It

"...when you pay attention to your body (not thinking about it but feeling it) more or your whole brain and nervous system becomes available to link to more parts of the rest of your body...You may have to put aside your mp3 player and video monitor so you can focus more on yourself. The more you allow time for your body sense, the more that whole body activation gets established, and the easier it becomes to access all those good feelings and health benefits in the future."

~ Alan Fogel, from “Embodied Exercise,” Psychology Today’s Body Sense Blog (August 24, 2009)