Attention in the Context of Deep Life
I write a lot about attention, here's why:
Attention in the context of Deep Life
Today, I delve into the more technical and scientific aspects about why attention is important, in the context of living deeply.
A quick summary: what you attend to has a marked influence on who you become, over time. When you’re focusing your attention on something, you are effectively building new networks, and laying ground on in the mental forest of your mind.
Over time, this becomes more permanent. Your personality, who you are, is moulded by the same processes that help you learn a language or skill.
This is why it’s so important that you learn how this process works. And choose to attend to the right things for you (whatever they may be).
This weeks video:
Attention in the context of Deep Life
The importance of attention really is where you focus your mind increases the plasticity of that area of your brain. So if you spend all of your time focused on a particular skill, this is how skills are learned, that area of your brain, when you’re learning a new skill becomes more plastic. And then over time, as you keep focusing your mind on the same thing again, and again, and again, whether it’s a golf swing or whether it’s a way of reading a book to distill it for other people, what your mind does is learn tricks to shortcut that process.
And in your brain, what’s happening is that the neural pathway is being insulated, to make the resistance less basically. So what happens is a signal fires somewhere in your brain and then travels through it more quickly than it normally would with less interference from other circuits. So it becomes easier and easier to focus on the same thing, which is why when you’re first learning yoga, the first moves in the balance of really difficult, but a little while later, lots of it becomes automatic and you can focus on the fine details and the same with the golf swing, or with any of the other skill, really, but the same happens with everything else you do in your life as well.
So what you’re focusing your attention on is building new networks in your brain that change how you automatically act in the future. They change you, basically, they change everything about you.
So one example of that is that people who spend their time focusing on finances and money become demonstratively, less empathetic over time, they lose their ability to think in terms of feelings and to understand how other people feel because they’re spending all their time thinking about the numbers, the spreadsheets, and supposedly non-emotional supposedly rational things , which is difficult to recompense for in other aspects of your life.
The way you spend your time and attention, both opens new paths in your brain and seals off the areas that you don’t explore for a time. The skills that you don’t explore is still there somewhere, but they’re more difficult to pick up later , and that’s really the underpinnings neurologically of why your attention is so important.
And I think people understand that from a skill development point of view, but they really don’t understand that from a self development point of view.
There are lots of examples of how this works in practice. So, one of my favorites is, a study over time of Buddhist monks and how that their brains change as they gain experience in meditation and in being among. And one of the most interesting things is the increased activity in a part of the brain called the insula, which is the seat of your perception of emotions really. So what’s happening in their brains as they do the same thing again and again, over a decade is they’re getting better at interpreting emotions. They’re changing that emotional recognition abilities, not just for themselves, but also for other people around them. And they’re changing something that people perceive as quite fundamental. You’re either an empathetic person, or you’re not that’s nonsense. You can change that and more or less everything else about you. another example might be working memory. So working memory has declined markedly over the past generation or so , Those of you watching this might still think that the average working memory span is seven chunks of information plus, or minus two, that number was based on a study from the 1970s.
More recent numbers are four, or in younger people, three , so people now can only hold in theory, three or four chunks of information in their working memory at one time. They can only play with three or four ideas at one time or compare them or contrast them or whatever, but that’s easily changed a little bit of training over the course of a couple of months can bump that back up to seven, or, eight or nine, or in some people 10 or 12. So things that you consider to be limitations are generally actually skills. There are very few counterexamples to that. There are very few things that you are in a very defined box , beyond physical attributes, like your height and even your height is effected by your environment in your upbringing.
This is part of the argument of growth mindset, the idea that you can change who you are quite fundamentally, and what I’m doing in the book is showing attention’s role in that change.
(Why attention, sciency)
when you first engage in a new action or a new set of thoughts. What you’re effecting definitely doing is connecting together neurons that only had the very loose connection before. You’re building a network within your brain. That is associating what you’re doing as a single pathway.
So that might be, you’re seeing a ball come towards you and you’re predicting where it goes with your eyes and your catching it, based on the vectors. You don’t have to do any calculations because you’ve seen a ball travel enough times for your brain to guess where it will be, or it might be an association between things that you’re reading or things that you’re seeing around you.
If you repeat something a few times, that path starts to be built. That network starts to be built in your brain. And over time, if you keep repeating the same action and the same path that network is insulated is the. The axons that connect the neurons together are insulated in a, in a fatty substance called myelin, which reduces the resistance. It let signals travel along those axons quicker and connects the network together more coherently. And it also reduces the possibility of interference from other circuits. So you’re harder to distract from doing the same thing because, of the stimuli are less likely to stop you from catching a ball.
So people who have played any sports that involve catching a ball can do that. Whatever’s going on around them fairly easily. Whereas if you’ve only done it once or twice, it’s quite difficult when there are distractions around. So the installation of those nerve fibers both makes it quicker. It’s a more instinctive, automatic reaction, and it makes it more difficult to distract you from doing whatever the connection is.
This applies who anything, whether it’s a sport or whether it’s a mental process that you go through when you first read a page where you’re trying to summarize it for yourself or whether you’re just trying to interpret it in the way that you’re connecting ideas together. Whatever you’re doing when you repeat it enough times, the networks in your brain that you’re using those times are insulated and built on in this way.
The way that I analogize that is by thinking of the brain as a forest. So think of your brain initially as quite a thick jungle almost. And when you’re first clearing a path, when you’re first connecting two areas of the jungle together, what you’re doing is you’re hacking away with a machete. You’re fighting your way through and every little bit of doing the new thing is quite hard, it’s very effortful. You have to really focus and concentrate, but if you tread the same path a few times, it gets a little bit easier. Things will have still grown back if you haven’t done it for a while, but it gets easier and easier. And if you keep repeating the habit, the equivalent really is of getting a bulldozer, raising down the trees and laying down a tarmac road. What you’re doing is you’re making traveling incredibly easy. You can speed along that path. Now you can run, you can get a car and race along. There is nothing stopping you from getting from a to B , which has benefits, it makes those routine actions easier. We don’t want to have to relearn how to read. Do we, every time that we read or how to connect words together, or the associations in our brain. But it also has drawbacks, which aren’t often talked about in a self-development context. So once you have that tarmac road, it’s really hard to go off it. You have to really try to go through the jungle when you could just walk down this really easy road and the same is happening in your brain. So once you have the myelin around those axons, connecting the nerve fibers together, it takes a lot more conscious effort to distract yourself from completing that task.
So what you focus your time on and what you repeat on a day-to-day basis over time affects how you automatically respond to everything around you. What you focus your attention on changes your whole brain.
(Just how plastic is the brain)
Most of the examples that I’ve given about how your attention shapes your brain are fairly simple and that’s purely because most of the research in this area has been fairly simple. So the evidence, examples are on a fairly narrow basis currently, but all of this applies to, to who you become in a more general way.
This has been shown with specific studies around meditation and attributes like compassion and attributes, like empathy. It’s been shown on, an experimental basis in terms of working on your working memory and then growing your IQ. And I am a hundred percent certain that it will also apply to whatever else you want to become, where you focus and where you put your attention , builds plasticity in your brain and that insulates that area of your brain later on so whatever you want to do with your life and whoever you want to be, where you attend is where you should start.
There is nothing about your brain that you can’t change over time with your attention.