The Mechanics of Attention

Evolution (Program 1) endowed us with the predisposition for a wandering attention, constantly seeking novel information that might help us avoid a hungry predator or find some juicy fruits. On top of this, we’ve conditioned ourselves (Program 2) with a stream of stimulation in the form of video clips, social media feeds and clickbait.

Was it a coincidence that I got diagnosed with ADD the same year I started spending copious amounts of time on social media and binge-watching shows online? Probably not. But through meditation, I was able to reprogram a stable attention that’s under my command. 

 

There are two main aspects of attention that you’ll train:

1.    Selective Attention involves voluntarily choosing what to pay attention to. Taking deliberate control of your attention deploys parts of your Upstairs Brain, including the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and lateral frontal cortex.

There’s a constant barrage of information entering your ears, eyes, nose, skin and other sensors of which you’re completely unaware. You might’ve experienced what’s called the “cocktail party effect,” wherein you’re talking to someone at a party and suddenly your ears perk up as you hear your name in another conversation. Your ears were unconsciously picking up other sounds and suddenly alerted you to a potentially important bit of information. What were they saying about me? you wonder. 

 

In a famous experiment on Selective Attention, psychologists Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris created a skit called the Monkey Business Illusion. If you haven’t seen the video, check it out before I ruin the ending below.

About half of individuals fail to see the gorilla, meaning that their selective attention appropriately filters out the irrelevant information. Experienced meditators have shown an increased ability to tune down the “noise,” in the form of extraneous information so that they can perceive more “signal,” the object they intend to pay attention to.[1] In other words, meditation practice enhances your ability to avoid distractions. You’re no longer a pawn in the Attention Economy!

 

2.    Sustained Attention involves maintaining constant attention toward an object, also known as vigilance. If Selective Attention is strength, Sustained Attention is your endurance. 

 

The problem is that attention is normally an unconscious mental faculty. When you encounter something novel, like a stick that could be a snake, the reticular activating system (RAS) in your most primitive Downstairs Brain alerts your Upstairs Brain to something that might be of interest. Our brains evolved such that the RAS gets habituated to an object of attention that it no longer deems interesting, allowing the mind to then wander off toward the next useful item. In other words, your RAS gets bored and begins to filter out redundant information. This habituation process explains why you can’t stay interested in one object for long before craving something new (which can give you a hit of dopamine).

 

Studies have confirmed that meditation trains your ability to not get habituated to an object of meditation, gaining consistent non-waining vigilance.[2]

 

As we train our attention to stabilize it becomes clear that nothing is inherently boring. Rather, boredom is simply habituation due to a lack of sustained attentional strength. When you develop single-pointed attention, whatever your attention rests on can become interesting.

In meditation, you will train both Selective and Sustained Attention in order to cultivate what’s called “concentrative absorption” on the object of meditation, a very enjoyable state.

 Footnotes:

[1] Davidson, Goleman; Altered Traits, p. 130, Richie’s dissertation research

[2] Elena Antonova et al., "More meditation, less habituation? The effect of mindfulness practice on the acoustic startle reflex," PLoS One 10.5 (2015): e0123512.

 

Liam McClintockComment