Without training, most humans are quite bad at paying attention.
So, do you want to prove this to yourself?
All you need to do is sit quietly in a public space somewhere and observe. Once you’re comfy, look around and ask yourself the following questions:
– How many people sit down and immediately whip out their smartphones?
– When one person is talking, how long is it before the other breaks eye contact?
– How many parents are ignoring their kids? Is anyone ignoring their spouse?
(It’s an enjoyable, not to mention at times funny, experiment.)
If you want some empirical proof, here it is.
According to a Microsoft study, the average human being has an attention span of eight seconds. That’s right, a mere eight seconds. Per the same study, this is four seconds less than the average span just two decades ago.
In a survey of mobile device users, 77 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 24 answered “yes” to the statement, “When nothing else is occupying my mind, the first thing I do is reach for my phone.”
In fact, just 10 percent of those aged 65 and older responded in the affirmative.
Even worse, a weak focus wreaks havoc on our emotions. When attention is choppy, our mental states often respond in kind.
This is where the systematic training of focused attention can help. In fact, working to improve your concentration just slightly can significantly improve the quality of life.
A quick personal story (Please forgive the first-person narration)
The writer knows the sometimes devastating effects of underdeveloped attention because I’ve lived it.
In the third grade, my teacher insisted on placing me into special education. She never told me why. I earned good grades, so I thought she was doling out some form of punishment. It turned out that I wasn’t concentrating during class. I’d find out later that these events were a source of trauma.
Later in life, I found that I couldn’t concentrate under pressure. I failed important exams at university and developed intense feelings of inadequacy and a fierce, deep-seated fear of failure. No matter what I achieved academically, these feelings of inferiority remained.
Eventually, I got tired of this undercurrent of distraction and taught myself how to pay attention through meditation and other means.
(End of story!)
Stories such as mine as not uncommon.
Perhaps you can relate.
Here are a couple of questions for you:
1) How many times have you been told to “Pay attention!”?
2) How many times have you been taught how to pay attention?
We insist that people pay attention without knowing how!
But once you’ve built that “attentional muscle,” you will see drastic improvements in your life.
In this article, our focus is on how an attentive mind regulates emotion, and how trained attention can get rid of negative mental and emotional states.
Other topics up for discussion include:
1) Why attention matters
2) How attention works (in the brain)
3) How attention regulates emotion
4) How to train your attention
Let’s do this!
1: Why Attention Matters
“This supple tool [attention] embeds within countless mental operations … comprehension, memory, learning, sensing how we feel and why reading emotions in other people, and interacting [with others] …”~ Daniel Goleman, (Source)
How well you comprehend these words is heavily dependent on your ability to pay attention. While you may not be all that interested in what the writer has to say (can’t say I blame you), it’s nonetheless valuable to understand the impact that attention has on your life.
The truth is that attention impacts pretty much everything. Indeed, your relationships, productivity, and even the ability to enjoy yourself are influenced by how well or poorly you select and sustain attention to internal and external conditions.
Executive attention, defined as the “ability to attend to individual objects, people, and spatial locations within our complex and varied sensory environment,” is crucial to cognition. Our capacity to pay attention also influences how we learn and take in information.
If you have children, consider how their attentional skills impact not only their academic achievement but also their social development. In other words, their happiness.
According to a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), executive attention develops rapidly between the ages of 2 and 7 years. Moreover, “problems with this function … [are] observed in children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”
It is crucial that children, during their early years, are placed in environments and taught in ways that are conducive to brain development.
Neuroscience is quite clear about the ramifications of an underdeveloped attention span. Poor attentional skills correlate highly with low levels of self-awareness and self-regulation (“self-control”).
2: How Attention Works
“We get people to become aware of how they use attention – which is always poorly. Attention is now the number-one issue on the minds of our clients.” ~ Tony Schwartz,
The word ‘attention’ is multifaceted and includes:
Selective attention (i.e., focus or focused attention): The ability to focusing on a particular object, topic, or situation while simultaneously ignoring potential distractions.
Sustained attention (i.e., concentration): The ability to focus on a specific activity over a prolonged period.
Divided attention: The ability to pay simultaneous attention to different information sources to complete a task (e.g., a research paper, working on the computer, etc.)
Voluntary, “top-down” attention is a function of the executive control circuitry within the brain’s neocortex, which works in tandem with other executive areas of the brain. Per neuroscientists, these prefrontal regions of the mind “tussle” with potential distractors stemming from the more archaic brain areas.
Dr. Goleman explains the neurobiology of attention as follows:
“Trying to focus on one thing and ignore everything else represent a conflict of sorts for the brain. The mediator … is the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) … To home in on a focus of attention, the ACC taps the prefrontal areas for cognitive control; they squelch the distracting circuits and amplify those for full focus.”
3: How Attention Regulates Emotion
“The capacity to remain with your attention open in a panoramic awareness lets you attend with equanimity, without getting caught in a bottom-up capture that ensnares the mind in judging and reactivity, whether negative or positive.” ~ Richard Davidson, Ph.D. (Source)
In the above quote, Richard Davidson is referring to open awareness, wherein individuals pay attention to their own thoughts and feelings and those of others. Open awareness is “top-down” attention that’s used to attend to the “bottom-up,” emotional mind.
Scientists often utter the terms “top-down” and “bottom-up” when describing attention. In simple terms, our brain consists of two semi-independent, separate mental systems.
The “bottom-up” system, which possesses massive computing power, operates silently outside of conscious awareness. The “top-down” system is voluntary, occurring in the cortex and notifying the subcortical (“bottom-up”) regions of its activity.
One benefit of training the attention that is of inestimable value is the skill of meta-awareness. Goleman defines meta-awareness as “the ability to track where our attention goes.” Meta-awareness signals to the top-down system that Facebook or YouTube have ensnared us – and gets us back on-task.
Meta-awareness is the central tenet of mindfulness.
While many of us associate mindfulness with paying moment-to-moment attention to the external environment, it’s more accurately a continuous internal monitoring. What is the effect of this inner observation of thoughts and emotions? Emotional detachment, clearer thinking, and not getting frazzled by our wayward impulses.
This capacity for meta-awareness and other qualities of mindfulness is only possible when attention is continuous and robust. Here’s the take of Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR:
“Concentration [stable attention] is a cornerstone of mindfulness practice. Your mindfulness will only be as robust as the capacity of your mind to be calm and stable.”
4: How to Train Your Attention
“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” ~Alexander Graham Bell
Up until about the 1970s, most scientists assumed that attention was involuntary. We now know that this is grossly untrue. We can proactively train our attention – and reap the immense benefits. Here’s an easy 3-step plan to get you started.
Step 1: Stop multitasking
“Understanding the hidden costs of multitasking may help people…above all, but avoiding multitasking, especially with complex tasks.” ~ The American Psychological Association
But just as any good doctor will first focus on the preventable before detailing the treatment regimen, so it goes with training attention. To this end, you should first cease multitasking as much as possible. (Some jobs do require multitasking, which should be the sole exception.)
Scientists who have rigorously studied multitasking all say pretty much the same thing: it doesn’t work. The underlying network of the human brain isn’t conducive to performing two tasks simultaneously or rapidly switching jobs.
Step 2: Practice mindfulness meditation
There’s a reason that companies like Google, Apple, and Nike offer their employees mindfulness training. It’s because it’s irreplaceable for bolstering your attentional skills (in addition to a multitude of other benefits.)
Abundant research shows that the types of attention trained in mindfulness meditation are alerting, orienting, and executive attention. Alerting is orienting and remaining attentive to the surroundings. On the other hand, orienting is directed attention or focusing on a single stimulus.
Step 3: Relax
Yes. Before you can learn to sustain attention, you must first learn to relax. So relax your body and mind. Let go.
Perhaps the number one reason why people are unable to remain attentive is that they’re always tense and constricted. Trying to pay attention in this state is called “unskillful attention,” and it will quickly drain your energy.
The solution is rather simple: whenever you notice a buildup of mental or physical tension, release it. Continually counteract the agitation of your mind through relaxation, not constriction.