Mindfulness is a powerful practice for harnessing your attention and directing it in intentional ways that change your brain and help you develop new habits for living a happier life. Understanding the relationship between mindful attention and changing your brain is empowering. So I’d like to talk about five aspects of the mind-brain relationship and how you can harness your attention to change and improve your life.
1. Negative Bias
There is a negative bias built into your brain. Sub-cortical areas of your brain, primarily in the reptilian and limbic parts of your brain are designed through evolution to keep you safe and free of danger.When danger is near-by, these parts of your brain are triggered, causing a cascade of physiological reactions in your body that put you into a state of hyper-vigilance. This is not trival because if you make a mistake at this level, you just become part of the food chain.
Naturally, this part of your brain is very reactive, and is easily triggered, not only by danger but by many other unpleasant and difficult situations as well. As a result you tend to dwell on and remember painful experiences more than pleasant ones. That is, negative experiences carry more weight in your brain and in your subjective experience.
Understanding that this is how your brain has been designed through evolution, you can develop strategies for regulating and modifying this reactive, negative valence that resides in your brain.
2. Memory is Not Fixed
Memory is malleable and easily changed. Memory is selective. You don’t remember everything about an experience because your brain couldn’t store all of that information, so you select aspects of the experience to remember. Since you have this negative bias built into your brain, you will often select more painful experiences to remember than pleasant ones.
And it gets more complicated because your brain has different kinds of memory. Your brain has both explicit and implicit memory. Your explicit memory gets integrated and stored through the hippo-campus in your limbic brain. This part of your brain helps you store experience and place it in a temporal, narrative context that makes sense to you.
If you have a traumatic experience the hippo-campus in your brain shuts down so that other resources in your brain can deal with the trauma. This means that painful experience does not get integrated into explicit memory but resides in your implicit memory which, because it’s not integrated in a temporal, narrative way, is always experienced as if it’s taking place right now. This is why soldiers who have PTSD constantly re-experience the trauma of their war experiences as if they’re happening in the present moment.
Painful and difficult memories often reside in implicit memory and one important way we can heal this painful experience is by learning to re-integrate implicit memory into the temporal context of explicit memory.
So this means that when you have a difficult experience, it can hang around in implicit memory and the negative associations you have of that memory hang around too. That’s the bad news. The good news is that you have the power to change that. Instead accepting your memory and your experience as a fixed fact, you can change the associations you have with a particular memory.
So for example, let’s say you recall a painful experience of being fired from your job. Each time you remember that episode, you feel a heavy weight in your chest and you feel terrible. You feel like a loser and a failure. If you are practicing mindfulness with this experience, you can first appreciate, with some kindness and empathy that this is a difficult memory for you. But you also know it’s not fixed, so that means you could reframe it. Instead of just letting the memory take you over, you could actively recall some person in your life that you love. And the memory of them brings a calm confidence into your subjective experience. And since you’ve brought up this memory in close conjunction with the painful one, they are now both connected together in your brain. If you do this enough times, in the future when you bring up that memory of losing your job, it will not have the same negative weight it had before. Through the power of your own intention and attention you’ve altered and modified that painful memory into one that is much less painful.
4. Plasticity and Focused Attention
So you can change your brain through the quality of your attention. Your brain is plastic but only in certain ways. You are much more likely to be able to rewire a part of your brain though focused attention.
Let’s take an example. You want to learn to play the violin and you practice many hours each day. If you do this practice with focused attention you will change an area in your brain that corresponds to your left fingers, and that area will become larger and more developed as a result of your practicing with focused attention. But if you do the same amount of musical practice, but watch T.V. at the same time you will not change the brain in the same way, because the quality of your attention has been divided and distracted.
5. Two Kinds of Attention
As I teach mindfulness, I differentiate between two kinds of attention. In the Buddhist tradition we refer to these as Shamatha and Vipassana mindfulness practices. There is much we could say about these, but just to keep it simple, we could refer to these as one-pointed attention and open awareness. The practice of one-pointed attention allows you to land on one spot with precision. But there is also a further development in mindfulness practice that brings a broader, more open awareness. This awareness is relational, empathic and spacious. It is contextual.
Since we’re talking about mindfulness here in terms of neuroscience, what’s really interesting is that these two kinds of attention also seem to be built into our brains. Think about it. We have two hemispheres in our brain and so do most living creatures that have brains. Why would evolution do this? You’d imagine that over time, evolution would have grown our brains into one unified whole brain, but it didn’t. So there must a reason evolution designed our brains to have two sides.
If you observe robins hunting for worms, or a sparrow picking up seeds from the ground, you may notice that they often tilt their heads. They may be using their right eye, which is connected to the left side of their brain for finding the worm or the seed amidst a vast array of textures, earth, pebbles and other objects that aren’t food. As they’ve got their right eye pointing down towards the ground, their left eye, which is connected to the right side, is simultaneously pointing up towards the sky, scanning the horizon for danger and predators. Now you might begin to understand why evolution designed our brains this way. It seems that our brains are designed so that we can have these two kinds of attention at the same time. They both have different functions and they’re both important.
So it seems that our left brain is designed to focus, to deal with what is predictable and what it knows. Whereas the right brain is designed to read the wholeness of the situation, to take in the gestalt and the context, to see something new or different and put it together. These are two different functions built into our brains. The left brain seems to prefer abstract and linear operations, and the right brain is more metaphorical, and connected to our body and our emotions.
When talking about this, it’s easy to over simplify. A part of the brain can be damaged, and the other side can often take over that function. So our brains are indeed, plastic and amazingly flexible up to a point.
It wasn’t so long ago that it was an unquestionable dogma in the neuroscience community that mind was nothing but the physical brain. And I suppose there are still many neuro-scientists that embrace this materialistic philosophy. But the moral implications of this belief for free will, choice and intention are depressing and unacceptable to anyone who has experienced the power of mindfulness. We are indeed, fortunate that within the last 10 to 15 years, some brave and stubborn scientist have done enough clinical work to establish the efficacy of mindful attention for our happiness and well-being.
by Robert Althouse ©2014