What is ‘paying attention’?

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Do you think attention is the same as mindfulness? I don’t. I think attention is something more specific than mindfulness.

What’s more, attention can actually alter the structure of your brain.

This was indicated in a scientific study conducted with monkeys. All the monkeys were subjected to the same two kinds of physical stimuli, which were concurrent — they heard sound through headphones, and their fingers were in an apparatus that caused the fingers to tap. All the monkeys were listening and tapping for 100 minutes each day, for six weeks.

The sound and the tapping were not synchronized, however. Imagine yourself reading a book in a noisy coffee shop. You can hear conversations all around you, and there’s probably music too. If you’re really absorbing what you are reading, then you must be shutting out the sounds, which are unrelated to your text. If not shutting them out completely, at least you have downgraded them. You have relegated them to the background.

Half of the monkeys were rewarded with tasty juice if they made a sign when the rhythm of the sound changed. The other half were rewarded the same way, but only if they made a sign when the rhythm of their tapping motion changed. The two halves of the group kept the same roles for the six-week test, so presumably the listeners got better at recognizing the change in sound rhythm, and the feelers got better at noticing the change in motion rhythm.

In this way, with the yummy reward for doing the right thing, all the monkeys had an incentive to pay attention. But half of them were paying attention to sound, while the other half were paying attention to the motion of the finger apparatus.

The researchers had scanned all the monkeys’ brains before the test. After the test, they scanned the monkeys’ brains again.

The difference between the two groups of monkeys reflected the effect of paying attention: In the group that listened for rhythm changes, the area of the auditory cortex had increased. In the other group (which had heard all the same sounds, at the same volume, for the same length of time), there was no change in the auditory cortex. But in those monkeys, who had been rewarded for catching a change in the rhythm of their fingers’ movement, the area of the somatosensory cortex had increased. In the other monkeys, there was no change in that region of the brain. Wah!

I read about this experiment in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, by science journalist Sharon Begley (pages 156 – 160). Begley attended a conference at which a group of neuroscientists presented some of the latest findings about the brain to the Dalai Lama; later she wrote this book, with additional reporting, based on those presentations. It’s highly readable and altogether fascinating!

Breathe.

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