Everything I read points to the need for attention for our brains to develop new neurons and synapses, and I’ve been wondering about awareness and attention. Mindfulness practice is an awareness and attention practice where we build our capacity to pay attention by stopping our activity and focusing on our direct and immediate experience.
We focus on our breath and sensations in the body as a starting point. We practice listening, noting what feels good or bad or neutral. Then we expand our focus to include our thoughts, emotions, and reactions. Over time we learn to increase our concentration, and our ability to pay attention improves. We remember where we left the car in the parking lot. We can track and attend to multiple people and actions, places and directions, with greater clarity and recall.
The brain develops more plasticity if we are attentive, and developing new neurons and dendrites happens when we are paying attention. If we are learning a new physical activity or are training to improve our physical well being, and our minds are drifting, our scatteredness limits our ability to master a new skill. If we are learning a new piece of software as we talk on the telephone, our brains won’t absorb and expand their ability to gain facility with the application that we are trying to learn. The interconnections between the neurons as well as new neurons won’t form as completely or as readily.
It takes practice to pay attention. Sometimes in a long, boring meeting, we’d rather drift off than be present. It’s feels easier and more comfortable than really listening. However, when we work together, listening attentively sparks communication between us and simultaneously within our neural networks in our brains. Our mirror neurons help our social interactions and we are able to resonate with each other as we think and work together.
Each of us makes associations between what is happening right now and previous experiences. We conceptualize information in convergence zones of the brain where we create a global memory of the situation that is independent from the immediacy of the moment. This enables us to find the patterns as we compare and contrast, bringing valuable memories and experiences into play. We can learn from the past and adapt to the new situation, according to Joseph LeDoux, who wrote The Synaptic Self in 2002.
How our brains connect things and find patterns as we talk and work together is mysterious, unconscious, and very rapid. Our ability to pay attention enables us to deepen our relationships because we are right there, connecting with each other with focused awareness. Paying attention takes practice.
Here are five easy steps to improve attention.
1. Become aware of what your mind is doing. Where are you? How do you feel? What are your thoughts?
2. Feel your breath in your body.
3. Feel your breath in your body.
4. Listen and look. What are you hearing? What are you seeing?
5. Start at #1 and repeat as long as you can.
A wonderful meditation teacher I studied with used to say, “Don’t take my word for it. Try it and see how it works.”