August 30, 2006
Attention Equals A Bigger Brain
For the last few weeks I have been highlighting the power of attention to change your lives. For the skeptical I thought I would bring to your attention research done by Harvard, Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"People who meditate grow bigger brains than those who don't," the researchers conclude, and they have found the first evidence that "meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Certain parts of the brain showed increased thickness, especially in those areas that deal with attention and processing sensory data.
Now that is exactly what I have been detailing for the last month. Further, the good news for you older folks is that the brains of us elder statespeople show the most increase in size and implied capabilities when we utilize attention in the manner described in the article. The concept of neuroplasticity is key here because the study demonstrated that people who repeatedly used their minds in an attentive and focused way were the ones whose brain capacities increased the most: "In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice."
The way the study was set up was that they took 20 experienced meditators from all walks of life (not experts like Buddhist monks) and then they took about an equal number of non-meditators and they compared what happened when the two groups did their individual activities, i.e. the meditators meditated and the others simply spent the time in whatever way they wished.
Now there was no special ritual or chanting, but rather a simply Buddhist technique of mindfulness, as noted by the researchers: "The goal is to pay attention to sensory experience, rather than to your thoughts about the sensory experience," Lazar explains. "For example, if you suddenly hear a noise, you just listen to it rather than thinking about it. If your leg falls asleep, you just notice the physical sensations. If nothing is there, you pay attention to your breathing." Successful meditators get used to not thinking or elaborating things in their mind."
The goal in this type of meditation is simply to allow yourself to be aware of yourself, your surroundings without becoming connected to anything that comes up in your mind, body and imagination while that is going on. You don't have to try to actively get rid of the thoughts and sensations, but simply be comfortable noticing that they are there without getting caught up in the content or context of their appearance. This is the simplest type of meditation, but as one of the chief meditators noted, it made a big difference in her life.
"Lazar took up meditation about 10 years ago and now practices insight meditation about three times a week. At first she was not sure it would work. But 'I have definitely experienced beneficial changes," she says. 'It reduces stress [and] increases my clarity of thought and my tolerance for staying focused in difficult situations.'"
With such evidence as this piling up on behalf of using your mind in a focused way on a regular basis, you would do well to consider learning how to practice meditation. There are groups all over the place, and indeed a Buddhist meditation group has appeared in my town of Hampton Bays. Try it out and let me know how it goes.
Frank Mosca Ph.D. is a licensed mental health counselor, life and marital coach with a practice in Hampton Bays and Garden City. Inquire about his putting minds in motion seminars at firstname.lastname@example.org.