The Gift of Mindful Attention


Photo by Na Inho

The practices of mindfulness and meditation have been correlated in the research with a number of enhancements in executive functioning. Executive functions are cognitive abilities that control our behavior. They include mental faculties such as attention, cognitive flexibility, working memory, planning & organization, initiation and impulse control, emotional regulation, and self-monitoring. In this blog post I would like to specifically discuss the ways in which mindfulness impacts our ability to pay attention.

Research indicates mindfulness and meditation can help us allocate cognitive resources more efficiently. Sustained attention in particular appears to be enhanced in those who practice. Selective attention may also be positively impacted. An example of this is the attentional blink task, which reveals a phenomenon in which humans fail to detect a stimulus when it’s presented between 200 and 500 milliseconds after another stimulus. A study involving this task found that after participating in a standardized 8-week meditation program, people had a more balanced distribution of attentional resources towards visually presented emotional information.

A growing number of studies are indicating that mindfulness training can improve attention even among people diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Interestingly, researchers have also discovered that we tend to be happier when our minds are grounded firmly in the present moment and that our happiness decreases the more our minds wander aimlessly.

Attention, or directed mental energy, is a precious resource – perhaps even more in the “information age“. There are so many compelling things competing for our awareness. It’s easy to imagine how this ability to harness and steer our cognitive resources where they are needed most, for as long as they are needed, is essential for survival and helps us to thrive. These skills may even be essential to living a meaningful life.

Purposeful attention requires many interrelated skills. We must be capable of generating the appropriate level of alertness for a situation, being neither dull nor hypervigilant. We have to decide where to place our focus, deciding what is most relevant or important among a field of distractors. Finally, we need to determine how long our attention is required there and be able to nimbly shift focus from stimulus to stimulus as circumstances require. Harnessing attention takes effort and is complicated work.

Self-monitoring, or attention to our own inner experience and how we are interacting with the outside world, is important to our relationships and to performing tasks to completion. Are we aware of our emotions and how they impact our behavior? What are the consequences of our actions? Without awareness of our emotions we cannot effectively regulate them. Without the ability to sustain attention long enough to monitor steps taken toward our goals and notice the outcomes of our actions, we can’t effectively learn and adapt.

The cost of allowing our attention to be consistently hijacked is high. Many of society’s most pressing problems come from a lack of awareness. Unharnessed attention causes us to miss important information. This limits our ability to make informed choices and learn from experience. Mindfulness practice allows us to be awake in the world, aware of inner and outer moment by moment experience, intentional about our interactions with our environment and other beings, and choiceful about our responses.

Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers, what softened
sound from outside fills the air?
Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now? Are you waiting
for time to show you some better thoughts?
When you turn around, starting here, lift this
new glimpse that you found; carry into evening
all that you want from this day. This interval you spent
reading or hearing this, keep it for life–
What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

William Stafford, You Reading This, Be Ready


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