Exercises for Building Attention

November 27, 2007 at 10:43 am | Posted in Attention Management, interruption science | 5 Comments

Is attention a muscle that can be developed beyond what you’re given, like biceps or abs? A ScienceDaily article “Meditation May Fine-tune Control Over Attention” describes how research has shown attention to be improvable (not fixed) and that meditation can be to attention what a set of dumbbells is to biceps.

a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests that attention does not have a fixed capacity – and that it can be improved by directed mental training, such as meditation.

It goes on to describe the study:

Volunteers were asked to look for target numbers that were mixed into a series of distracting letters and quickly flashed on a screen. As subjects performed the task, their brain activity was recorded with electrodes placed on the scalp. In some cases, two target numbers appeared in the series less than one-half second apart – close enough to fall within the typical attentional blink window.

The research group found that three months of rigorous training in Vipassana meditation improved people’s ability to detect a second target within the half-second time window. In addition, though the ability to see the first target did not change, the mental training reduced the amount of brain activity associated with seeing the first target. “The decrease [of brain activity associated with the first target] strongly predicted the accuracy of their ability to detect the second target,” Davidson says.

The results of the study show that devoting fewer neural resources to the first target leaves enough left over to attend to another target that follows shortly after it, he says.

Because the subjects were not meditating during the test, their improvement suggests that prior training can cause lasting changes in how people allocate their mental resources. “Their previous practice of meditation is influencing their performance on this task,” Davidson says. “The conventional view is that attentional resources are limited. This shows that attention capabilities can be enhanced through learning.”

Seeing and mentally processing something takes time and effort, says psychology and psychiatry professor Richard Davidson of the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the Waisman Center. Because a person has a finite amount of brainpower, paying close attention to one thing may mean the tradeoff of missing something that follows shortly thereafter. For example, when two visual signals are shown a half-second apart, people miss the second one much of the time.

“The attention momentarily goes off-line,” Davidson says. “Your attention gets stuck on the first target, then you miss the second one.” This effect is called “attentional blink,” as when you blink your eyes, you are briefly unaware of visual signals.

But, he adds, the ability to occasionally catch the second signal suggests that this limitation is not strictly physical, but that it may be subject to some type of mental control.

A 2003 SceinceDaily article also mentioned this form of meditation as a way to “develop skills of focused attention”:

“Mindfulness meditation,” often recommended as an antidote to the stress and pain of chronic disease, is a practice designed to focus one’s attention intensely on the moment, noting thoughts and feelings as they occur but refraining from judging or acting on those thoughts and feelings. The intent is to deepen awareness of the present, develop skills of focused attention, and cultivate positive emotions such as compassion.

 I find just the idea that attention can be expanded to be fascinating.  I’ve seen a lot written about how make use of the attention one has (personal attention management tips, “go with the flow” stream processing, etc.), but most articles (including my own writings I believe!) start with the assumption that the amount of attention people has is fixed and the amount of things to pay attention to is rapidly growing.  This is behind the “attention economy” theory (Davenport) which says economy is the allocation of scare resources and therefore attention can be thought of as an economy.  Granted, I doubt any amount of meditation would help one to absorb a few hundred emails a day, follow a few hundred blogs, process twitter “tweets”, and still get a real job done.  But it does challenge a fundamental assumption of attention management.

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