Posts Tagged ‘Joshua Grant’

Focus

February 29, 2020

Be true to the thought of the moment and avoid distraction. Other than continuing to exert yourself, enter into nothing else, but go to the extent of living single thought by single thought.”

—Yamamoto Tsunetomo (c. 1710)

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Rowan Hooper titled Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of our Capacity. Michael Easterman is a cofounder of the Boston Attention and Learning Lab at Boston University. He says, “The science shows that when people are motivated, either intrinsically, i.e., they love it; or extrinsically, i.e., they will get a prize, they’re better able to maintain consistent brain activity, and maintain readiness for the readiness for the unexpected.” Motivation means this consistency doesn’t fall off over time.

In one experiment, participants were shown a random sequence of photographs of cities and mountain scenes, one every 800 milliseconds, while in an fMRI brain scanner. They needed to press a button whenever they saw a city scene (which occurred 90% of the time) and avoid pressing the button when a mountain scene appeared (the remaining 10%). Sometimes the trials were rewarded, In these cases participants earned 1 cent for each city scene they responded to, and 10 cents for not responding to a mountain scene. They were also penalized for getting it wrong. Other trials had no reward or penalty. The results of their brain activity showed that without the motivation of reward, the participants acted as “cognitive misers”: they didn’t bother engaging the brain’s attentional resources until their performance had dipped. [‘cognitive miser] is a term that has been used many times in this blog; enter “cognitive miser” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com to see how many times and where] Until, in other words, they had dropped out of the zone. When they were motivated by reward, however, the participants were “cognitive investors,” happy to engage their brain and concentrate in order to stay focused on the task.

In 2015, Yi-Yuan Tang, Michael Posner at the University of Oregon, and Britta Holzel at the Technical University of Munich published a review of the evidence in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. They concluded that more than twenty years of research into meditation supports the idea that it is beneficial for physical and mental health, and that it improves cognitive performance. Basically, it improves brain power.

Joshua Grant at the University of Montreal scanned the brains of Zen practioners who had racked up more than a thousand hours of practice. These seasoned meditators show less activity in a few areas of the the brain than non meditators: in the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. These are areas are respectively concerned with (among other things) awareness of pain, the processing of emotions such as fear, and memory storage. But some parts of the brain process pain were thicker in the meditators. There is no contradiction here: meditators process the pain but let it bother them less.

Meditative practice leads to changes in the structure of the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the insula, a deep fold in the cerebral cortex, two areas of the brain known to be key to our ability to focus attention, both grow in people who meditate. These regions, along with parts of the front midline of the brain called the anterior cingulate gyrus, are activated during cognitive tasks. For example, the ACC aids in the maintenance of focus by preventing other systems of the brain from barging in and demanding attention. Hooper writes, “When we are performing tasks that have been practiced over and over such as adjusting the sails on a trimaran or changing gears in a racing car, the autonomic nervous system plays a big part in carrying them out. That’s the part of the nervous system that acts automatically, performing functions such as regulating the heart rate and digestion. When we are in an effortless state of flow this occurs below the level of conscious awareness, and the ACC and the insula together help the autonomic nervous system achieve it.

There is a very large number of posts on meditation in the healthy memory blog. Just enter “meditation” into the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com. It might be a good idea to first enter “relaxation response” as the relaxation response provides the entry into more advanced meditation techniques.