The Commerce of Paying Attention

… this is where mindfulness comes in: the practice of nonjudgmental awareness to the present moment. We can have an understanding of how our brains operate and see the automatic reactivity for what it is. When we do this, we are present and can make a choice to pay attention differently and rewire our brains.

– ELISHA GOLDSTEIN, PH.D.

neurons

In our last installment of this “Knowing the Machine” series, we demonstrated how the emotional-feeling circuitry of the human machine works together to eventually rob us novel experiences.  The only way out of that feedback loop is to choose to pay attention to something other than our initial programmatic responses. This article will focus on the transformative power of attention paid.

The man-machine basically runs the show. So It does a lot, while you do relatively little. However, (the good news) you can influence what you pay attention to. We should look closely at why this is important, because the apparent obviousness of the fact that attention can be willfully focused tends to gloss over the profundity of the act, and more importantly – - its consequences for creative evolution. To unpack attention’s role in deep transformation, it is helpful to know a bit about neurology and the formation and solidification of neural networks, because these structures are the material basis for the programmatic behavior that we wish to transcend, and also the mindset, conscious action, and emotional transparency that is cultivated in waking up.

Attention is essentially a combination of desire and focused awareness, and it is really the key to understanding how the man-machine develops. The human being comes into the world as the embodiment of a short list of questions, the foremost of which are,  “Is it safe here?”, and “Who’s on my side”. The basic sensory map that lies deep within the human brain, itself the source of our iron-clad identification with the body as our identity,  is the primary product of an unbelievably ancient,  innate kind of  focus on the objects with which bodies enter into a relationship.  As the  embodiment of these questions, we are  – - from the beginning – - an organic form of focused attention seeking answers to the problems that arise from the need to reproduce, to live amongst others, and to avoid injury.

However, as we have pointed out repeatedly, “you” do not generally focus “your” attention, the emotional reactions which serve as the often repeated content of the man-machine’s memory take care of that job without fail. The man machine does not know “you”, and when attention is generated unconsciously by its programming, “you” do not evolve. Why?

The human brain is essentially made up of structures called neurons, and these cells form connections with one another in a dance that is choreographed by genetic orders and experience. Each neuron is capable of forming multiple connections with other neurons, and these in turn get organized into larger groups called neural nets. The neural net is the essential material structure organizing and supporting behavioral possibilities. So in essence, there is a specific set of neural nets that are active whenever  you are running, walking, eating, having sex, seeing another human, thinking about getting soft around the middle as you age, feeling scared of the dark, or happy that you got a raise at work.  The more the nets are used, the stronger they get. The stronger they get, the more likely it is that you’ll manifest the behaviors, thoughts and feelings that solidified them in the first place. So it goes without saying that any true change in human character must be accompanied by a modification in our neurology.  Luckily, for those of us interested in creative evolution, the brain is capable of something that neurologists call “plasticity”, or the ability to rewire its existing structure to some degree. This is where it gets interesting, because new research suggests that the sine qua non of this kind of change is willfully focused attention (read the italics twice).

Actually the brain is changing all the time. In the amount of time that it has taken for you to read these words, some modification in the centers that process visual stimuli and those that comprehend language has taken place. So the brain is basically plastic in its nature. Why then is it so hard to change a habit or a perspective on life that we know does not serve creative evolution?

Studies by neuro-scientists like Edward Taube, Michael Merzenich, Jefferey Schwatz, V.S. Ramachandran and many others have uncovered two broad categories of neuro-plasticity, one which follows the serious privation of sensory input, and another that follows a tremendous increase in sensory input called use dependent cortical reorganization. In the case of privation, the loss of an arm leaves the cortical real estate that represented it completely silent of sensory input. Phantom limb syndrome, in which pain or itching is felt in a missing appendage, is a manifestation of the brain being unable to assess the state in that limb because of its external sensory inputs having fallen silent. Interestingly enough, the patch of real estate formerly allocated for the missing arm is soon invaded by inputs from adjacent tissue, say a patch that is allocated for the right cheek, and this results in the wild ability of phantom limb sufferers to actually scratch the missing arm by touching their faces!

Conversely, in the case of a syndrome called “Focal Hand Dystonia”, pianists who practice complicated rhythms and patterns with their hands for years at a time sometimes lose the ability to control their hands, specifically to move the fingers independently of one another. In this case, the massive amount of sensory input generated through conscious practice produces dense neural connections between areas that represent distinct fingers, and the eventual overcrowding effectively renders the representation of formerly distinct fingers into a mass of immovable confusion.

But perhaps the most unusual thing emerging from research in the area of use dependent cortical reorganization is this: it is not primarily an increase in sensory input that effectively drives neuro-plastic change, but whether or not we attend to that input as it is processed. One fascinating study illustrates this well. In 1995, Dr. Alvaro Pascual Leone had a group of volunteers practice a five finger piano exercise, expecting to see changes in their neurology as a result of the repetitions. To make things interesting, he also had a control group memorize the same finger sequence and practice it mentally. As expected, the group that did the actual physical practice showed remodeling in the motor cortex, but the same changes were discovered in the group who practiced mentally – - – and to the same degree. So merely visualizing movement produced the same neurological changes as actual, repetitive movement. After studies like this, more researchers began to look into the role of attention in modifying neural circuitry with studies involving patients suffering from stubborn maladies like Tourette’s syndrome, OCD, and Dyslexia. Their findings seem to confirm the paramount necessity of conscious focus for lasting change.  As Dr. Jeffery Schwartz concludes: “physical changes in the brain depend for their creation on a mental state in the mind – - the state called attention. Paying attention matters. It matters not only for the size of the brain’s representation of this or that part of the body’s surface, of this or that muscle. It matters for the the dynamic structure of the very circuits of the brain and the brain’s ability to remake itself.” (Schwartz, 224)

What does this mean for Creative Evolution? It means the cost of evolving creatively, as opposed to mechanically (which amounts to little real change at all), is calculated in attention paid. So in classic guru-speak, we would answer the question, “Why can’t I make the changes I want in my life?” with still more questions — What are you paying attention to?  What dominates the content of your awareness in waking life? Are you mostly invested in mechanical reactions to the world — reactions that arise from the emotional-feeling feedback loop programmed by biological imperatives and the psychological identity that has arisen as their press secretary.

Or perhaps you question the first thought that pops into your head as a matter of habit now.  Perhaps you explore new patterns of movement every chance you get. Maybe you even practice speaking your heart in difficult situations, amidst the fear that what you say threatens your standing in a particular group . . . what if it all really is up to you?

We of course contend that it is, and if we’re right, your attention is the only thing that really matters in fulfilling your potential as a human being.  That potential is a complete and accurate reflection of your Source, unimpeded by the personal trappings of biological imperatives — in short, your potential is trans-personal expression.

To wrap this “Knowing the Machine” series up, we will stress that attention must be evenly distributed amongst the various aspects of the human being to facilitate balanced development.  Take St. Francis of Assisi, for example: Certainly a trans-personal expression of his Source in many ways. However, he was prone to asceticism and died in his early forties. We would argue he neglected his physical aspect, and perhaps if he hadn’t he would have lived much longer and shared more of his wisdom with the world at large.  To insure we don’t fall into the same snare of imbalanced development, it is helpful to have a good map of our multidimensionality. With this kind of tool, we can check that attention is paid proportionally in each dimension. To define such a tool, our last article in this series presents our Integral Flow Chart.