Meditation Changes How and Where We Direct Our Attention

by Carrie Heeter, February 2, 2014

Wandering minds are distracted from the present moment by stream of consciousness narratives. Brain scans show that the default mode of resting attention in western society resembles a wandering mind. We habitually allow our experience of the present moment to be interrupted and superseded by thoughts and rumination about the past and future.

Adapted from Daniel Siegel’s Mindsight Institute Wheel of Awareness

Recent research shows that focusing attention on stream of consciousness narrative (NF) such as memory and reflective self-knowledge uses a separate neural pathway than focusing attention on sensory experience of the present moment (EF). According to neuropsychologist Norm Farb, there is a fundamental neural disconnect between these two distinct modes of self-awareness.

In theory, we can direct our attention to awareness of self across time or we can direct our attention to awareness of self in the present moment. They are separate abilities. In practice, most of us are not very good at directing our attention to the present moment.

Norm is a postdoc at the University of Toronto who studies the relationship between present-moment awareness and well-being. In a series of studies he compared fMRI brain scans of non-meditators with beginning meditators who recently completed an 8 week MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) course.

After 8 weeks of beginning Mindfulness Meditation training and practice, the new meditators developed greater capacity to disengage their narrative focus attentional pathway. They were also more skilled at engaging their experience focus attentional pathway (Faber et al., 2007).

He and his colleagues then examined the effects of Mindfulness Meditation training and practice on interoception attention (IA). IA is attention to breath and other internal bodily sensations. Here too, 8 weeks of meditation training and practice altered information processing in the brain.

Meditators had more control over their attention. They experienced less involuntary activation of their cognitive elaboration network (loose translation: less mind-wandering). They had stronger perceptual experiences. And they were able to better integrate internal and external perceptions. The researchers conclude that “perceptual acuity is a flexible capacity that can be improved” through training and practice.

Farb’s research offers evidence of experience-based attentional plasticity. When we practice focusing our attention on breath and internal bodily sensations through meditation, it changes our brain, strengthening the experiential attention neural pathway. Our ability to access that pathway is enhanced. Our ability to suppress unwanted stream of consciousness is enhanced. Perceptual experiences are heightened. And through practice, it gets easier to access these pathways and we integrate attention to internal experience into daily life.

Farb, Norman, Segal, Zindel, Mayberg, Helen, Bean, Jim, McKeon, Deborah, Fatima, Zainab, and Anderson, Adam (2007). Attending to the Present: Mindfulness Meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2(4): 313-322.

Farb, Norman, Segal, Zindel, and Anderson, Adam (2013). Mindfulness Meditation Training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1):15-26.