A Meditator’s Guide to the Neuroscience of Attention

Three insights from attentional neuroscience to improve your concentration in meditation.

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Note: By far the most important lesson about attention is that you need to learn to balance it with awareness – I’m writing this for an audience who I assume will already be familiar with this attention-awareness interplay that’s spelled out in the book The Mind Illuminated. If you aren’t, it will be much more beneficial to your meditation practice to get clear on that first. I have an upcoming post about this too, so you can look forward to that by approximately 2032, if I keep up my current rate of publishing. In the meantime you can read The Mind Illuminated, or this essay I wrote which describes it in some of the ‘In Practice’ boxes.

In any case, a stable attention and a trained awareness are mutually supportive, and my hope is that this essay will give some principles for effectively practicing stable attention.

Introduction

What is attention? How does it work? How do you use it to meditate good? What’s the deal with all the doors to public bathrooms opening inward so you have to touch the handle after you just washed your hands even though that guy who did not suit his moustache who just left before you didn’t?

This blog will address the first three of these questions.

It’s remarkably easy to under-utilise the full potential of our attention. Our brains don’t come with a user’s guide, and our intuitions about how to engage attention in an effective way are usually way off base. This can lead to meditation sessions which feel frustrating and unproductive. We’re trying to drive our cars around in first gear, and it doesn’t feel good.

Modern psychology and neuroscience have revealed some simple shifts to engage your attentional networks to make meditation easier, more effective, and more enjoyable without any extra effort – mercifully, in fact, with a lot less effort.

Part 1 – Novelty

“There is in the mind of man a strong love for slight changes in all things

Charles Darwin, 1871

In his observations of the extraordinary variation and rapid turnover rate of the plumage of male birds, Darwin speculated that novelty in colour, contrast, and patterning may have a powerful attention-grabbing effect on the females of the species, and thus serve as an advantage in sexual selection: 

It would even appear that mere novelty, or change for the sake of change, has sometimes acted like a charm on female birds, in the same manner as changes of fashion with us.

Image from sciencephoto.com

Novel or unexpected stimuli activates the ventral tegmental area in the brain – one of the main hubs of the dopamine system. This dopamine activation acts like a marker that says “Pay attention to this!” Research has shown that mere novelty is enough to engage attention, independently of the content or emotional salience of an image, and independently of any actual reward that it might predict(1,2). Gradually over a number of presentations, of course, the same stimuli will cease to elicit this activity; the novelty eventually wears off.

However, when advanced meditation practitioners are played a long series of monotonous sounds, they exhibit the same brainwave response to the twentieth as they did to the first; in other words, they did not seem to habituate to it(3). Similarly, people who had attended a 3-year meditation retreat showed less habituation of eye blinks in response to a loud, startling noise presented repeatedly.(4)

The advanced attentional skills of experienced meditators seems to protect them from habituating to novel stimuli. This tells us something interesting about the way attention develops in advanced meditators. In the words of Daniel Goleman and Richie Davidson in their book The Science of Meditation(5):

This attention training, we saw, might well enrich our lives, giving us the choice to reverse habituation by focusing on a deeply textured here and now, making “the old new again”’

Novelty: In Practice

The extraordinary attention of advanced meditators seems to piggyback on the brain’s preexisting bias towards novel stimuli. This outcome of advanced meditation practice may give us some insight into how to train attention effectively. The trick is to notice that no two moments of one’s meditation object are ever the same. There is a world of variation in the sensations arising even throughout a single breath, if we allow ourselves to stay open to it. Each new sensation is unexpected; you can never know what it will be until it arises.

As you learn to observe and appreciate its subtleties, you will be rewarded with a rich new perception of novelty – whether your meditation object is the breath, metta, or anything else. An architect may be fascinated by a subtle design quirk barely perceptible to the untrained; a climber may be enraptured by the crevices of a cliff face that you or I would barely glimpse before habituating to it; and an experienced meditator is able to watch the tingles and tremors of the breath for hours at a time with great enjoyment.

These two things quickly become enmeshed in a virtuous cycle, continuously reinforcing the other: learning to perceive the novelty of each new breath sensation, and increasing your capacity to bring greater attentional resources to bear on them.

You may find it a useful exercise to look for new dimensions of the meditation object within which to find new sources of novelty. For example, one may begin merely by mentally noting whether one is breathing in or out, but move on to observing where each begins and ends, their respective lengths, then beginning to notice details about the sensations of the breath; how they differ, whether they are stronger in one nostril or the other, more detail about precisely where the different sensations occur, and eventually even noting how one’s mind state changes with different breathing patterns. Whenever you begin to tire of your object, try looking for a new dimension of it to explore.

TL;DR Summary:
The brain is stimulated by novelty. Male birds use it to attract mates, and we can use it to develop our attentional skills. Tune into this bias; stay open for novel sensations, and learn to perceive the novelty of your meditation object in new dimensions.

Part 2 – Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation

Your autonomic nervous system has two branches; the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) orchestrates the well-known fight-or-flight response, and when your SNS takes charge, it insists that decisions need to be fast, which means they can’t be interrupted or delayed by lots of unnecessary cognitive processing.

To accomplish this, the SNS impairs the function of the prefrontal cortex – which is the part of your brain that deals with executive functions like planning, inhibiting impulses, and paying attention – and facilitates the function of the amygdala – your body’s Oh-Shit-A-Fucking-Lion-O-Meter, which plays a large role in stress responses.

Even mild stress can result in a rapid and behaviourally significant impairment of the prefrontal cortex(6), the front part of your brain responsible for a lot of higher-order reasoning, planning, self-control, and impulse inhibition. When stress shuts it down, decisions become more instinctive, influenced more by evolutionarily older (and arguably dumber) parts of the brain.

The opposing branch of your autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) inhibits the SNS, and orchestrates what is often called the “rest and relaxation response”. When the PNS is active, it’s basically saying “Alright, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger here, I feel safe and satisfied, so we can afford to invest energy into things like digestion, as well as get these executive functions online to ensure we make sensible long-term investments”.

The prefrontal cortex gets more glucose and oxygen sent its way, the amygdala quiets down, you get more self-control, and you feel more relaxed and happy.

One experiment measured the PNS activity of a group of participants, and then gave them an array of cognitive tasks to test their reaction time and attention skills. They found that those with a higher baseline PNS activity performed significantly better on a whole range of measures.

PNS activation is associated with better performance on measures of working memory, sustained attention, self-control, and other executive functions; these findings have been replicated many times(7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12). So how can we take advantage of this in practice to ensure that our nervous system is permitting us the full capacity of our attention?

Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation – In Practice

Relaxation, comfort, and feeling safe, activate your PNS(13), and so help to unlock the benefits mentioned above.

Remember those times when you have felt most absorbed in what you’ve been doing – recall the sense of ease, pleasure, and natural happiness. Wouldn’t it be impossible to get into that state of absorption if you were feeling tense or vexed? 

You can greatly improve the quality and ease of your meditation by taking a few minutes at the start of your sit to ensure that you’re as comfortable as possible, scan through your body and relax any areas of tension, and intentionally savour those pleasant sensations of comfort and relaxation (try this guided meditation from Michael Taft for some great instructions on this). I tend to do this until the point where I feel like I would be happy to just sit and enjoy these little pleasant relaxing sensations for the rest of the sit, and then I’ll start the meditation proper.

This is not only useful at the start of your sit; if you notice that your attention has wandered, relax fully before you do anything else. A relaxed and happy mind is a vastly more effective instrument for making corrections. 

For the type-A technique-freaks who read these essays: try not to let this feel too much like a technique. Before you do something you’re looking forward to like watching a good film, how often do you think to yourself of which technique to apply to squeeze the most enjoyment out of it? I hope the answer is never. This sort of analysis runs the risk of being rather counterproductive. The trick is simply learning to notice and be present for the many subtle pleasurable experiences that are already there to enjoy.

I have found that hindrances are most likely to bring tension to my brow and the muscles around my face and head, so I have got into the habit of relaxing those first – I gather from others that this is common, but verify it for yourself. Putting on a slight smile seems to very naturally help relax the other muscles of the face in a pleasant sort of way.

Make sure you’re not doing this…

To get into the practice of becoming absorbed in this relaxation, it helps to lower your bar for what ‘counts’ as a pleasant sensation. Nobody’s going to spend the day fantasising about experiencing a slight tingly sensation in their hands, or a subtle sense of relaxation in their chest, nor go out of their way to experience them. Yet, these pleasures are very real, and cultivating the ability to tune into them during meditation can afford us access to a joy and stability of attention far greater than the modest sensations from which it grows.

Look – if you wanted pretty diagrams you should have gone to r/dataisbeautiful.

One can even learn to derive joy even from neutral sensations. I often tune into the pleasure of not having a headache, or of not feeling ill, or not having a blocked nose, as well as the absence of sensation in areas of my body where I can’t feel anything at all (and the sense of space outside my body where I also obviously can’t feel anything). These neutral zones can be savoured as areas of perfect rest, and there’s something oddly pleasurable – and very relaxing – about it when you learn to tune in.

This relaxation practice might not work for you, but it will be helpful to utilise some variation of a relaxation, Brahma Vihara, or any other kind of positive psychology practice at the start of a sit. Rick Hanson has some great examples of these in his book Hardwiring Happiness, examples include taking some time to notice and appreciate that you are safe, or loved, or that all your basic needs are met for the time being, etc. Find a practice like this that jives with you, and helps you feel relaxed and at ease.

TL;DR Summary:
Stress and tension shut down your ability to focus effectively. Relaxation and savouring pleasant aspects of your experience not only feel good, but are greatly supportive of stable attention.

Part 3 – The Reward System

Think back to earlier when I asked you to recall the most concentrated you have ever felt. I’m sure that while you didn’t feel tense, neither did you precisely feel passive, as one does in deep relaxation. 

In concentration states, the PNS is indeed active and the mind and body are at ease, yet there is also a continuous, stimulating, and very satisfying feeling of seeking and achieving some goal, or being ‘in the zone’.

So far I have given the impression that to be optimally concentrated, one should maximise the activation of the PNS and minimise the activation of the SNS. Actually, this was a slight oversimplification; in fact, the two systems often work together in complementary ways, and sustained attention is one such example. 

For instance, a study examining the role of the PNS and SNS in a test of attention found that while participants with higher baseline PNS activity did indeed perform better on a test of attention, performance was also and independently predicted by reward-triggered SNS activation during the task; that is, the PNS and SNS work together to optimise the functioning of attention(14).

This may seem surprising given everything we covered in the last section about the link between PNS activation and executive functions. What explains it? Well, coordinating a threat response is not the only thing that the SNS does. It is also stimulated by the reward system(15). The reward system of the brain is responsible for motivating and reinforcing behaviour, and it is a powerful tool to have on your side if you want to develop powerful attentional skills.

When you feel a craving for nicotine, coffee, or to play another level of a video game, the reward system is at work. While the dark side of the reward system can keep us enmeshed in addictions and unhealthy obsessions, it also works to filter out distractions, and provide a source of ongoing positive feedback which is profoundly supportive of stable attention.

The reward system keeps information processing focused on what is strictly relevant to the potential reward in question. A neurotransmitter called dopamine (dopamine in the mesolimbic dopamine pathway specifically, if you’re interested), which is heavily implicated in craving and addiction, is also responsible for this sharpening of attentional focus. 

Understanding the Reward System and its Connection with Attention

As I have hinted at, the reward system is intrinsically interconnected with our attention system. Our very faculty for sustained attention evolved so we could stick to a task which held the promise of some reward – and so the brain’s dopamine pathways facilitate both reward-seeking behaviour and sustained attention (think of the all-consuming obsession of the addict). In fact, it is impossible to separate the neuroanatomy of attention with that of goal-seeking, because they evolved together as part of the same mechanism. Because these systems are not entirely dissociable, the feeling of sustained attention is partly a feeling of ongoing positive feedback from the reward system.

What do I mean by “ongoing positive feedback from the reward system”? This is what gives so many activities the feeling of being “addictive”. Let’s take rock climbing as an example. In many ways, the activity seems singularly unpleasant – it’s tiring, difficult, and often painful, yet rock climbers itch for more. Why? Because each instance of successfully exercising control to make the challenging transition from one position to the next is met with a burst of reinforcement from the reward system. 

Every step of the way up a climbing wall, there are a dozen indications that progress is being made – and that one has succeeded at each of innumerable successive micro-steps towards one’s goal.

A study by David Vago showed an incredibly strong positive correlation between meditation experience and activation of the striatum; part of the reward network with a wide variety of functions. Dr. Vago noted that the striatum is associated with skill learning, and proposed that the activation in the striatum reflects the fact that the most advanced meditators were able to meditate using less willful intention; the process had become more automatic for them. He also suggested that this activation in the reward network “could be related to this motivational drive – a continuous motivational drive or intention, as they continue to do the practice”.

Apologies for the bad quality – I’m still looking for the original. Each bar of this graph is a meditation subject, arranged from most experienced on the left to least experienced on the right. The height of the bar indicates % change in the activity of the striatum during meditation.

Video games have been designed to stimulate our reward system – that’s what makes them fun – and it may be instructive to observe how an ostensibly dull task, like stacking small shapes together, can immediately become a game, and take on an engaging, almost addictive quality, simply by introducing a source of positive feedback to stimulate the reward system.


The reward system is stimulated most if: 1. There is very little or no delay between performing an action and getting positive feedback, and 2. Opportunities for positive feedback come in rapid succession, so that one can achieve an almost continuous feeling of reward.

When these conditions are met, the reward system sends a high level of dopamine to the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), which works with the basal ganglia(16) to increase the stability of attention by strengthening the activity of task-relevant brain circuits, and suppressing task-irrelevant circuits(17,18).

This has been demonstrated experimentally, and it is also telling that when participants are given an attention task, the higher the dopamine receptor density in their prefrontal cortex, the higher the activity in the frontoparietal control network – which is associated with focused attention on a task – tends to be. PFC dopamine receptor density also inversely correlates with activity in the default mode network – which is associated with mind-wandering and distraction.

Ordinarily, attention will remain stable on an object until either dopamine input to the PFC decreases (indicating that the current activity has stopped providing enough reward) or suddenly increases (indicating another source of even more reward – imagine that you’re playing Tetris and spot a biscuit or a line of cocaine or something on your desk). If you’re interested, this mechanism is often called the dopamine working memory gate hypothesis. 

So, if we want attention to remain highly resilient to distractions, we should try to keep the flow of dopamine strong and unbroken, through the conditions for stimulating the reward system outlined above.

We’ve looked at the theory of how the reward network can support stable attention – now let’s see how to put this understanding into practice in meditation, and look at some strategies for making meditation a source of positive feedback.

TL;DR Summary:
Your brain’s reward system is stimulated by – you guessed it – rewards, like food, sex, and the achievement of goals (think the satisfying feeling of checking a box on your to-do list). Setting intentions in such a way that stimulates the reward system feels good, and can help to quiet distractions and focus your mind on the meditation object.

The reward system is stimulated most when: 1. There is very little or no delay between performing an action and getting positive feedback, and 2. Opportunities for positive feedback come in rapid succession, so that one can achieve an almost continuous feeling of progress towards a goal.

The Reward System – In Practice

In Tetris, when you fill up a whole row, it will flash and satisfyingly disappear with a beep. If you fail to do so, there will be some obvious and frustrating gaps in the structure. The difference between positive and negative feedback is incredibly obvious – it’s designed to be. In meditation, however, the difference between success and failure can be very fuzzy.

The only way to have positive feedback at all is to have a meaningful difference between positive and negative feedback. In Tetris this difference is obviously visible on the screen. In meditation, it is only as clear as your intentions.

An intention has a clear difference between success and failure – and so engages the reward system – when it is well-specified, mutually exclusive, and lends itself to continuity (we’ve already covered this, but it also helps a lot if it is enjoyable). Let’s look at these characteristics.

Well-Specified
A well-specified intention is simply one which allows you to immediately answer the question “Is my intention being met right now?”

If your intention is to sort of just to sort of watch the breath and not mind-wander (very much), then you will not be able to access a great deal of positive feedback. After all, what are the exact criteria for successfully “watching the breath” when some light mind-wandering is not mutually exclusive with a mere hazy awareness of the fact that one is breathing? You would be like a Tetris player whose goal is just to watch the blocks stack up on top of each other, or a climber whose goal is to just sort of be in contact with the wall. They might be climbing, they might just be holding on and chilling out, or even just leaning against the wall at the bottom; their intentions are not specified clearly enough to allow them to hit that dynamic positive feedback cycle which is so engaging.

If you know that you’re trying to shine the spotlight of attention closely enough to notice at least a few breath sensations in the nostrils corresponding to each in and out breath and the pauses between them, then you will be able to answer the question of whether your intention is being met quite immediately (though in practice, of course, it is easy enough to get a feeling for the level of detail one intends to notice without needing to articulate this intention linguistically in this contrived sort of way). 

With an intention this precise, every instance of noticing a detail of the breath in the nostrils becomes an instance of positive feedback. At the same time, if you get a little distracted and the level of detail you notice decreases (which, with an intention that challenges your current range of abilities, will certainly happen often enough to keep you on your toes), or your attention drifts to a breath sensation in the chest or throat rather than the nose, these are clearly instances of negative feedback.

Mutually Exclusive
This follows on naturally from the previous concept – in fact, I almost decided to skip this section entirely, but I thought it was worth a couple of extra sentences just to clarify the point. Your intention should be not just to focus on your meditation object, but also not to be doing other things with attention at the same time. 

So, if you are watching the breath and using some of the bandwidth of attention to also remember the book you were reading on your last meditation retreat, noticing this should register to some degree as negative feedback. The danger is that when watching the breath becomes second nature, you probably have the attentional capacity to be watching the breath and also hazily mind-wandering at the same time. If you are only training yourself to notice when attention is not on the breath, you might not end up being particularly sensitive to these subtle distractions that attention is engaging with at the same time, and this lack of exclusivity will eventually limit your progress.

Continuity
We saw that the stream of dopamine coming from the reward system must be kept steady for attention to be stable. If you set your intention to watch the breath, you may find yourself watching it for a one or two full in & out breath cycles, and a little dopamine elf in your reward system saying “Great job! We watched the breath,” then ticking a little box on it’s checklist and asking “So what shall we do next?” – followed in short order by some new distractions. You need to give your dopamine elf not a pedestal to jump on, but a stairmaster to climb up indefinitely. 

One example of how to make intentions continuous is to watch not the individual moments of the breath itself, but rather to confirm that every moment of the breath cycle has breath sensations associated with it; that there are no gaps in the arising of breath sensations. Taking the “non-gapness” of the arising breath sensations as your meditation object is an example of a continuous, rather than discrete, target for your intention, and so it naturally extends over time in a more engaging way than to note sensations one by one. 

When you frame your intention to notice individual sensations, there can be a part of the mind that says “We’ve already noted hundreds of breath sensations – we’re doing so well! We’ve definitely earned at least a few seconds of mind wandering before we get back to more noting.” This mindset will hold your reward system back from really getting revved up and into the flow of things more than one might expect.

Another excellent example of a continuous intention is to watch the duration of the breaths and pauses. Yet another is to observe the way the sensations change during the course of a breath cycle. There are many fun ways to play around with formulating continuous – as opposed to discrete – intentions. A really high degree of temporal granularity* may require advanced concentration skills, but play around and see what works for you and the type of meditation you’re doing.

*When intentions become so granular that they occupy one’s full conscious power, and the success flows in an unbroken chain, one starts to get into flow and jhana states – as there is no room for any distractors whatsoever. This can be very blissful and joyful – but I have an upcoming blog about flow states and jhana, so more then.

By the way, with all this talk of continuity, I feel it important to point out that I am not suggesting that you have failed if you aren’t able to stay perfectly in touch with your meditation object continuously throughout your entire meditation. You will, of course, still suffer from distractions. However, I think you may find yourself a little less prone to them, and your efforts to train stable attention will be more effective.

A ‘No-effort” Hack
So, the point is to set your intentions in such a way that there is a felt difference between an intention successfully implemented and one that isn’t – and so it feels good when the intention is implemented successfully. There’s an additional little trick that can help to kick start this virtuous cycle between positive feedback and stability of attention (this is a trick for which I have to thank Janusz Welin of the Deep Mindfulness Collective).

Start off with a period of ‘do nothing’ practice. Shinzen Young gives these instructions: “Let whatever happens happen. As soon as you’re aware of an intention to control your attention –  drop that intention.

Do this for a few minutes, and then introduce an intention – say to notice the breath sensations at the nose – but see if you can introduce only the smallest possible unit of intentionality. In other words, if you imagine that your intention to follow the breath is a muscle, see if you can activate to the absolute minimum possible degree so that it still moves – but just barely a twitch.

Something you may notice is that intention can exist virtually independently from what we usually think of as effort. Continuing to imagine that your intention to observe breath sensations is a muscle, try now to tense that intention as hard as you possibly can (without breathing any differently) like you needed to pay such hard attention to the breath sensations in your nose that you could lift a huge weight with the effort. Does that help? Does it make the breath sensations appear even one iota bigger or brighter in your nose? I don’t think so.

When Yoda told Luke Skywalker to use the Force to lift his X-Wing from where it was mired in the Dagobah Swamp, he reluctantly braces for the effortful strain: “Alright, I’ll give it a try.” Yoda corrects him: “No! Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” I don’t know if this is what George Lucas had in mind, but I like to imagine that this was the lesson that Yoda was trying to teach Luke about the Force.

I suspect some people may have concluded from the preceding section about ensuring that you hold a well-specified and continuous intention that I am advising this effortful, willful, bearing down on the meditation object. But nothing could be further from the truth. The idea that you must choose to either wilfully strain with a specific intention or to let go of any intentionality whatsoever is a false dichotomy. Specificity of intention is a virtue that need not entail strain. 

When you begin with the smallest possible quantum of intentionality, you notice that that truly is all that’s required – it helps to counteract the tendency to over-effort. Pouring extra effort into the intention doesn’t add anything to it, and only gets translated into two other things instead. The first is simply muscular tension – we’ve already explored why that’s unhelpful – and the second is the raising of your bar for perceiving success. When you are straining, even moments where your intention is fulfilled perfectly may not register as moments of success. One cannot feel more precisely by grasping harder.

Rather, what is needed is joyful acceptance, and to apply these intentions not with force, but a relaxed commitment and consistency.

You may find it helpful to try letting go of effort multiple times during a sit – even cycling through intention, letting go of intention, and watching what happens, every few breaths or so.

Pleasure
We’re looping back around to another reason that focusing on pleasure is beneficial, apart from all ones we covered in the section on parasympathetic nervous system activation. 

For most people most of the time, there will be some form of an ongoing appraisal during meditation of how the meditation is ‘going’. If it seems to you that your skills are not up to scratch, and you can’t meet the demands of the task, then you will start feeling stressed or frustrated. If, on the other hand, you perceive the difficulties of the task as a fun challenge – something from which there are lessons to be learned, and successes to be won, you will be more engaged in the process(19).

It will be much easier to appraise the task as something from which you can derive value if you are enjoying it, and this perception of potential value contributes nicely to the stimulation of the reward system.

If you begin with the preliminary practice I mentioned earlier of focusing on global sensations of relaxation and pleasure, you may find it natural to transition into your meditation by simply narrowing down your range of focus to the pleasant and neutral aspects of the breath.

Leigh Brasington is a meditation teacher and author of the excellent book Right Concentration, who teaches a similar method to access states of deep concentration called the jhanas. Here’s his extremely concise description:

Follow breath until access concentration is established, and thoughts are wispy and in the background.” Then

Switch attention away from the breath to a pleasant physical sensation:

a. Stay focused on the ‘pleasantness’ of the pleasant sensation,
b. Do not do anything else but stay focused on the ‘pleasantness’, it will increase in intensity automatically.
c. When the physical pleasure and emotional joy/happiness rises, focus on that experience.” (instructions from his website)

For meditators who can consistently enter ‘access concentration’, in which thoughts are silent or very quiet and in the background, not grabbing attention strongly, this can be a very effective method.

Leigh was invited to take part in an extremely cool experiment(20) in which he practiced his method for entering the jhanas in an fMRI scanner, and the researchers looked to see what his brain was doing.

They found strong activation of the reward network; in fact the name of the paper is “Case study of ecstatic meditation: fMRI and EEG evidence of self-stimulating a reward system”.

Based on the pattern that emerged from the fMRI scan, The researchers speculated that Leigh had learned to create a feedback loop between the Nucleus accumbens (a central node in the reward system) and the orbitofrontal cortex – a part of the Prefrontal cortex which has been associated with decision making and assessing the reward value of stimuli.

They noted that “under normal conditions, the feedback loop would be quickly interrupted by shifting attention to everchanging input from visual, auditory, or somatic senses”, and that this state is only accessible because Leigh was in a state of concentration in which these cortical areas were quietened and his attention was extremely stable.

The researchers also speculated that “the loop might be realized by creating a series of very short tasks that can each be completed successfully, allowing a new goal to be achieved and reward attained with each new moment.”

Inspiration
A final point on how to engage your reward system: whatever gets you feeling inspired, make sure to stay connected to that material. Feeling that there is progress to be made and you are able to make it very strongly engages the positive feedback cycle we have been discussing.

The offer of a monetary reward increases speed and accuracy on pretty much every cognitive test that you can measure. I wish I could offer you all monetary rewards for doing effective meditation, but I can offer you this advice: find something that inspires your practice.

TL;DR Summary:
An intention has a clear difference between success and failure – and so engages the reward system – when it is well-specified, mutually exclusive, lends itself to continuity, and is enjoyable to enact.

Intention need only be very light – experimenting with dropping effort can help you not to fall into the trap of over-efforting when you are applying intentions in meditation.

Conclusion

A scientifically rigorous exploration of how the neuroscience of attention can apply to meditation, to my knowledge, does not yet exist, and this certainly isn’t it, but I hope it’s given you some helpful tips, and I look forward to writing more as future research comes out.

It’s hard to train stable attention effectively without getting at least some fruitful insights into the workings of one’s mind. However, the true value of learning to hack your attentional networks is so that you can eventually direct them to practice effective insight meditation; notice how your suffering is conditioned and learn to de-condition it. This task becomes easier by leaps and bounds if one is doing the satisfying work of training attention.

TL;DR Summary

Novelty
The brain is stimulated by novelty. Male birds use it to attract mates, and we can use it to develop our attentional skills. Tune into this bias; stay open for novel sensations, and learn to perceive novelty in new dimensions.

Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation
Stress and tension shut down your ability to focus effectively. Relaxation and savouring pleasant aspects of your experience not only feel good, but are greatly supportive of stable attention.

The Reward System
Your brain’s reward system is stimulated by – you guessed it – rewards, like food, sex, and the acheivement of goals (think the satisfying feeling of checking a box on your to-do list). Setting intentions in such a way that stimulates the reward system feels good, and can help to quiet distractions and focus your mind on the meditation object.

The reward system is stimulated most when: 1. There is very little or no delay between performing an action and getting positive feedback, and 2. Opportunities for positive feedback come in rapid succession, so that one can achieve an almost continuous feeling of progress towards a goal.

An intention has a clear difference between success and failure – and so engages the reward system – when it is well-specified, mutually exclusive, lends itself to continuity, and is enjoyable to enact.

Intention need only be very light – experimenting with dropping effort can help you not to fall into the trap of over-efforting when you are applying intentions in meditation.

References

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  2. Bunzeck, N., & Düzel, E. (2006). Absolute coding of stimulus novelty in the human substantia nigra/VTA. Neuron, 51(3), 369-379.
  3. Kasamatsu, A., & Hirai, T. (1966). An electroencephalographic study on Zen meditation (Zazen). Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 20(4), 315-336.
  4. Antonova, E., Chadwick, P., & Kumari, V. (2015). More meditation, less habituation? The effect of mindfulness practice on the acoustic startle reflex. PLoS One, 10(5), e0123512.
  5. Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. (2017). The science of meditation: How to change your brain, mind and body. Penguin UK.
  6. Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature reviews neuroscience, 10(6), 410-422.
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Author: RationalShinkai

Ollie lives in England. He likes meditation, peanut butter, and Oxford commas.

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