Change the Brain for Good: Pay Attention

This entry on attention is the fourth in a five-part series. The series describes what we know about the impact of contemplative practice on the human brain and the relevance of these findings to doing meaningful work in groups. The first entry introduces this series and describes the impact of meditation on whether we can respond effectively to disturbing events instead of reacting to them. The second entry investigates resilience and the third considers empathy and compassion.

Attention is a limited resource. You can only pay attention to so many things at one time. Although we can develop this resource (more about this in a moment), in meetings we act as if it is an unlimited resource, expecting people to pay attention to many things simultaneously, sometimes for long periods of time.

Add to this the unfortunate use of discussion as the default process in which people contribute unrelated thoughts and lengthy stories and you end up with ineffective meetings. Such lack of focus or concentration taxes the working memory and undermines people’s understanding of one another and the productivity of a meeting as a whole.

In a very real way, meetings can mirror the “monkey minds” we have in our heads: a flow of thoughts that can be both frenetic and random. This aspect of the brain is variously referred to as “wandering mind,” “proliferating thoughts” or as “an associative machine.” One thought leads to another that leads to many others in an apparently unending spider web of thinking.

Certainly we can help people pay attention by identifying important, concrete outcomes for meetings and developing detailed agendas with process steps and time frames to achieve those outcomes. We can also help by making meetings visual, graphically recording people’s thoughts during the meeting. (I highly recommend David Sibbet’s “Visual Meetings” for information about how to do this.)

We can also help by strengthening our attention. According to the research summarized in Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson, we can strengthen our ability to sustain attention and quiet the monkey mind by meditating. This mental training results in our being better able to track when a conversation has gone off topic and help people regain focus on the topic at hand in order to achieve the desired outcomes of their meeting.

In addition, meditating cultivates the ability to maintain a continuous and calmer (i.e., less reactive) awareness of what is occurring inside us and outside us. This, in turn, allows us to intervene when needed in more effective ways to get a meeting back on track, help people understand one another, or bring it to closure.

Finally, meditating enables us to track attention itself and notice when our mind starts to wander. Meditating increases cognitive control, improves working memory, and strengthens our ability to be effective meeting leaders and participants.

In the next and final blog of this “Change Your Mind for Good” series, I explore the affect of meditating on your sense of who you are.

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