A Question of Focus

Meditators often feel that their practice aids concentration. But do these subjective reports pan out in daily life?

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focusActivities throughout our days require undisturbed minutes (even hours) of concentration. Obvious examples can include boring tasks in the workplace or when navigating traffic, where critical focus is necessary for success and safety. But perhaps not surprisingly, people can have a hard time keeping their attention on important activities for even short lengths of time.

In the laboratory, researchers have studied our poor ability to sustain attention by examining how performance declines when someone has to maintain focus and perform a repetitive task for a long time. In wisdom traditions like Buddhism, such limits on our attention span have long been acknowledged, and at the same time, these traditions recognize that our ability to direct and maintain concentration is an important part of mental and spiritual well-being. For example, only when we can sustain our attention can we recognize and regulate our thoughts or emotions. For this reason, many contemplative traditions promote mental training through meditation practice as a means of improving our capacity to stay focused.

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Grey Matters: Examining Subjective Experience

Mind & Life’s resident neuroscientist on the past, present, and future of neurophenomenology.

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Brain1What is the human mind, and how can we develop it to its greatest potential?

There are many ways of trying to answer this age-old question. As a neuroscientist, I was trained within a theoretical system that largely equates the mind with the physical structure of the brain. Operating from this perspective, science has made incredible strides, giving us insights ranging from the molecular array of genes and proteins to the electrical firing patterns of individual neurons and neuronal assemblies. Yet, until recently, a central element of the human mind was largely missing from neuroscientific investigations: lived experience. Read More

Grey Matters: The BRAIN Initiative & Mapping the Mind

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The mysteries of the human brain are hidden in an almost unfathomable array of synaptic connections, cellular activity, neurotransmitters, gene expression patterns, and electrical oscillations. Even deeper than these lay the questions of how such an extraordinarily complex electrochemical system connects to our moment-to-moment experience as human beings: our perceptions, our thoughts, our emotions—what cognitive scientists call our “subjective experience.” At Mind & Life, we recognize the critical importance of subjective experience; after all, it is the very lens through which we filter and interpret our lives. To overlook it is to overlook human nature itself. Read More