Tackling the Challenges of Attention

There is a little bit of learning that occurs through unconscious processes, but most of our learning begins with what we rest our attention upon. So in that sense, mindfulness training is absolutely central to the core mission of education. Second, through mindfulness training and its bonus benefits, teachers and children, including older kids and adolescents can reap the rewards of mindfulness in terms of learning how to stabilize their moods, not get so swept away by their reactions and over time, build up a core of resilient well-being inside themselves that can weather the different waves coming at them from life. 

Three Challenges to Our Attention

So attention has three major challenges. One challenge is that a person is seeking stimulation. So they’re looking for stimulation other than what they want to focus on or the teacher wants them to focus on. And people vary in terms of how much stimulation they feel like they need. Part of that relates to how many dopamine receptors a person naturally expresses on the outer surfaces of their neurons and synapses because people with fewer dopamine receptors need more stimulation. They need more pulses of dopamine to keep bringing dopamine into those receptors so that the person continues to feel rewarded and focused along the way. So there’s natural variation in how much stimulation a person needs. 

A second major challenge to mindfulness is distractibility. Many people have fairly permeable filters between themselves and the world so any little thing draws their attention and often usually they have permeable filters internally. So any ache or pain or any bubbling thought carries them away. That’s the second major challenge to attention. The third major challenge to attention occurs even in people who aren’t that hungry for new stimulation and they’re not actually that destructible, but they fatigue on concentration. And this is a very interesting challenge to be aware of because it’s not necessarily so obvious. 

So what do we do about it? And that’s for mindfulness, I think can be really helpful. First, mindfulness of challenges to attention and to appreciate the ways in which this is very important. These challenges are not pathologies. There’s nothing wrong with them and if you think about hunter-gatherer bands whose natural size is about 50 individuals mainly living together and breeding together their entire lives so that what’s good for the band became increasingly woven into the fabric of our DNA. 

There’s nothing bad about the kid or the adult for whom this is the case. Second, mindfulness can really help us find new forms of stimulation so that we can stay focused and keep that dopamine drip coming, particularly if we don’t have that many receptors. So we can be mindful of our sense of being hungry for stimulation and the tendency for the mind to look for some other shiny object. And when that happens, help ourselves find more novelty or more intensity of emotional reward or fascination with whatever we’re trying to sustain attention to. 

The second thing we can do is to catch these little distractors early if we have permeable filters. If they come in from the outside or come up from the inside, we can notice them starting to hook us and in the first second or two or three before they fully hijack us we can say, “I got it. I see you. And whoosh, I’m gonna stay with whatever I’m trying to focus on.” Without mindfulness, without that present moment recollectedness, we’ll miss the first second or two or three of the warm-up and then whoosh, we’re swept away and we notice it minutes or dozens of minutes later. 

The third way the mindfulness helps us here let’s say with fatiguing on concentration is that helps us be aware of when we’re starting to burn out and our focus is getting really fuzzy and then pull out sooner. Take a micro break even for just a few seconds. Certainly, for a breath or two or three and in the process of that, I’ve never seen a study on this, but for me, I have reasonably plausible notion is that the local metabolic supplies in those circuits of the brain, the glucose and other things, that help those little circuits sustain concentration and not fatigue. Those little nutrient supplies and other metabolic supplies can be replenished over the course of a few breaths and then a person can go back into concentration. Mindfulness is necessary in all three ways to address these challenges to attention.

Four Questions to Foster Awareness

I hope you’ll indulge me here in a thought I’ve had recently about four opportunities. The first opportunity is, and these are basically four questions, are you experiencing something useful? A moment of gratitude, an experience of skillfulness, interacting with other people maybe as a teacher, an experience of how to more skillfully deal with a certain kind of parent or a certain kind of classroom situation or helping kids become more skillful in how they deal with other kids such as dealing with bullies or experiences of rejection. 

So these are moments of useful experiences. That’s great. A useful experience is better than a useless experience. An enjoyable experience is better than a painful experience in many functional ways. Then a second question is, are you learning anything from it? Is it making any lasting difference? Is there any conversion from this state of being in the moment to a greater trait of gratitude or grit or self-worth or motivation for exercise or not hitting someone who grabs your basketball or greater trait mindfulness altogether. 

Traits are grown from states, but not all states become traits. It’s haunting to really face the question as to how many of our beneficial experiences or how many of the beneficial experiences our students are having leave any lasting value behind in physical changes of neural structure and function, without which, by definition, there’s no lasting, no durable growth or healing or learning. So that’s the second key question, is the state becoming a trait? And then the question is, are we drawing on the traits as we grow strengths inside, including know-how about ourselves, managing our thoughts and feelings or know-how about other people. Are we drawing upon what we know? Are we using the traits we’ve developed, that’s the third question. 

And then the fourth question is over time, can we move from the deliberate usage of our beneficial traits to a more of a habit in which these beneficial traits start moving forward automatically. So instead of for example having to deliberately call up some sense of determination and strength to deal with a challenge, that that sense of determination and strength, that’s a trait that we have, starts moving forward more automatically. And I think it is really interesting to explore the possibility of how to increase the conversion rate of the experiences our students are already having, including in social emotional kinds of ways and increase the conversion rate from social emotional experiences to truly social emotional learning. 

And that’s where I think the greatest opportunities are and that’s where I’ve mainly focused through using the methods of positive neuroplasticity and engaging internal learning factors under volitional control such as extending the duration of an experience or opening to it increasingly in a body or focusing on what’s rewarding about it, all of which, various studies have shown, will increase the conversion rate from experience to some sort of lasting physical change in the nervous system.

So then the question becomes, how to cultivate trait mindfulness, not just states of mindfulness that are very vulnerable to disruption if the situational factors that promote them fall away? And the simple path there is to have experiences of mindfulness because we learn from the experiences we’re having. That’s a necessary first step for almost all learning in the broadest sense, including social emotional learning. Experience mindfulness. Good. Got that. And then when you’re being mindful really help it land inside you so that increasingly you stabilize in sustained present moment awareness that you have with you. 

And the way to do that is to bring a little bit of attention to what mindfulness feels like, to get a sense of it sinking into yourself, establishing yourself inside you as you establish yourself more in mindfulness as an ongoing way of being. This will help increase your learning curve, your conversion rate and acquisition of trait mindfulness. It’s also really useful to focus on what’s pleasurable about mindfulness, what feels good about it, what’s reassuring or relieving or juicy or wonderful or even profound about mindfulness. That will increase activity of dopamine and neuro epinephrine in your brain, which will also steepen the conversion rate, the learning curve from experiences of mindfulness to the development of trait mindfulness.

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Resources for Attention

Teaching Students to Breathe 

When we practice mindfulness practices such as core breathing, we're able to have a little separation between our thoughts, our feelings, the sensations in our body, and our breath—We're cultivating self-awareness. Read More 

  • Wendy Baron
  • August 21, 2019
Resources for Attention

Cultivating Curiosity in Students 

For educators, which would include teachers and also parents who are in many ways the first educators of children, the term mindful is very interesting because the first part of it, the mind part usually it doesn’t have any kind of definition. And so a mindful education at the… Read More 

  • Dan Siegel
  • August 21, 2019
About the author

Rick Hanson

Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 120,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity that anyone with financial need can do for free.