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Learning, Attention, Meditation and Selfhood

Anyone who has ever watched an infant play, examine an object or interact with its carers will realise that learning is inherent in everything that she or he does. Infancy and early childhood is now recognised as the ‘critical’ learning period, a period in which attention is switched on more or less permanently in the waking state. This condition of steady, focused and effortless attention gradually comes to be switched off in childhood- and in fact the timing of the switch off varies for different competencies and aptitudes. But once the child reaches adolescence attention can usually only be maintained through conscious effort. Yet, once we have learned to attend there is a sense that we have learned the one essential skill that we need to navigate the world.

Human beings are creatures that learn and enjoy learning, animals designed by nature to learn. Such life-long learning is a fundamental feature of our intelligence and has the capacity to maintain and improve our physical well-being, regenerate cerebral networks, augment creativity, and intensify the experience we have of each present, passing, moment. Attention and learning enable one to go beyond one's evolutionary and personal conditioning, to realise the difference between what one is and what one might become. Learning allows us to secure a degree of freedom from our past experience, making us capable of realising objectives that we have individually embraced, liberating us from our past, whether evolutionary, cultural or personal. As a result, learning lies at the heart of human creativity and individuality. But habit, and particularly attachment to the entrenched, habitual and repetitive self, is what makes such creativity rarer than it might otherwise be.


Learning requires conscious intentionality and attention; we can only give expression to our conscious intentions by attending to them and then attending to their realisation. In this way attention is a key, if not the key, feature of our subjective experience, in the words of William James, constituting ‘the sudden taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.’ In neurological terms the ability to keep one’s mind focused originates in the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex; the main distractions are either sensory or emotional. In particular, because focus requires us to tune out emotional distractions, the neural networks underpinning selective attention are closely associated with those for inhibiting emotion. Thus the amygdala, that part of the brain which is most often associated with the rawer emotions, and particularly with fear, has ‘super highway’ connections to the prefrontal lobes of the cerebral cortex which enable the conscious mind to register and respond to danger immediately; but where appropriate, the cortex can also inhibit the strength of such signals. But the subtler forms of distraction, those emotional impulses that excite, disturb or arouse us, are more difficult to counter and control.


Not only are we designed by evolution to pay instant attention to ‘super-normal’ stimuli (such as danger, immediate material reward and sex) but also the neural processes that govern these responses are intimately connected to our feelings about identity, and in particular to negative or fearful thoughts around defending our sense of self. Yet, focusing attention typically requires a reduction in the intensity of self-directed thoughts. In particular, maintaining focus requires a reduction in negative mind wander. Attention requires absorption in a task, being ‘in the flow’.


Experimental evidence suggests that if we take all of the waking and dreaming states in which it could be said that we are conscious (approximately 17.5 hours each day) we attend for only 55% of the total time available to us. The remainder of our conscious experience, taken up as it is with mind wander, forms a period in which we are likely to experience negative thoughts, fears and fantasies associated with self and self-interest. This then is the inattentive mind’s default setting, one in which thoughts and desires typically take an inward, reflexive direction. Recent experimental evidence has located the source of this phenomenon in specific neural pathways, now dubbed the 'Default Mode Network'. When we enter into this default network we are likely to identify with the self and the problems and concerns of that self. As a result, the agent or subject which we believe ourselves to be comes and goes. We are much less autonomous than we would like to think. Indeed if one cannot control the focus of one’s attention for very long before mind wander breaks in, one cannot arguably sustain a stable first-person perspective; and for as long we cannot direct our own thoughts it is difficult to see how we could consider ourselves to be fully rational individuals.


Failing to attend amounts to a loss of inner direction, an absence of mental autonomy. During such periods we are effectively reduced to sub-personal mental processing, even though we are often aware of the thoughts that are passing, more-or-less uncontrolled, through our minds. Loss of attention is so often repeated that we are attuned to it as the norm: attention fades and is restored many hundreds of times a day. However, we are typically slow to notice that mental autonomy has been eroded, and the mechanisms that restore us to brief periods of attentional agency are still poorly understood. Mind wander impairs the continuity of our perceptual and cognitive processes and therefore the effectiveness of our intentional activities. We lose attention so often that our cognitive powers are severely diminished by continually being required to refocus.


A practical remedy is often sought in meditation or ‘mindfulness’, a practice which promotes active awareness of and attention to whatever is arising in consciousness at the moment it is experienced. Typically, the techniques are of two kinds- either relaxed focus on a sound or thought, or attention to whatever sensation the body is currently undergoing. Mindfulness training decreases the activity in the ‘me-circuitry’ centring on the medial prefrontal cortex and enables practitioners to break the stream of thoughts that might otherwise lead them to wallow in negativity or even misery. In this way mindfulness training has the capacity to change the practitioner's relationship to thought itself. Instead of being swept away by our thoughts we can come to see that they are ‘just thoughts’. Mindfulness amounts to a simple technique of bringing the mind back into focus every time wandering is detected.


The antidote to mind wandering can be seen as meta-awareness, attention to attention itself, namely the ability to notice when you are not attending to what you should attend, or to what you had intended to attend, and then correcting your focus. This simple-sounding remedy is the key to mindfulness and to successful meditation and, arguably, one of the keys to success and contentment in life. In particular, there is evidence that mindfulness training boosts the classic attention networks in the brain’s frontal parietal system that govern the ability to focus. Mindfulness and meditation make the muscle of attention stronger. Moreover, attending to attention also has a profound effect on our emotions. Emotional focus is centred on the limbic system (part of the evolutionary older brain). Yet, positive emotions such as empathy and compassion require focused attention, and the role of the higher brain centres in achieving the right balance is crucial. At the level of brain architecture the circuits for attention and for emotional intelligence overlap in many ways, sharing neural pathways and interactions. The right hemisphere of the cortex is thought to be particularly important in ensuring that attention and empathy function together.


The self’s tendency towards narrative makes the act of meta-awareness, or the monitoring of mind-wander, more difficult than it would otherwise be. Indeed, the brain circuits which are employed in meta awareness, or in monitoring attention, are the very same ones which are recruited to facilitate mind-wander. When the mind wanders off focus those circuits become involved in the filling in of the random thoughts that have taken the place of attention, and because of that no longer have the capacity to notice the wandering. Mindfulness is a practice which repeatedly brings the mind back to selective attention every time it strays. Studies conducted on experienced meditators suggest that subjects have increased resting state connectivity between the medial and parietal regions of the brain, areas which are associated with the engaging and disengaging of selective attention. Moreover, these techniques also have the effect of dampening down the emotional centres in the lower brain thereby enabling the cortex to maintain focus.


The lower, ancient, brain has important imperatives built around fear, survival and desire. It shouts loud because its evolutionary objectives are as fundamental as they can be. Consequently, a ‘wandering’ mind as opposed to one that is narrowly focused is something of a default state for these more ‘primitive’, survival-enhancing, aspects of brain function. But the problem is that the lower brain is also so intimately tied up with self-interest and the survival of the body that mind wandering tends to return repeatedly to the ‘me'. Moreover, in modern societies where threats to physical survival are rarer than they once were, mind-wander is more likely to have emotional content and be negative in character. When our minds wander we occupy ourselves with our self and with the preoccupations of that self. It is often little more than an aimless background mental chatter, but it can have a profound effect on our outlook and our effectiveness.

We can trace the existence of meditation and mindfulness techniques in the Ganges plain to the third millennium BCE; images of the god Shiva in meditation can be dated to this time. Whilst they did not originate in Buddhism, they were widely understood and valued in the society in which Buddhism originated. In particular, the Buddhist conception of no-self seems to have been closely informed by the experience of what happens to attentive focus when one meditates.


When attention is focused in meditation there is no self in view, there is just the object of attention. But when the mind wanders during meditation the self, in one form or another, often comes back into focus- what should I do, where does my interest lie, what about that slight or insult I received recently? In essence, the lesson that can be gained from meditation is that the self is a disrupted view. If instead, a gentle focus is simply maintained on the object of meditation it is as if there is no room in the mind that the self could occupy. In this way, attention disposes of the sense of self, at least for as long as the attentive focus is maintained; and indeed, regular practice of meditation or mindfulness undermines our sense of being selves separated from what is not self.


In this way learning, creativity, agency, attention and no-self are closely intertwined. In order to give full expression to the creative capacity of our bodies and brains we have to attend closely to whatever we are doing, and when we attend we learn and are more likely to retain what we have learnt. When we attend we are agents directed at a task, and the more closely we attend to that task the weaker is our sense of being a needy self that requires constantly to be brought to mind, to be cherished and protected. For as long as we attend to something other than the self we are free.


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