In the midst of my worst moments of anxiety and panic, I would focus incessantly on the physical sensation and fear that it was something serious and harmful. But, as I learned over time from several experts, my attention was directed on the wrong thing. What if I could shift my focus to something else – something more interesting and positive?
As it turns out, scientists have discovered over the past several years the incredible power we have within ourselves to transform our brain, and therefore, our thoughts. In "The Whole-Brain Child," author Daniel J. Siegel M.D. explains how the brain physically changes in response to new experiences. “With intention and effort, we can acquire new mental skills. …when we direct our attention in a new way, we are actually creating a new experience that can change both the activity and ultimately the structure of the brain itself.”
How does this work? Our new thoughts activate neurons in our brain, a process referred to as neural firing. This leads to the production of proteins that create new connections between neurons. Therefore with focused attention we can actually change the physical structure of our brain.
This entire process is called neuroplasticity, a very exciting new realm of science that experts are trying to learn more about every day. Because our brain can change based on what we experience and focus on, we can alter the way we respond to and interact with the world around us. We can even reduce negative patterns and form new, healthier ones.
A collection of scientific evidence shows how focused attention can reshape our brain, as Daniel J. Siegel points out. Brain scans of violinists, for example, show dramatic growth and expansion in regions of the cortex that represent the left hand, which is the main finger used to play the violin strings. Another study showed that the hippocampus, which is critical for spatial memory, is enlarged in taxi drivers.
The magic of focused attention is that we can use it to help get over negative emotions like fear. We can redirect our attention towards something that relaxes us.
“By directing our attention, we can go from being influenced by factors within and around us to influencing them. When we become aware of the multitude of changing emotions and forces at work around us and within us, we can acknowledge them and even embrace them as parts of ourselves – but we don’t have to allow them to bully us or define us. We can shift our focus to other areas of awareness, so that we are no longer victims of forces seemingly beyond our control, but active participants in the process of deciding and affecting how we think and feel,” Siegel writes in his book.
Fortunately, we have many effective tools to use to achieve more focus and create deep connections in our brain. We can use mindfulness meditation, yoga, Qi gong, breathing techniques, guided imagery, cognitive behavioral therapy, and even brain exercises to develop our focused attention. All of these approaches involve directing our attention to a specific object, image, sound, mantra, or even our own breath.
In addition, Siegel developed a whole new technique called “Mindsight” to become mindful of all our mental activities, reorganize them, and then re-wire our brain. It goes a step further than mindfulness because it’s not just about being present in the moment, but about having the ability to monitor what’s going on and then to make a conscious change. This can have huge implications for those suffering from stress and anxiety.
Teaching our children this special trick of focused attention can help them in so many ways throughout their lives. By being aware of their emotions and learning how to shift their concentration, they will be empowered and feel in control of their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. From an early age, we can start to introduce some fun ways for kids to build up their focused attention muscle.