BRAIN GAIN: “Pay attention, men”, said Dad’s Army Captain Mainwaring frequently enough for a loyal audience to know some preposterous instruction was about to be given or a piece of information passed on in a confidential tone. “Pay attention, boy” has been the shout of pedagogues through the ages.
Like so many words that we think we understand, the practical meaning of ‘attention’ has always seemed obvious. But experimental brain science is now able to look a little deeper into exactly what it is that engages the brain in attention, and what the brain is actually attending to. The emerging results are intriguing.
In Scientific American Emma Seppala reports on collaborative work by Norman Farb, Zindel Segal and Adam Anderson coming out of the University of Toronto. Attention is divided into two types – the first when we are manifestly concentrating on something outside ourselves; and secondly when focused on bodily experiences such as breathing or emotions.
Different parts of the brain get engaged by the different kinds of attention. The first engages the evaluative frontal areas of the brain where all kinds of pieces of information are pulled together to make sense of something. The second engages central areas of the brain – loosely called ‘the limbic system’ - where the emotional system is managed and integrated into all the information within the brain.
That is the ‘what’. In the sequence ‘What?’, ‘So what?’, ‘Now what?’, the ‘So what?’ question makes it apparent that, when the limbic system is engaged, whatever knowledge it is that lies within the individual appears so self-evident to that individual that it may not be up for critical evaluation at all.
This kind of mechanism may well underpin the confusion that so easily exists between intention and action. ‘I have committed myself to not drinking’, says the heavy alcohol user to himself, with his frontal regions finding very good reasons for giving up the booze and yet, by the end of each day, finding good intention has given way to older habit. The feeling of what happens is much more important in directing human action than the thought of what could or should be.
Descartes coined the aphorism that (in translation) says ‘I think, therefore I am’. He placed reason at the centre of what became over the past two-hundred-and-fifty years the western tradition of rational scientism. By and large the Eastern world made no such arrogant error – an error that only begins to appear to be of serious magnitude when we see, with increasing urgency, how the resources of the world need safeguarding rather than exploiting.
‘I feel, therefore I think I am’ - a reformulation from the modern neurosciences of Descartes’ position, made by Brenda Hales (see DL, December 2011 and March 2012 issues) – is much more in the spirit of Eastern awareness of the whole person. Contemplative and interpersonal processes, evidenced through Buddhism and Confucianism, stress inner rather than outer awareness. How powerful they will prove to be when appropriately grafted on to western scientific method is yet to be seen: but the stress that Confucius placed on love for humanity, reverence for parents and harmony in thought and conduct may, if the world is fortunate enough, become more powerful management perceptions than performance criteria of any kind. China will be the test-bed, and is already proving highly skilled in learning from the West but resisting the philosophies from which the Western traditions have come.
Which is some little way from attention. Or is it. The ‘Now what? ' question suggests new forms of management may be round the corner. Family systems might not be such a bad basis for good management practices. Why not loving being at work, loving being led and loving leading? Those are processes closely connected to trust, which is where good families start from and where Brain Gain’s attention was focused last month. It is an inner not an outer state that directs behaviour. Knowing what to attend to is key to getting the benefits of that.e