Paying Attention To Your Inner Aria
Pay attention to your inner ARIA: Awareness – Reflection – Insight – Action
- Awareness is a state when the brain focuses lightly on an impasse. To minimize activation of the prefrontal cortex, don’t focus too hard, quiet the mind of other thoughts, and simplify the problem as much as possible. A good way to simplify the problem is to describe it in as few words as possible; e.g. “I want more energy” creates less activation in the brain than saying “I want more energy to focus more on my work and family and make time for exercise and fun.”
- In reflection, you hold the impasse in mind but reflect on your thinking processes rather than the content of your thoughts. The objective is to see the impasse from a high level, not to get detailed. This activates right hemisphere regions that are important for insight and allows loose connections to form. You want to activate the easy, unfocused mental state that occurs as you drift awake in the morning, when ideas dreamily flow into mind.
- Insight—In this moment, there is a burst of gamma-band brain waves. These are the fastest brain waves, representing a group of neurons firing in unison. The gamma frequency signifies brain regions communicating with one another. People in deep meditation have a lot of gamma waves. People with learning difficulties have fewer gamma waves, and someone who is unconscious has almost none. Insights also bring an energetic punch, due to a rush of adrenaline and dopamine.
- The action phase is the opportunity to harness the energy released upon the formation of an insight. This energy is powerful but short-lived. While the “high” is present, you’ll be more courageous and motivated to commit to certain actions, but once the neurochemical cocktails wear off your motivation will decrease fast.
All of this requires you to be self-aware, to be able to stand outside your experience, observe, direct and modulate your thoughts and behavior. You have to be able to choose where to direct your attention.
This is the “director” in “Your Brain at Work”. The technical term that many neuroscientists ascribe to the concept of the director is mindfulness. They define it as the experience of paying close attention to the present, in an open and accepting way.
It’s the idea of living “in the present,” of being aware of experience as it occurs in real-time, and accepting what you see. In their definition, it has little to do with spirituality, religion or a particular type of meditation. It’s a trait that everyone has, a state you can activate, and becomes stronger the more you activate it.
Knowledge of your brain is OK, but you also need to be aware of what your brain is doing at any moment for that knowledge to be useful.
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness—we’re born with the capacity to create internal representations of the outside world in our brain called “maps” (also called networks or circuits). Maps develop based on what you pay attention to over time. We are also born with a strong capacity for certain maps to emerge automatically, e.g. the map for our sense of smell.
Scientists worked out a way to study how human beings experience their lives moment to moment and found two distinct ways of interacting with the world using two different maps. There’s the “default network”, which includes the medial prefrontal cortex, and memory regions like the hippocampus. This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself.
Example—you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing & cold beer in hand, but instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner that night. The default network is involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating.
The default network also becomes active when you think about yourself or other people; it holds together a narrative. So it’s also called narrative circuitry. When you experience the world using the narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. This default network is active for most of our waking moments & doesn’t take much effort to operate.
The other way of experiencing is called direct experience. When the direct experience network is active, other brain regions become active like the insula (a region that relates to perceiving bodily sensations), and the cingulated cortex (a region central to detecting errors and switching your attention).
When the direct-experience network is activated, we are not thinking about the past or future, other people or ourselves, or considering much at all. We are experiencing information coming into our senses in real-time. So sitting on that jetty, our attention would be on the warmth of the sun, the breeze in our hair, and the cold beer in our hand.
The narrative and direct-experience circuits are inversely correlated. You don’t see as much, hear as much, or feel as much, or sense anything as much, when you are lost in thought. But when you focus your attention on incoming data, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry. So among people who practice mindfulness meditation, they get better at noticing the difference between directly experiencing something and the interpretation added by the brain.
Doing those types of exercises regularly thickens the circuitry involved in observing internal mental states.