THE POWER OF FOCUSED ATTENTION - WOODMAM

To understand why mindsight offers such empowering choices, it’s helpful to understand what happens in the brain when a person concentrates on one particular set of rim points. As we’ve discussed already, the brain physically changes in response to new experiences. With intention and effort, we can acquire new mental skills. What’s more, 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.

Here’s how it works. When we have a new experience or concentrate on something—say, on how we feel or a goal we’d like to achieve—that activates neural firing. In other words, neurons (our brain cells) spring into action. This neural firing leads to the production of proteins that enable new connections to be wired among the activated neurons. Remember, neurons that fire together wire together. This entire process—from neural activation to neural growth and strengthened connections—is neuroplasticity. Essentially, it means that the brain itself is plastic, or changing, based on what we experience, and what we give our attention to. And these new neural connections, created when we pay attention to something, in turn alter the way we respond to and interact with our world. This is how practice can become a skill and how a state can become a trait, for good or for bad.

There’s a lot of scientific evidence demonstrating that focused attention leads to the reshaping of the brain. In animals rewarded for noticing sound (to hunt or to avoid being hunted, for example), we find much larger auditory centers in the brain. In animals rewarded for sharp eyesight, the visual areas are larger. Brain scans of violinists provide more evidence, showing dramatic growth and expansion in regions of the cortex that represent the left hand, which has to finger the strings precisely, often at very high speed. Other studies have shown that the hippocampus, which is vital for spatial memory, is enlarged in taxi drivers. The point is that the physical architecture of the brain changes according to where we direct our attention and what we practice doing.

We recently saw this principle at work in Jason, a six-year-old. At times Jason would obsess about irrational fears, and it was driving his parents crazy. Eventually he began having trouble sleeping because he was afraid the ceiling fan in his bedroom would come crashing down on him. His parents had repeatedly shown him how securely the fan was attached and logically explained how safe he was in his bed. But the thoughts from his rational, logical upstairs brain were being hijacked each night by the fears in his downstairs brain. He would lie awake long past bedtime worrying what would happen if the screws came loose and the twirling blades descended on him, chopping into pieces his body, his bed, and his Darth Vader sheets.

Once his parents learned about mindsight and explained the wheel of awareness to him, Jason suddenly had a valuable tool that offered relief not only to himself but also to his whole family. He saw that, like Josh, he had become stuck on his rim, fixating on his fear of what might happen if the ceiling fan fell. His parents helped him get back to his hub where he could recognize the physical sensations that signaled that this obsession was creeping into his mind—the anxious feelings in his chest, the tension in his arms, legs, and face—so he could then direct his attention toward something that would relax him. Then he could take the next steps to bring together the different parts of himself. He could think about other rim points: his confidence that his parents would protect him and would never let him sleep beneath a fan that might fall and hurt him, or his memory of how much fun he’d had that day digging the huge hole in the backyard. Or he could focus on the tension he felt in his body and use some guided imagery to help himself relax. Jason loves to fish, so he learned to picture himself in a boat with his father. (We’ll say more about this technique in a minute.)

Again, it all comes back to awareness. By becoming aware that he was stuck on one part of the rim of his wheel, and realizing that he had other options regarding where he directed his concentration, Jason learned to shift his focus and therefore his mental state. That meant he could then make decisions that made life much easier for both himself and his family. They all survived this difficult phase without having to remove the ceiling fan.

But once again, integration led not only to surviving, but to thriving as well. Mindsight wasn’t just a Band-Aid for Jason that helped him and his parents deal with one particular difficult nighttime obstacle. It also produced a more fundamental change that will create benefits long into adulthood. In other words, learning to use the wheel of awareness and change where his attention was directed naturally changed Jason’s perspective—but it did much more than that. As Jason, even at such a young age, understood this principle and practiced concentrating on other rim points, the neurons in his brain fired in new ways and made new connections. These new firings and wirings changed the makeup of his brain and left him less vulnerable not only to this particular fear and this particular obsession, but to future fears and obsessions as well—like when he felt petrified about singing onstage for the holiday concert at his school, and nervous about going on a sleepover at his friend’s house. Mindsight, along with the awareness it brought, actually changed Jason’s brain. Because of his nature, he may continue to deal with certain worries that come with his personality. But for the rest of his life, he’ll reap the benefit of this whole-brain work he’s done as a young child, and he’ll have at his disposal a powerful tool for dealing with other fears and obsessions.

As Jason’s mother and father found out, mindsight can be a thrilling discovery for parents, especially when they see the power of integration at work in their child’s life. It’s very exciting to understand (and to teach our kids) that we can use our minds to take control of our lives. 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 rim points on the wheel 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.

What an amazing power to bestow on your children! When they understand some basic mindsight principles—and kids can often get the wheel of awareness idea at a very young age, even at the beginning of elementary school—they are empowered to more fully regulate their own bodies and minds and actually change the way they experience different life situations. Their downstairs brain and implicit memories will control them less, and their mindsight will help them live full and healthy lives from an integrated brain.

But what if children get stuck on the rim and can’t seem to get back to their hub? In other words, what if they can’t seem to bring together the different parts of themselves because they are so fixated on one particular state of mind? As parents, we know that this “stuckness” happens all the time. Just think about Josh and his perfectionism. Even once he understands about the wheel of awareness and the different parts of himself, his need to excel may still overpower him at times. The same goes for Jason and his fear of the ceiling fan. An awareness of mindsight and the wheel of awareness can be very powerful, but that doesn’t mean kids can easily switch the focus of their attention onto another rim point and move on with their lives.

So how can we help our kids increasingly integrate the different parts of themselves and become unstuck on rim points that are limiting them? How can we help them develop mindsight so they can more and more access its power to control their own lives? Let’s talk about a few ways you can introduce mindsight to your kids and help them build skills they can use on a daily basis.
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