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Pay attention!


Just how do you do that?

What is this ability to focus the mind?  The frontal cortex is presented with large amounts of sensory data every second.  A small subset deemed important is presented to the conscious brain for assessment and action.  We all do have a limited ability to focus the mind on certain subjects of interest.  I say limited, because the “monkey brain” can run off on its own.  We all have the experience of not being able to get something out of our head.  Falling in love is a common example.  There are brain chemicals involved in the reward system deep inside the Limbic lobe which are not easily overcome, but assuming this is not the case, we do have some limited ability to focus attention and some people are better than others.

The Insular Cortex and working memory areas in the DLPFC are involved with initially identifying areas of interest.  It is the IFJ, FFA and PPA that are involved in focusing attention.  These are areas associated with vision.  Focusing attention is often something we do with our eyes.  We give our attention to things by looking intently at them.  This is why grown-ups get upset when their kids don’t look at them when they are talking to them.  The IFJ in the Frontal lobe also works with the FEF area to move the eye muscles to look directly at something.  This is all a good clue for us if we want to learn how to focus attention.  A good technique taught to new students in many Hatha Yoga schools is candle meditation (Trataka).  It is simple, but very powerful, and the vast majority of people can benefit from improving their ability to focus their attention.

Brain processing of information

Recent psychology research suggests that the conscious brain, the working area in the pre-frontal cortex, handles about 40 to 50 bits (chunks – not the same “bits” in computers) of information per second.  At the same time, the unconscious brain is receiving about 11 million bits of information per second, roughly as follows:

  • eyes – 10 million bits per second
  • skin – 1 million bits per second
  • ears – 100,000 bits per second
  • smell – 100,000 bits per second
  • taste – 1,000 bits per second

The Limbic, Occipetal, Parietal and Temporal lobes do make use of this information.  Occasionally they may interrupt and over-ride during emergency situations, but usually they do an excellent job of filtering and passing up to the pre-frontal cortex just the information we want for the specific task we are dealing with.  The centre of our attention.