Most people’s definition of “attention” is simply the ability to focus the mind. This is accurate but does not explain the details of how attention works.
Why the human brain evolved as it did.
Through the course of evolution, the content and complexity of information that the brain had to deal with became increasingly overwhelming. There was more and more information to process with changing times and environments. The attention system of our brain has evolved to allow us to select a subset of information. The brain evolved to have this useful tool, which is the attention system.
The human brain’s attention capacity doesn’t mature fully until the age of 25. It peaks at about 35 and then begins a slight decline. The good news is that mindfulness training keeps the attention stronger for longer.
The brain’s attention allows you to hear, understand, learn, comprehend, communicate, plan, act, and make decisions. The attention system also gives us the ability to regulate our emotions. These are all complex processes that happen daily and hourly in our lives utilizing our evolved attention system.
It may be helpful to understand the finer details of how the brain’s attention works and why the mindfulness practice of yoga and meditation are such useful tools. There are three Subsystems of Attention. These subsets work hand-in-hand to help the mind to understand what’s happening around it and within it.
- The Orienting System: The Flashlight
The Orienting System can be compared to how we need a flashlight to guide our path. The orienting system similarly allows us to have more fine-grained focus on the external environment, which also helps focus our internal landscapes. It helps us to focus both our minds and our bodies. This function highlights the moment-to-moment information, as you cannot point a flashlight in multiple directions at once. This is a perfect analogy to how we can focus our minds. A common term many use is “multi-tasking”, but multi-tasking is actually not possible. The more correct description is that we “task-switch,” because attention is limited to focusing on one thing at a time. Engaging and disengaging takes a lot of energy, so you may notice that fatigue sets in when you are trying to focus on more than one thing at a time. To conclude, we use our orienting system (the flashlight) for both our external and internal environment.
2. The Alerting System: Caution Signs
This system is broad, expansive, and receptive. It indicates to you when to have your attention ready. A visual example could be when you have a warning light on the highway where there is construction ahead and your speed needs to be reduced. It is alerting you to pay attention in the next moment. During yoga practice, it is a commonly reinforced direction to pay attention to the body’s sensations or signals to gage the depth of a given pose.
3. The Executive System: The Juggler
This system combines the first two systems and works to make sure that our current goals and actions are aligned. The name is based on the business context and indicates the role of overseeing, directing, and managing the overall situation. This management function is very different from the Orienting and Alerting Systems, but we need all three capacities to support each other. This is where Mindfulness Practice can be beneficial. It’s being alert and aware of all aspects of life and practicing being in the Present Moment to pay full attention to life as it unfolds rather than the thinking mind.
Practice daily meditation, yoga, or just simple mindfulness in daily living to keep the attention system of the brain working optimally.