There are times when we want to focus on something—reading a text, listening to a presentation, doing a complicated task—and, without even noticing, our mind flies off in a different direction. We then send us encouraging messages, I’m attentive! I must not wander! Come on! But soon distractions are back in the game and beat us again. Our brain lacks modules to command mental concentration, in the way it gives instructions to initiate more simple things as making a phone call or going out to lunch.
Focusing on something is inhibiting all interfering signals; digressions result from surrendering to such signals. Concentration therefore does not result from the excitation of neuronal circuits that keep us tuned to the task of the moment but from inhibiting the distracting signals fired randomly by our mental conditioning—the preferences and dislikes—sown on us by media and culture. The neural mechanisms that command actions are known as excitatory circuits; those which stop tasks are called inhibitory circuits. The latter are as important as the former and the balance between the two is crucial to our performance.
Are there exercises to improve concentration? Yes, and they are helpful: Practicing hatha yoga, staying still for long periods, identifying differences in two similar pictures… Because of the way it works, however, mindfulness meditation is the best way to improve concentration.
Once motionless, silent and with mouth and eyes closed, the meditator leaves with no job, for the duration of the practice, the brain circuits that drive motion, and that manage the functions of talking, eating and seeing; leaving such circuits with no duty is inhibiting their work. For example, just by closing our eyes, we are silencing one fifth of our neurons; vision is one of the functions with highest demand of brain-power.
Readers may get a rough idea of the functioning of the inhibitory mechanisms by focusing their attention for a few seconds on the contact areas of their skin with their clothes, or of their body with the chair where they are sitting. With practice and time, people will detect much more subtle signals than those resulting from physical contact.
In the rotation of attention around the body and in the perception of sensations commonly ignored, meditators exercises their inhibitory circuits, forcing them to a continuous on/off switching mode during the whole session. This repeated activation/deactivation of neuronal circuits is equivalent to the successive tension/release of tendons and muscle fibers during physical exercise.
Inhibitory mechanisms are charged with maintaining human consciousness free from irrelevant information that diverts it from the successful completion of the task at hand. The exercise of these mechanisms leads to a substantial increase in our ability to concentrate.
Do other forms of meditation lead to similar improvements? Yes, although on a smaller scale. With continued exercise of mindfulness, the meditator reaches a state of pleasant silence without pursuing it. It is not so with other meditation approaches that appease the busy mind with whimsical tricks. For example, there are practices, such as transcendental meditation, that include verbal or mental repetition of mantras or sacred words that inevitably block the ‘unsearched’ arrival of pure mental silence. In mindfulness meditation there are no chants, essences, pictures or sounds… Even the word ‘silence’, when pronounced, produces noise.
“In any interpretation,” I heard a master guitarist saying, “sounds are as important as silences.” It is similar for brain activity. This virtuous musician added that, during his rehearsals, his attention always focuses on both notes and pauses, that is, sounds and silences. Our frantic daily routine prevents us from listening to the screams of our mind and, even less, does not leave room to pay attention to its infrequent moments of calm.
Mindfulness is the permanent observation of sounds and silences in our head. Mindfulness meditation is, in turn, the workout of inhibitory circuits that, once strengthened, stop unnecessary noise. Concentration then becomes a natural and spontaneous activity which does not require willpower.
Atlanta, octubre 16, 2015