The longevity revolution can be the catalyst for us to shift our mindsets and improve the way we live our lives - all of our life. In this post I look at how attentional training can benefit us.
It is Tuesday morning and the first thing you hear is the sound of rain on your window. You shudder as you imagine how you will soon be getting wet and cold. You pull yourself together and as you leave the warm bed, you complain about the stiffness of your body and an aching back. As you drink your coffee on automatic pilot, you give yourself a verbal ageist flogging for forgetting to buy milk “Another senior moment!”. You get into the shower ruminating over all the things that is wrong with your body and mind and wonder what might go wrong today.
Let´s re-imagine this morning.
It is Tuesday morning and the first thing you hear is the sound of rain on your window. You stay in bed for another 5 min, listening and savouring the warmth of the duvet. You notice a stiffness in your body and decide to take a moment to meet these sensations with some gentle kind stretches. As you drink your coffee, you notice the sweet, nutty taste that is still there despite the lack of milk this morning. When you enter the shower, you notice the soft warm feeling of water on your body. You appreciate being alive and wonder what kind of opportunities and experiences the day might bring you.
Do you see the difference? When I ask people to mention some of the abilities, they believe lead to thriving (ageing) lives, I never hear them say the ability to control their attention. Yet attention is our mental currency and we need to invest it wisely, as it sets the tone for our lives. Luckily attentional control is a skill we can strengthen.
The story above illustrates 2 tendencies of our attention; it easily wanders off and away from the present moment and it prefers the negative over the positive. These tendencies will not only make us miss out on the pleasant experiences in life but will repeatedly spin us into spirals of unnecessary negative thoughts, worries and regret. The secret to a thriving life, no matter our age, is the ability to choose one thought over another as it will influence the emotions and physical sensations that follows. In order to do this, we need to first notice them.
A wandering & negative mind keeps us safe
Why do our minds wander and seek out the negative? Because the default setting of our brain has not been wired in a way that benefits out mental well-being. Our brain is hardwired to ensure our survival. It has evolved to constantly scan our environment for potential danger to keep us safe. Our ancestors didn’t have the luxury of taking a moment to enjoy the morning coffee (or whatever they drank), because it wasn’t safe. Similarly, attending to the positive is a waste of time from a survival point of view, because it’s the things that goes wrong, or potentially can go wrong, that we need to focus on and learn from.
Life is different now, and it is not just about survival. Unfortunately for our mental well-being we are still walking around with similar brains to our ancestors. The good news however is that although we are born with the same default wiring as our ancestors, our brains are also extremely flexible. Thanks to neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the neural networks in our brains to change, it is possible to reorganize some of our default mechanism in the brain.
Formal and Informal Attention Training
Improving our attention control is not an easy quest. We are up against strong genetic forces. We basically need to rebel against evolution. Our current way of living is also not helping as we are always trying to multitask, and we are constantly being interrupted by our electronic devises. It gets harder as we age too. Research has found age-related changes and decline in attentional control processes[i] and older adults, especially after age 65, have difficulty activating brain regions necessary for concentration[ii]. We also tend to get more easily distracted with age[iii]. But that doesn´t mean that we should just give up. Mindfulness meditation has repeatedly shown to improve attentional control and the enhancement can even be seen in complete novices meditating for only 10 min a day [iv]. Although there have been less studies performed on elderly people, there are some promising results[v]. Even the attention of people with dementia or cognitive impairment appears to benefit from practicing mindfulness[vi]. One study found that the effect of mindfulness was particularly strong for the people over 60 years[vii]. It seems, it is never too late to start.
So how do we do it? We can train our attentional control through repeated practice and patience as if it was a muscle. There are two ways to do this. The first way is through informal mindfulness, which is mindfulness without meditation. It is when we curiously investigate our experiences and attention in everyday life and deliberately practice re-focusing our attention to where we want it to go. This can be done pretty much in anything you do consciously in life. Notice the messages your body and mind are sending you. What thoughts show up repeatedly? What emotions are present? How does the body feel like as I am bending it to touch the toes? What will happen if I focus on my breath instead of worrying about the future?
The second way is to formally take time out to practice mindfulness, either while sitting, lying or moving slowly for a certain amount of time. This is formal mindfulness meditation. It can take anything from 5 min to many hours.
I invite you to play with you attention formally and informally. Make it a game. A mindful challenge to see what your mind is capable of. You can explore on your own, but in the beginning, it helps to let yourself be guided either by the voice of a teacher or through recorded guided meditations for formal meditation. There is an abundance of guided meditation available in various apps or on the internet. I also have some free meditations available on my website
Well worth the investment
A strong attentional control will benefit you now and possibly even more so when you get older, when we so easily can get caught up in focusing on all the things that are not as they used to be. While we are not able to control our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations we can learn to master what kind of attention we pay them. With persistence and patience, we can slowly re-wire our neurological pathways in the brain, so that we can thrive as well as survive.
Feel free to comment on how you train your attentional control and how it benefits you.
(This post is a heavily shortened version of chapter 3 in my upcoming book Ageing Upwards, A mindfulness-based approach to the longevity revolution. Stay tuned as in the next few weeks I will be able to send out a link to prepurchase it.)
[i] Fountain-Zaragoza, S., & Prakash, R. S. (2017). Mindfulness Training for Healthy Aging: Impact on Attention, Well-Being, and Inflammation. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 9, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2017.00011
[ii] Grady CL, Springer MV, Hongwanishkul D, McIntosh AR, Winocur G. Age-related changes in brain activity across the adult lifespan. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18: 227-41. PMID 16494683 DOI: 10.1162/089892906775783705
[iii] W. Dale Stevens, Lynn Hasher, Kimberly S. Chiew, Cheryl L. Grady, A Neural Mechanism Underlying Memory Failure in Older Adults, Journal of Neuroscience 26 November 2008, 28 (48) 12820-12824; DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2622-08.2008
[iv] Norris, C. J., Creem, D., Hendler, R., & Kober, H. (2018). Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 12, 315. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2018.00315
[v] Kurmi, Naren & Bhagyalakshmi, K. & Kini, Rekha. (2019). Effect of mindfulness meditation on attention and working memory in elderly people. Indian Journal of Clinical Anatomy and Physiology. 6. 73-76. 10.18231/2394-2126.2019.0018.
[vi] See for instance Robertson, G. & Litherland, R. 2014. Mindfulness meditation: can it make a difference? The Journal of Dementia Care, 22, 31-33
Wong, W. P., Coles, J., Chambers, R., Wu, D. B., & Hassed, C. (2017). The Effects of Mindfulness on Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Journal of Alzheimer's disease reports, 1(1), 181–193. https://doi.org/10.3233/ADR-170031)
[vii] Chen, Yunhui MD, PhDa,∗; Zhang, Jiayuan MDa; Zhang, Tiane MD, PhDa; Cao, Liu MDb; You, Yanyan MDa; Zhang, Chunjiang MDa; Liu, Xinglong MD, PhDa,∗; Zhang, Qi MDa,∗ Meditation treatment of Alzheimer disease and mild cognitive impairment, Medicine: March 2020 - Volume 99 - Issue 10 - p e19313 doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000019313