Improving ourselves means having the ability to recognize what is happening, interpreted and make decisions based on our interpretation. This involves an increased level of self-awareness. Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness and mindfulness exercises can help to expand self-awareness.
Catherine Kerr, a Ph.D. uses Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and other tools to investigate brain mechanisms underlying body-based attention and healing in mindfulness.
Kerr says (4.5) that body focused mindfulness is simple and may be very powerful. If if you take a moment to focus your attention on your big toe then slowly move your focus to your other toes then, even though you’re not touching your toes, you can “cognitively” feel them. Kerr’s research is attempting to answer the question, how might body focused attention in mindfulness produce specific benefits for the mind? She says that, it turns out that when you pay close attention to your toes or to your breath you are actually learning how to use your attention to control the sensory volume knobs in your brain. This volume system involves a structure that sits underneath the cortex in the brain called the thalamus. The thalamus is the gatekeeper for the cortex. It decides which sensations to allow in to the cortex (where you will focus on them) and which sensations to minimize or eliminate. Interestingly, these sensations do not just relate to those generated by the sense of touch or thinking about your toes. It also relates to positive and negative and repetitive thoughts.
Kerr says that you can use your mind to regulate this process.
We all do this naturally to some extent. If you are not able to control it then you would be flooded with sensation. For example, you are doing it now while reading this paragraph. You have raised the sensory volume on the words you are reading and lowered the sensory volume arising from the chair you are sitting on and is pushing up against your buttocks.
Kerr’s research aims to get a better understanding of what happens during mindfulness. After doing brain scans on people that received mindfulness training and comparing them with people that did not receive mindfulness training it was clear that that people that received mindfulness training were better able to change their attention from one context to another and one thing to another when compared with the people that did not receive the mindfulness training. This is important because people that suffer from chronic pain have an attention system that can be very inflexible because processing resources are biased toward the pain sensations and attentional resources are consumed by negative preoccupations, thoughts and worries. People that suffer from depression and chronic pain tended to not able to process the sensory world in real time.
Kerr says that the early Buddhists advanced a similar theory 2500 years ago in a famous practice text called “the four foundations of mindfulness”. The first one happens to be mindfulness of the body and breath. This seems to be a relationship between the mind’s ability to regulate emotions and its ability to perform body focused attention. It seems that it is important for developing the ability to regulate emotion and learning how to regulate negative or repetitive thoughts. The sensory world and thought world are considered to be related. In Western society they are considered to be totally separate.
Kerr suggests this exercise. Focus on your breath. Breathing normally. Focus on the quality of your attention. Is it steady? Is it calm? Is it easily distracted? This is the important art of observing yourself. If your attention is not calm it tells you something about your current state of mind or your ability to focus. Simply spending more time with a calm focus on your breath will train your “focus muscle” and allow you to spend more time in a peaceful, grounded, centered state.
Kerr says that simple embodied mindfulness may be able to reset cognitive and emotional baselines, or to put it another way, help you to get better control of those negative and repetitive thoughts that reduce the quality of the passing of time.
Next article in this series: “Motivation”