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Response to: The Brain's Power to Avoid Diversions (Scientific American July 2014)

Updated on July 9, 2014

Are we missing the point?

It would seem to me the neuroscientists are missing something. What are your thoughts on this?

Concentration vs. Paying Attention

“You know the exit is somewhere along this stretch of highway, but you have never taken it before and do not want to miss it. As you carefully scan the side of the road for the exit sign, numerous distractions intrude on your visual field: billboards, a snazzy convertible, a cell phone buzzing on the dashboard. How does your brain focus on the task at hand?” writes Ferris Jabr in Scientific American in the July 2014 issue. In answer to this question, neuroscientists generally track how the brain strengthens the response to what is sought, but now, John Gaspar and John McDonald both at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, have found that there is more to it than that.

These scientists have studied not how what is sought is reinforced, but rather how what is not sought is repressed. In other words, focus has as much to do with filtering out distractions, as it does with enhancing the response to what is sought when it is found. But I would like to propose that suppression of distractions is actually far more economically costly to the brain than paying attention. But what then is paying attention, as compared to focus, or concentration? First, I would point to the fact that we “pay” attention, while concentration does not get verbalized in this way… Concentration is an active process, while attention paying is somehow different. Concentration, it seems to me, following J. Krishnamurti, requires far more energy input than attention, which is more a silence of Thought, an ability or capacity to “see things clearly” and involves innate intelligence. Concentration, or focus, is about exclusion…

Filter or let lay before you?

Window as filter, closing off distractions. Attention does not require closing off or filtering, or as is commonly said, repressing, distractions.
Window as filter, closing off distractions. Attention does not require closing off or filtering, or as is commonly said, repressing, distractions. | Source

Reinforcement and Suppression: Two sides of the same coin.

Martin Heidegger once discussed the notion of Heraclitus, that “It is useful, the letting lay before you and so taking to heart, of beings in their being.” This is paying attention. Concentration is an energy consumer. Letting lay before you requires only silence. But is reinforcement of finding what one seeks the same thing? Again, I would say no, it is not. Reinforcement almost requires that the filters also be in place. The reinforcement and the suppression aspects of the filter are it seems two sides of the same coin.


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