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Thursday, April 26, 2012
Various techniques such as Tai Chi, Yoga, self-hypnosis, and various forms of contemplative care can help people increase their ability to focus and concentrate. The resulting improvements can help athletes, students, surgeons, and others who will greatly benefit. In order to understand how this works, you have to ponder why our day-to-day mental activity makes it hard for us to concentrate.
Generally, the problem with concentration and focus comes from our brain’s problem- solving process. Our ability to perceive or imagine situations needing resolution leads our brain to begin the process of searching for solutions. While this involves many parts of the brain, in particular it needs the cooperation of the anterior cingulated cortex, which is a section that exists in both halves of the brain and is located just forward of the limbic system. The limbic system is the ancient part of our brain that controls much of the body’s emotional and automatic functions.
The ACC serves as a switchboard for our thoughts. Normally, when a situation needing resolution is detected, it serves the purpose of scanning the brain looking for answers. Once an answer or answers are detected, a part of the limbic system called the basil ganglia signals that the search can stop.
In our hectic multi-tasking world, replete with smart phones, tablet computers, and the multiple roles each of us play, normally the ACC is on overload. It demands more neural energy and thus robs the ability for other areas to function. This includes the areas that facilitate awareness and focus.
When someone participates in a calming activity such as those that I initially listed, the ACC tends to slow down. This provides increased capabilities for the many other areas to function. This is why someone who is stressed during an exam will often remember an answer minutes after their paper has been turned in.
There are two other considerations that must be discussed. One involves habituation, which is the brain’s automatic habit forming tendency, and mastery, which implies that the more that we repeat a certain habit, the more it is strengthened in our brain. The habit of hyperactivating the ACC helps this destructive tendency become a very big part of someone’s personality. The more that it is repeated, the thicker the associated neural networks become. This is what is called the “use it or lose it” syndrome. To counteract this problem, it is amazing how quickly a few minutes of meditation or Tai Chi can be to set a person on a healing path. I have noticed that the novice hypnosis patient will start detecting improvements after just one session. This is the same thing that Herbert Benson, MD, who coined the term “Relaxation Response,” was talking about. Once a person starts calming the ACC, they begin noticing the positive impact of a brain that is being more fully utilized. This wonderment often turns into a lifelong habit.
As a young teen I used meditation to progress from being a marginal student to being a honor graduate at high school and as I pursued numerous university degrees. That was long before I knew what was happening to my brain. By quieting the ACC less mental anguish is encountered. This pleasurable condition further encouraged me to stay on this path.
Keywords: concentration, focus, hypnosis, Tai Chi, meditation, yoga
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