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Attention is what you choose to focus on. The challenge is there are an infinite number of stimuli in the world around us. Your brain needs an aggressive filtering system to avoid being overwhelmed. The system starts with the retina in your eye1. It compresses an infinite number of stimuli down to about 130 million receptors. Next, the optic nerve that connects your retina to your brain only has about 1.2 million data fibers. This results in another 100-fold compression. Finally, your working memory processes only three to four images at a time.

With all of this compression, what you see depends mainly on how you focus your attention. Take a look at the image below. Is it a rabbit or a duck? It all depends on how you direct your attention.
Think of attention as the gatekeeper to your awareness. It’s the bouncer who checks the guest list before allowing a chosen few into your head. Everyone else is turned away. The downside of this screening is a phenomenon known as “inattentional blindness.” It’s the failure to notice unexpected objects and events when you’re preoccupied with tasks demanding a lot of attention.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
-William Blake

Gorillas in Your Midst

In a striking example of inattentional blindness, Harvard researchers filmed a 75-second video of two teams passing a basketball back and forth2. Researchers showed this video to students, and asked them to silently count the number of passes. At the end of the video, students were asked to write down the number of passes. They were also asked if they had noticed the woman in the gorilla suit walking through the scene at the 44-second mark. Forty-six percent completely missed the gorilla because they were so focused on counting the number of passes.

You see what you've tuned your attention to see. If you focus on the color red, you’ll see red everywhere—red traffic lights, red cars, red T-shirts. This is the principle behind the power of positive thinking. It’s also the mechanism for self-fulfilling prophecies. If you’re always on the lookout for new opportunities, you’re more likely to spot them when they come your way.
Fortune favors the prepared mind.
-Louis Pasteur

Valuable Attention

According to author and researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, attention is our scarcest and most valuable resource. Since our brains can only process about 110 bits of information per second, the limit of what we can experience in a lifetime is about 173 billion bits3. This may seem like a lot, but think of how many bits you use up with mundane tasks such as brushing your teeth or eating dinner. Csíkszentmihályi says, “What we call our life is the sum of all the experiences that have filtered through our attention over time.” How we use our attention determines the content and quality of our lives.

What we see depends mainly on what we look for.
-John Lubbock

How can you improve your attention? At Massachusetts General Hospital, researchers examined people who had been meditating for an average of 6 hours per week for 9 years4. Magnetic resonance imaging showed that areas of the brain associated with attention were thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators. The differences were especially pronounced in older subjects. Meditation minimized age-related thinning of the brain.

Researchers speculated that meditation, yoga, and similar activities improve attention by changing the underlying structure of the brain. From my experience, I’ve found that meditation calms my mind and improves my concentration. At the end of a busy day, it helps me slow down and relax. Try it for yourself with the following exercise.
How to Meditate
Sogyal Rinpoche is a Tibetan Lama and the founder of Rigpa, a network of Buddhist centers around the world.
In The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, he offers advice on how to start meditating.
  1. Sit with your back straight, like an arrow or a pile of golden coins.
  2. The lower part of your spine has a natural curve; it should be relaxed but upright.
  3. Balance your head comfortably on your neck.
  4. Your shoulders and the upper part of your torso should be held in a strong poise, but without any tension.
  5. Sit with your legs crossed. You may also choose to sit on a chair with your legs relaxed. Be sure to keep your back straight.
  6. Keep your eyes open so you don’t fall asleep.
  7. When your mind is restless, calm it down by lowering your gaze. When your mind is dull and sleepy, bring your gaze up to increase alertness.
  8. Do not focus on anything in particular. Instead, turn back slightly into yourself. Let your gaze expand, and become more spacious and pervasive.
  9. Keep your mouth slightly open, as if you were about to say a deep and relaxing “Aaaah.” Breathe mainly through your mouth.
  10. Rest your hands comfortably covering your knees.
  1. Observe your breathing. Rest your attention, lightly and mindfully, on your breath.
  2. Breathe naturally, just as you always do.
  3. Focus your awareness lightly on your outbreath.
  4. Each time you breathe out, you will find there is a natural gap before you breathe in again.
  5. Rest in that gap, in the open space.
  6. Do not concentrate too much on your breath. Give it about 25 percent of your attention. Focus the other 75 percent on being quiet and spaciously relaxed.
  7. Do not try to control your mind. Let peace come naturally, without effort.
  8. Balance yourself between relaxation and alertness.
  9. A beginner should start with short sessions. Practice for 4–5 minutes, then take a 1-minute break before starting again.
  10. Over time, the contrast between meditation and everyday life will gradually dissolve. More and more, you will find yourself in your natural pure presence, without distraction.

Meditation is the road to enlightenment.
-Sogyal Rinpoche

  1. Treue S et al. (2003). Visual attention: the where, what, how and why of saliency. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 13:428–432.
  2. Simons DJ, Chabris CF. (1999). Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events. Perception. 28:1059–1074.
  3. Csíkszentmihályi M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row.
  4. Lazar SW et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport. 16:1893–1897.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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