Some Preliminary Ideas for Research into Attention

From Yoga Research Publication: Volume One, (Micheline Flak) Swami Yogabhakti Saraswati Ph.D. (Sorbonne), Founder and President of RYE

ABSTRACT: An experienced educator and yoga practitioner sets out the definitive aspects of attention and how to train this often elusive quality with a variety of yoga techniques. She stresses the concept of inner attention as well as outer attention and the necessity of research to correlate the yogic practices with different categories of attention already examined neurophysiologically.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists: neurophysiologists have erred together in their undue emphasis on the conscious components of mentation. This has led the educator into neglecting the preconscious instrument of learning, which is the effective instrument of recording, processing and of creating.

—L.S. Kubie *1


Attention, turning the mind, or an aspect of it, towards something is in great demand in modern life. Yet most find attention, in the form of one-pointed concentration, difficult to attain. This is largely due to the manifold distractions of and decisions necessitated by our democratic, consumer-oriented society. As Thoreau pointed out in Walden, “Our life is frittered away in detail’ – a point he attempted to prove by rebelliously existing for a few summers with the bare necessities, including morning readings of the Bhagavad Gita, by a Concord pond. Yet, as I will attempt to show in this paper, there are many different aspects to attention and many different ways to train its effectiveness. In particular, it may no longer be valid, in an educational or meditative setting, to equate effective attention with one-pointed concentration.

Splitting of the attention

In his classic chapter on attention in Principles of Psychology (1890) William James proposed that, “The practical and theoretical life of whole species, as well as of individual beings, results from the selection which the habitual direction of their attention involves...each of us literally chooses by his (or her) way of attending to things what sort of a universe he (or she) shall appear to inhabit.”*2

As Davidson and Coleman point out, the major implication of this is that our habitual pattern of attention may be supposed, over time, to influence the content of our mind and emotions and thence our behaviour and experience.*3 The concert musician who, by repetitive, attentive practice, trains his or her fingers to play a certain scale is, by this reinforcing of a particular, sequential pattern of proprioceptive impulses, developing specific groups of neuronal synapses in areas of the central nervous system such as the basal ganglia and cerebellum. Attention thus changes the physical structure of the brain to create an engram or program of activity which can initiate an extremely complex series of movements without the need for conscious guidance via neuronal pathways from the motor cortex.*4 Similarly, the person suffering from chronic ‘malattention’ may develop changes in neural structure, measurable on an electroencephalogram, that correlate with poor work performance and impaired social relationships.

In my work with Research on Yoga in Education (RYE), I have increasingly become aware that many modern behaviour patterns are leading to a split of attention amongst the young. Listening to walkman radios while reading and/or watching television, and zapping (rapid switching of television channels by remote control) are often bemoaned as factors in an apparent degeneration of youthful faculties and hence of national productivity and character. Indeed such behaviour seems a direct contradiction of the classical ideas we have about the management of our intellect. That is, attention, to be effective should be focused on one thing at a time. Such problems have stimulated my interest in attention and in the development of methods for its training.

The conversion of split into double or triple attention

Many famous people who lead enormously productive lives had developed that capacity to direct their attention to more than one thing at a time. Napoleon, for example, was reputedly able to dictate sentences for four different letters, returning to complete each with perfect recollection of its contents. Such anecdotes lead me to consider whether children and adults might be able to train their habituated split attention into effective dual or triple attention.

One technique I have used is to get students to listen to a story while working at multiplication. Afterwards the level of effective double attention is checked by verifying whether the story can be retold correctly and that the mathematics is accurate. Another practice involves rows of students behind each other with readers at the end of each line. The readers recite different articles. The first stage in training the attention is to listen to one person only. The second is to try and listen to both at the same time. The third stage is to try and give an account of the context of both articles. It is like having a dialogue with someone in a restaurant , and later relating the conversation at the next table.

Peripheral or non-focused attention

Other existing methods of education attempt to train attention to effectiveness without utilizing the one-pointed concentration that modern human beings find so difficult. The Lozanov method of learning, especially of languages, (called Suggestopaedia) develops peripheral or non-focused attention. The student is desensitized to the stress normally associated with one-pointed concentration. It is a complex method and difficult to describe fully here. In a related method, ‘Superlearning’, a list for memorization is read with the student mentally repeating each word during breath retention, then exhaling and inhaling between repetitions. Thereafter certain types of Baroque music are played (with sixty beats per minute, e.g. Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’) while the text is again read. Finally, retention is tested by an attempt at mental repetition. This method also works on the principle that when the mind is relaxed more information will be retained, even without one-pointed concentration.

Attention in relation to the inner and outer world

So far, I have discussed attention in relation to the external world, yet the concept is equally important in relation to our inner state. Our attention on personal thought processes and emotions ultimately provides the secure basis of self-understanding and strength from which effective social interaction can take place.

Shapiro has written of ‘three broad general groupings of attentional strategies in meditation: a focus on the field’ (mindfulness meditation like Zen’s shikan-taza); ‘a focus on a specific object within the field’ (the classical, one-pointed concentration of raja yoga); ‘and a shifting back and forth between the two’, (vipassana and transcendental meditation).*5

Citing Pribam’s work on neuropsychology*6 Shapiro describes brain attentional mechanisms as being like a camera: one type involving a focus similar to a wide angled lens – a broad, sweeping awareness taking in the entire field (mindfulness meditation); the second type is like a zoom lens – a specific focusing on a restricted segment of a field.

Such a definition of meditation appears to me to unnecessarily exclude the concept of double or triple attention – the focusing on more than one object within a field. During the meditation technique of ajapa japa, for example, the yogi is trained to be aware simultaneously of posture, of the psychic passage between navel and throat, of the breath passing up and down this passage, of the mantra So Ham and of any thoughts arising during the process. Likewise, highly advanced meditation states appear to involve double attention in an even more subtle sense. In nirvikalpa samadhi the yogi is simultaneously aware of the Supreme Reality, as it is often called, and the external material reality. In gross neuropsychological terms this would be equivalent to the coexistence of EEG delta waves, characteristic of deep sleep, with the beta waves of normal waking consciousness.


*1. Kubie, L. S., 1967, “Research in protecting preconscious functions in education”, in Jones, R.M., ed., Contemporary Educational Psychology, Harper Torch Books, New York, p 78.

*2. James, W., 1950, Principles of Psychology, Vol. 1, Dover, New York.

*3. Davidson, R. J., Goleman, D. J., 1984, “The role of attention in meditation and hypnosis: a psychobiological perspective on transformations of consciousness”, in Shapiro, D. R., Walsh, R. N., eds., Meditation: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives, Aldin, New York, pp 594–615.

*4. Guyton, A. C., 1981. Textbook of Medical Physiology, 6th ed., Phil. WB Saunders.

*5. Shapiro, D. H., “Overview: Clinical and psychological comparison of meditation with other self control strategies”.

*6. Pribram, K., 1971, Languages of the Brain: Experimental paradoxes and principles in neuropsychology, N. J. Prentice Hall.

To be continued in the next issue