Paying Attention to the Interior World
Is there a fundamental difference between the act of paying attention to an article you're reading or a song you hear, and the act of paying attention to your own bodily feelings and sensations? New evidence says yes, despite the conventional assumption that all attention happens in the brain's frontal lobe. In a new study, researchers have found that two distinct and separate parts of the brain may be responsible for directing externally-oriented and internally-oriented attention.
Scientists from the University of Toronto asked study participants to focus either on the sensation of their own breath (an internal focus) or on words on a screen (an external focus). They found that while externally-focused tasks used the brain's more advanced frontal lobe, internally-attentive tasks used evolutionarily older parts of the brain that have been associated with sensation and bodily awareness.
Researcher and Scientific American writer Emma Seppala comments:
These findings have important implications for emotional well-being. States of mind such as anxiety, depression, and anger often engage the prefrontal cortex. “I can’t shut my mind off” -- a statement most of us can relate to in times of stress. Have you ever tried to talk yourself out of such a state of high stress and failed? Trying to talk ourselves out of being less anxious or angry is often a futile exercise. The mind quite simply has a hard time telling itself what to do.