Love and Attention
Two fundamental things – love and attention – shape our lives more than anything else. Without the consistent love of at least one person, children’s brains do not develop properly and their lives are often blighted. Being attended to – that is, feeling held in another’s mind – is part of being loved and is also crucial for the brain’s development.
Attention is the gatekeeper for how experiences sculpt the child’s brain. Without attention, experiences don’t trigger physical changes in the brain tissue of the sort that attended-to input does. [i] This means that potentially rich stimulation drains away like water into sand because it is not ‘activated’ by attention.
Our brains have a number of specific general purpose attention networks which help us to select what to attend to (one voice rather than the background conversation), allow us to switch from one thing to another (from the song on the radio to the red traffic light ahead) and to sustain it over time (read this blog to the end without mind wandering).
Loving adults sculpt these attention networks in their young children through joint attention; babies learn to attend a little like they learn to walk, by being held for the first few steps before gradually venturing on their own with just a hand, and finally staggering off with anxious hands braced to catch. Attention is a bit like that – the attentional circuits are like muscles which need to be developed.
Children learn to sustain their attention in this sort of faltering, supported way: the brain finds it hard to keep attention on an unchanging stimulus for more than a few seconds at a time, but that’s exactly what the children have to learn to do they are going to learn to read, think and regulate their emotions.
Love is a specific kind of attention imbued with feeling, and the same is true for hate. When a child struggles through a difficult reading passage in school, it’s not just her brain’s attention network which is keeping her focused – it is also the fact of feeling held in her parent’s attention which helps keeps her on task.
This is why children who are having emotional problems, say during family breakup, can really start to perform badly in school, but this is not just true for young children.
Attention depends a lot on the brain’s prefrontal cortex and this region is not fully ‘wired-up’ to the rest of the brain until the early to mid twenties, particularly in men [ii]. This is why car insurance premiums are so high for people in this age group – even young adults’ ability to focus their attention, consider future risk and inhibit their emotions are underdeveloped.
Attention is not just about thinking and focus – it is hugely important in our emotional life as well. When someone snaps at us, it is our ability to refocus our attention which allows us to remember that he is very stressed, and so with luck we inhibit our natural response to retaliate and provoke more trouble.
Our ability to control our attention seems to be very important for our own emotional balance as well. Left to wander on its own, the mind will quickly revert to unhappy memories or anxious thoughts if these exist – as they do for many people. This is why, in the words of one pair of researchers – ‘a wandering mind is an unhappy mind’: this study showed that people are unhappier when their minds are wandering, even when compared how they feel when focused on routine or tiresome chores.[iii]
The centrality of love and attention to our health mental functioning is starting to become clearer in recent research on the biological and psychological effects of two different types of meditation, each emphasizing one element of the love-attention partnership. I will discuss these in my next blog.
[i] Recanzone, G. H., Schreiner, C. E., & Merzenich, M. M. (1993).Plasticity in the frequency representation of primary auditory cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 13 , 87–103
[ii] Sowell ER et al (1999 In vivo evidence for post-adolescent brain maturation in frontal and striatal regions. Nature Neuroscience 2, 859 – 861.
[iii] Killingsworth, M. A. and D. T. Gilbert (2010). “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.” Science 330(6006): 932.