I’ve just been reading Luke’s “Crash Course in the Neuroscience of Human Motivation.” It is a useful text, although there are a few technical errors and a few bits of outdated information (see [1], updated information about one particular quibble in [2] and [3]).

There is one significant missing piece, however, which is of critical importance for our subject matter here on LW: the effect of attention on plasticity, including the plasticity of motivation. Since I don’t see any other texts addressing it directly (certainly not from a neuroscientific perspective), let’s cover the main idea here.

Summary for impatient readers: focus of attention physically determines which synapses in your brain get stronger, and which areas of your cortex physically grow in size. The implications of this provide direct guidance for alteration of behaviors and motivational patterns. This is used for this purpose extensively: for instance, many benefits of the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy approach rely on this mechanism.


I – Attention and plasticity

To illustrate this properly, we need to define two terms. I’m guessing these are very familiar to most readers here, but let’s cover them briefly just in case.

First thing to keep in mind is the plasticity of cortical maps. In essence, particular functional areas of our brain can expand or shrink based on how often (and how intensely) they are used. A small amount of this growth is physical, as new axons grow, expanding the white matter; most of it happens by repurposing any less-used circuitry in the vicinity of the active area. For example, our sense of sight is processed by our visual cortex, which turns signals from our eyes into lines, shapes, colors and movement. In blind people, however, this part of the brain becomes invaded by other senses, and begins to process sensations like touch and hearing, such that they become significantly more sensitive than in sighted people. Similarly, in deaf people, auditory cortex (part of the brain that processes sounds) becomes adapted to process visual information and gather language clues by sight.

Second concept we’ll need is somatosensory cortex (SSC for short). This is an area of the (vertebrate) brain where most of the incoming touch and positional (proprioceptive) sensations from the body converge. There is a map-like quality to this part of our brain, as every body part links to a particular bit of the SSC surface (which can be illustrated with silly-looking things, such as the sensory homunculus). More touch-sensitive areas of the body have larger corresponding areas within the SSC.

With these two in mind, let’s consider one actual experiment [4]. Scientists measured and mapped the area of an owl monkey’s SSC which became activated when one of his fingertips was touched. The monkey was then trained to hold that finger on a tactile stimulator – a moving wheel that stimulates touch receptors. The monkey had to pay attention to the stimulus, and was rewarded for letting go upon detecting certain changes in spinning frequency. After a few weeks of training, the area was measured again.

As you probably expected, the area had grown larger. The touch-processing neurons grew out, co-opting surrounding circuitry in order to achieve better and faster processing of the stimulus that produced the reward. Which is, so far, just another way of showing plasticity of cortical maps.

But then, there is something else. The SSC area expanded only when the monkey had to pay attention to the sensation of touch in order to receive the reward. If a monkey was trained to keep a hand on the wheel that moved just the same, but he did not have to pay attention to itthe cortical map remained the same size. This finding has since been replicated in humans, many times (for instance [5, 6]).

Take a moment to consider what this means.

A man is sitting in his living room, in front of a chessboard. Classical music plays in the background. The man is focused, thinking about the next move, about his chess strategy, and about the future possibilities of the game. His neural networks are optimizing, making him a better chess player.

A man is sitting in his living room, in front of a chessboard. Classical music plays in the background. The man is focused, thinking about the music he hears, listening to the chords and anticipating the sounds still to come. His neural networks are optimizing, making him better at understanding music and hearing subtleties within a melody.

A man is sitting in his living room, in front of a chessboard. Classical music plays in the background. The man is focused, gritting his teeth as another flash of pain comes from his bad back. His neural networks are optimizing, making the pain more intense, easier to feel, harder to ignore.


II – Practical implications: making and breaking habits, efficacy of CBT

Habitual learned behaviors are often illustrated with the example of driving. When we are learning to drive, we have to pay attention to everything: when to push the pedals, when to signal, where to hold our hands… A few years later, these behaviors become so automatic, we hardly pay attention at all. Indeed, most of us can drive for hours while carrying on conversations or listening to audiobooks. We are completely unaware, as our own body keeps pushing pedals, signaling turns, and changing gears.

We can therefore say that driving behaviors, through practice and attention, eventually become automatic – which is, most of the time, a good thing. But so do many other things, including some destructive ones we might want to get rid of. Let’s take a simple one: nail biting. You are reading, or watching a movie, or thinking, or driving… when you suddenly notice some minor pain, and realize that you have chewed your nail into a ragged stump. Ouch!

You catch yourself biting, you stop. Five minutes later, you catch yourself biting again. You stop again. Repeat ad infinitum, or ad nauseam, whichever comes first.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has a highly successful approach for breaking habits, which requires only a very subtle alteration to this process. You notice that you are biting your nails. You immediately focus your attention on what you are doing, and you stop doing it. No rage, no blaming yourself, no negative emotions. You just stop, and you focus all the attention you can on the act of stopping. You move your arm down, focusing your attention on the act of movement, on the feeling of your arm going down, away from your mouth. That’s it. You can go back to whatever you were doing.

Five minutes later, you notice yourself biting your nails again. You calmly repeat the procedure again.

By doing this, you are training yourself to perform a new behavior – the “stop and put the hand down” behavior – which is itself triggered by the nail-biting behavior. As you go along, you will get better and better at noticing that you have started to bite your nails. You will also get better and better at stopping and putting your hand down. After a while, this will become semi-automatic; you’ll notice that your hand went to your mouth, a nail touched your tooth, and the hand went back down before you could do anything. Don’t stop training: focus your attention on the “stop and drop” part of the action.

After a while, the nail-biting simply goes away. Of course, the more complex and more ingrained a habit is, the more effort and time will be needed to break it. But for most people, even strong habits can be relatively quickly weakened, or redirected into less destructive behaviors.

It’s probably obvious that habits can be created in this way as well. We don’t become better at things we do – we become better at things we pay attention to while we’re doing them. If you want to make exercise a habit, your efforts will be much more effective if you focus your attention on your exercise technique, rather than repeatedly thinking how painful and tiring the whole process is.

There is also a direct implication for training in any complex skill. Start with the well-known learning curve effect: we gain a lot of skill relatively quickly, and then improvements slow down incrementally as we approach our maximum potential skill level. It is relatively easy to go from a poor to a mediocre tennis player; it is much, much harder to go from mediocre to good, and even harder to go from good to excellent.

Complex skills have many different aspects, which we usually attempt to train simultaneously. We can become very good at some, while staying poor at others. The optimal approach would be to focus most of our attention on those aspects where our abilities are weakest, since smaller investments of time and effort will lead to larger improvements in skill.

To keep with the tennis metaphor, one could become very good at controlling the ball direction and spin, while still having a poor awareness of the opponent’s position. Simply playing more will improve both aspects further, but our hypothetical player should optimally try to focus her attention on opponent awareness [7].

Finally, there is another implication which I’ll leave as an exercise for the readers. Mindfulness meditation, which essentially boils down to training control of attention, has been shown to exert a positive effect on many, many different things (lowering depression, anxiety and stress, as well as improving productivity [8, 9, 10]). In the light of the previous text, one obvious reason why better control over attention can produce all these beneficial effects should immediately come to mind.





[1] I have several quibbles, but let’s stick to one (to prevent this note from becoming longer than the above text). Luke presents a view of dopamine reward system which is stuck in the early 2000’s – ages ago by the pace of neuroscientific research. Dopamine actually has a very, very complex effect on motivation, and is able to strengthen or weaken single synaptic connections based on timing of the signal relative to the signals from the sensory systems. Endocannabinoid neurotransmission (i.e. signaling through chemicals that stimulate the same receptors that are affected by active ingredients in marijuana) is being shown as more and more important in this system as well, and the relative timing of the two signals appears critical.

The complexity of the effects increases by several orders of magnitude when networks are concerned. Consider this: a planning-related network in the prefrontal cortex can influence the motivation-generating networks in the striatum. A stimulus from the outside is perceived by the sensory networks and transmitted to the dopamine system, to the prefrontal cortex, and to the striatum. The same dopamine signal can, depending on exact timing of action potential bursts, strengthen synapses in the striatum, while weakening synapses in the prefrontal cortex. The result? The link between the stimulus and the actual motivation can increase or decrease, depending on exact connectivity between networks, on the relative sensitivity and on the exact topology of the meta-network in question.

See the following two references for a broad overview of the subject area.

[2] Calabresi P, Picconi B, Tozzi A, Di Filippo M. "Dopamine-mediated regulation of corticostriatal synaptic plasticity" Trends Neurosci. 2007 30(5):211-9.

[3] Wickens JR. "Synaptic plasticity in the basal ganglia" Behav Brain Res. 2009 199(1):119-28.

[4] Recanzone GH, Merzenich MM, Jenkins WM, Grajski KA, Dinse HR. "Topographic reorganization of the hand representation in cortical area 3b of owl monkeys trained in a frequency-discrimination task" J Neurophysiol. 1992 67(5), 1031-56.

[5] Heron J, Roach NW, Whitaker D, Hanson JV. "Attention regulates the plasticity of multisensory timing" Eur J Neurosci. 2010 31(10), 1755-62.

[6] Stefan K, Wycislo M, Classen J. “Modulation of associative human motor cortical plasticity by attention” J Neurophysiol. 2004 92(1), 66-72.

[7] I’m not finding good papers directed exactly on this point, so I’ll just throw this out as a personal opinion (although I’ll say it appears well supported by indirect research). We all like to appear competent and skillful, especially in those areas where we have invested a lot of time and effort. This can lead to a bias where we focus on using those aspects of complex skills we are best at, and training those aspects most intensely. In other words, a tendency appears to exist to do exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. (If anyone has encountered a name for this bias, or has references to suggest, I would be very grateful to hear from you.)

[8] Brown KW, Ryan RM. "The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being" J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 84(4):822-48.

[9] Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. "Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation" Psychosom Med. 2003 65(4):564-70.

[10] Shao RP, Skarlicki DP. "The role of mindfulness in predicting individual performance" Canadian J of Behavioral Sci 2009 41(4): 195–201.

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I'd like to see this on the main page.

Anyhow, since you brought up the sensory homunculus, titillating homunculus quote:

Komisaruk also checked what happened when women's nipples were stimulated, and was surprised to find that in addition to the chest area of the cortex lighting up, the genital area was also activated. "When I tell my male neuroscientist colleagues about this, they say: 'Wow, that's an exception to the classical homunculus,'" he says. "But when I tell the women they say: 'Well, yeah?'". (ref)

A possible caveat:

The main premise of the article is that directing one's attention to a sensory input can make one better at processing this input (where "better" may mean "higher resolution and/or sensitivity") by "growing" the associated area of the cortex.

However, the article does not give a clear reason for the assumption that the same principle should apply to higher-level mental behaviors not directly related to sensory inputs -- e.g. playing chess.

(I'm not familiar with the relevant science, so I'm just voicing my doubt.)

An excellent question.

I would say that the effect is most likely very relevant for higher-level skills, for the following reasons:

  • The effect has been shown for motor planning, for estimation of timing, and for several other plastic features. Thus, it isn't limited to sensory processing alone.

  • If we assume a "worst case scenario" in which the higher-level networks are themselves exempt from this effect, we still have to expect an indirect improvement. The reason for this is relatively simple: higher-level mental behaviors are based on metanetworks that interconnect subnetworks which certainly are subject to attentional modulation.

I would say that transferability of the effect would depend on how transferable the trained skill is itself. If you train yourself to be really good at the go/no-go task where a red dot appears on the screen, you'll get good at it, and it won't make a difference anywhere else in your life - no matter how much attention you paid while training. If you train yourself to enunciate words better (which is predominantly motor training, and the attention effect has been shown to make a huge difference), this could transfer into many other higher... (read more)

I think this comment deserves to be included into the article, with minimal edits, somewhere between the end of the section I and the beginning of the section II.

I don't think it means much that the molecular systems involved are universal. The fact that wires are transferring electrons in two different computers doesn't mean the computers are programmed the same way.

The concept being described in the article sounds very similar to deliberate practice, which I think might be described as keeping what you are trying to practice at conscious level instead of going on autopilot.

Many of those studies are actually based on chess, so if this describes how deliberate practice changes the brain, it should also map to higher level activities.

Of course, I'm not terribly familiar with all of the relevant science either.

A great example of practical advice backed by deep theories, and something that I can apply immediately to my daily life. Great job!

I agree with Manfred, this should be on the main page.

So if I pay attention to paying attention will I get better at paying attention?

Consider the last paragraph of the text again, then meditate on what mindfulness meditation does along these lines. :)

Do the mindfulness meditation studies differentiate between "paying attention to paying attention" and simply paying attention? I think having ballet or martial arts practice as a control group would be more interesting than having a "let's relax" control group.
http://lesswrong.com/lw/blr/attention_control_is_critical_for/6frz How to learn how to meditate properly In short: Yes, you will. This is how to accomplish that goal quickly and efficiently.
In addition to kalla724's comment, I would suggest checking out something called 'the alexander technique." In short, yes if you pay attention to paying attention you can refine that capacity.
I have yet to come across a satisfactory explanation of the Alexander technique. I also can't find any free resources. Almost all advice is just "go and see a practitioner". Would you happen to know of any online resources?
The Alexander technique claims your attention consists of 2 layers,  * your awareness, everything you pay some attention to *  your focus, the main chunk of you attention Attention control is about choosing your focus in the space of awareness. The Alexander technique is about controlling your awareness space. https://expandingawareness.org/blog/what-is-the-alexander-technique Becoming aware of for example, tension in your muscles can help improve posture. https://www.johnnichollsat.com/2011/02/27/explaining-the-at-1/
Yo dawg...

I’m guessing these are very familiar to most readers here, but let’s cover them briefly just in case.

I, for one, was not familiar with the terms, so I appreciated the explanation.

We don’t become better at things we do – we become better at things we pay attention to while we’re doing them.

I'd like to thank you for articulating something that now seems obvious to me, but was in fact at variance with both my beliefs and what I believed I believed.

It also describes failures I've had to improve my own skillsets accurately. As an example, I had tried to learn guitar for some time.

While doing so, my internal mental dialogue while learning was 'I just need to get through this fifteen minutes of practice', as opposed to 'Ah, so that's how I play a G chord.'. I abandoned the attempt as I learned very slowly, and decided I simply had no natural talent for the area, as my learning speed was significantly slower there compared to friends of mine who were spending comparable amounts of time for vastly superior results.

Moved to main, promoted.

Can I focus my attention on my attention and get compounding results? :)

That's called learning how to meditate. And yes, it works wonders with cognitive ability and control of cognitive ability. The standard efficient process of learning how to meditate is:

  • Focus attention somewhere for as long as possible.
  • Move focused attention around from subject to subject, including inside your own body.
  • Spread your attention outward from the focused point, making sure to maintain attention on the focused point.
  • Scan your body. Just become aware of everything you observe when scanning; don't try to change anything.
  • Scan again and again. Keep trying to become aware of more and more, deeper and deeper, each time; until your get tired, or can't seem to find anything new.
  • Try to maintain awareness of your body and your surroundings in the present during daily life, while doing other things.
  • Continue doing the previous step for your entire life.
  • You have now completed the prerequisite to learn Taoist meditation, which is about learning how to directly change the things which you are able to pay attention to.

If you do this up to step 7, you will exponentially improve your ability to do everything and learn everything. If you choose to go on through step 8, you wi... (read more)

This was a year ago now. Anyone tried it? Did it seem to work? Any tangible benefits (I don't crash my motorbike so often...) rather than feelings of inner wisdom?
I didn't try Taoist meditation, but the meditation I did do seems remarkably similar to the above, and that definitely did help in a number of ways. Mostly I use it to manage my emotions, steer my thoughts into more productive ways, tell when I'm being irrational, or boost my concentration when working. However, it took bloody ages for it to pay off and even now I'm not sure if it was worth all the effort that went into it (well, the same holds true for reading less wrong I guess). Also, once you remove the mysticism all meditation basically seems to boil down to: Become aware of the things going on in your head and body, and you may eventually become able to regulate them. However, I think I would actually count that as evidence in favour of that one thing actually working.

This is a well supported article with real life applications. Even better it shines a spotlight on holes in my thinking. I appreciate it when I read something that makes me want to slap my forehead and yell, "well, of COURSE!"

Thank you for your time putting this together.

Interesting. I wonder if this explains the reason why I'm usually happier when I don't focus/constantly ask myself if I'm happy. The theory would explain it like so: I ask myself if I'm happy, and I notice all the things that are preventing me from being optimally happy. As I keep asking myself, I become better at noticing those things, thus becoming less happy.

At the moment, the balance of evidence supports CBT as the most effective therapeutic approach for depression. And CBT is in large part based on training yourself to pay attention to positive thoughts while ignoring depressive ones.

So, it would appear that you wonder along the right lines here. :)

It would seem to follow that CBT causes patients' ability to read the information conveyed by their depressive ruminations to deteriorate. Are there trade-offs in CBT for depression larger than we're aware of?
That is possible, but note that depression itself is massively bad for, well, anything, including the quality of thoughts.
Certainly that's true of severe depression, but mild depression carries some intellectual benefits. Greater rationality seems to be among them.
My intuition is that you ask whether you are happy because you doubt that you are. So you already start negatively primed. Instead, try to remember three good things that happened to you recently, and ignore everything else. Even better, write those things on the paper. Every day. (This idea is from the book "Learned Optimism" by Martin Seligman, and this article seems to support it. The theory is: if you focus on something, you remember it better; what you remember guides your next behavior.)

Is there any evidence for this effect in brain regions related to empathy? (mirror neurons?)

Does focusing one's attention on emotional states of others (and, more importantly, one's own feelings experienced while watching others) increase one's "empathic sensitivity"? Or when parents focus child's attention on emotions of others during upbringing, does that make the child more sensitive to others?

I'm not aware of any research in this area. It appears plausible, but there could be many confounding factors.
Metta (loving-kindness) meditation would be an example practice that tries to focus attention on actively loving others in order to get better at it over time.  I don't have time to currently point out to concrete research backing it up, but it's been often discussed positively on Lesswrong and the EA Forum and I have had surprisingly good results from it. In my experience though, it has quite a quick feedback loop so trying it out might be the most efficient way of testing it. The Waking up app by Sam Harris is a good starting point.

Wow, I had no idea that we really really knew why CBT worked. Thank you for this post.

This is only a part of it - there are several other factors in CBT (for instance, the fact that memory access is also memory rewrite can explain why simply talking about a traumatic experience in a trusting, safe environment can lessen the emotional impact of such experience).

Why "summary for impatient readers" not "summary"?

To me, it signals "If you are likely too impatient to read through the entirety of a science-heavy article, here is a rough summary. However, be warned that this is a compromise and doesn't capture the whole essence of the article." Whereas summary means "Here is everything you need to know, in short."

As an impatient reader I wouldn't have even noticed "summary for impatient readers" if not for this comment. It's a couple of paragraphs in and disguised as sentence text.

A nice big bold Summary heading works wonders!

Hmm, I didn't realize that consciously paying attention to the activity you want to excel at, as opposed to simple mechanical training, makes such a difference. Thank you! Now, if you'll excuse me, I will go rethink my ping-pong practice structure.

I would argue based on my own experience, that it is very difficult to maintain this type of attention when practicing any type of complex skill. I think the typical pattern of rapid learning at the beginner stage and then stopping improving completely is the result of mind resisting continuous, persistent attention. The beginner's state of mind is not a pleasant one to be in and we want to start feeling comfortable quickly. Easiest way to do this is to stop paying so close attention. I don't think this is an explicit decision. It's just our tendency to no... (read more)

Huh, I hadn't heard of CBT until 2007, but your nail biting example is exactly the procedure I made for myself to stop biting my nails in 2003, described in almost the exact words :) Actually, at the very end, my mind would notice the nail-biting reflex before my hand even began to move towards my mouth. It felt awesome, and worked.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has a highly successful approach for breaking habits, which requires only a very subtle alteration to this process. You notice that you are biting your nails. You immediately focus your attention

... (read more)

Mr. / Ms. kalla724,

A couple years ago I remember having a discussion with my neuroscience professor about whether or not long-term potentiation could occur from visualization, and if it does occur the strength of such synaptic development in relation to deliberate practice.

I was wondering what your opinions were on the matter, and if you could suggest any reading?

The general answer is yes. See, for instance, Pearson et al. Curr Biol. 2008 18(13):982-6; Sherwood and Pearson PLoS One. 2010 5(12):e15217; and Byrne et al. Psychol Rev. 2007 114(2):340-75. Synaptic strength (if I understand your question correctly), especially in relation to deliberate practice...that is more difficult to figure out. I'm not aware of any particular research on that topic (and it would be hellishly difficult to do). Whether (and if so, how much) visualization-gained improvements are transferable to real-world skills is also controversial. I'll indulge in one paragraph of guesswork here. Extrapyramidal centers (such as spine, basal ganglia, cerebellum) appear excluded during visualization exercises. Say you are visualizing a martial arts kata, and say that visualization does produce potentiation. Even in this case, all of the changes would be limited to the premotor area and the primary motor cortex - areas that are critical for actual movement execution (especially cerebellum, balance centers in the brainstem and spinal centers) would be unaffected. Worse, the changes in the high-level centers would be made without corrective input. When kata is then attempted in real life, these idealized neural plans might slam nose-first into unexpected feedback responses - therefore making things worse, not better. For this reason, I would personally eschew visualization as a training modality in any actual physical skill.
6Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 12y
I think you're probably right that visualization doesn't work very well if used alone, and doesn't work as well as executing the movements themselves, but there are a lot of situations where it makes sense to visualize something instead of actually doing it–and this seems to at least help. For example, recently I had to teach myself the poomsae (taekwondo equivalent of kata) for my next belt testing by watching Youtube videos the night before. It obviously didn't work for me to stand in front of the computer screen and do all of the movements–any move that took me sideways or backwards would result in me no longer being able to see the screen, and thus not knowing my next move. So I sat in a chair and visualized as hard as I could as I watched, making small movements with my hands and feet to represent kicks and punches, but imagining myself doing the whole movement. After 5 or 6 repetitions, I was able to stand up and go through the whole sequence in my living room, using my whole body. Likely this worked because I already knew a whole bunch of basic moves, which were included in the poomsae, and just had to string them together in a new order, with transitions in between. (And even for the transitions, I've probably done almost every transition from one move to another at least once before 'in real life.') I think a lot of athletes use visualization because, well, it's not practical (or even possible) to train all the time. Your muscles have limits. Even if you don't reach those limits, the training time booked on the rink or in the pool or whatever is limited. So you get the most out of it that you can, and then you take advance of "downtime", which would otherwise be useless to training (i.e. sitting on public transit on the way home) to visualize. I don't know if anyone'd done a study of this, but for athletes who are already training a lot, I expect doing some extra visualization on top of it helps.
This is possible, but I'm completely unfamiliar with any research on the topic, if there is any. That last paragraph of my comment above is pure guesswork, and I would love to see some data, if anyone can dig some out...
I remember some research indicating that muscles could be made to grow by just visualizing muscle workout, without any actual muscle movements. Its not quite the same to make muscles grow as to make (karate) movements more precise by visualizations. I would however have thought the muscle growth hypothesis much more unlikely than the karate training. I do not have any references, and have no knowledge of the quality of the research done.
They have. It works much as you hypothesize. The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance had a couple of chapters on it if I recall.
Do we know which parts of our nervous system gets altered by physical training? My understanding is that stretching is largely a retraining of the nervous system. But I've wondered, which parts of the nervous system are being trained? Do the basal ganglia adjust their connections, or is it only centers higher up in the nervous system?
We do know, and it's pretty much everything. From premotor area, over the motor cortex, through brainstem nuclei, cerebellar nuclei, cerebellar cortex, all the way down to spinal motor centers - everything can and does get retrained. Not to mention associative connections with all other parts of the brain. Do an hour of any physical activity, and you'll be changing at least a few synapses in pretty much every area of the brain. (Ok, fine, maybe there will be a few exceptions - say, hypothalamus - but they will be exceptions.)
Thanks. I've wondered what got retrained for a while, because in some way I can't recall, I thought the locus of change in the system had practical implications for training, but couldn't remember what they were. As for your aversion to visualiztion, I think it flies in the face of a lot of data showing the benefit of visualization exercises. The theory goes that the brain is always simulating the feedback it expects to get, so that simulation system still runs while you visualize, so that you do get feedback, and therefore can train. The key is to train up that simulation so it is reliable when you do visualizations. The advantage is being able to train more, and train with a fresh simulated body, instead of a tiring real one. The somatic work literature like Feldenkrais Hannah, Mabel Todd, and Lulu Sweigert have exercise for training that somatic sense. One thing in particular I remember are exercises where you close your eyes and move, trying to sense your final position, then open your eyes and get visual feedback about where you are. You can do that focusing on either the visual simulation, the proprioceptive feel, or both at once. Mabel Todd was big on knowing anatomy, so that your visualization could also draw on an accurate model of your bones and muscles when trying to make predictions. Visualize the bones moving. Visualize the the muscles lengthening and shortening. Do whatever you can to get accurate models in your head. The belief is that the visualization itself works by simulating the feedback, and one of the keys is to train that
I was under the impression that visualization did improve actual movement execution. Let me see if I can find the research.

This seems to be a direct reply to the common thought/command/belief "Just stop" As in "why don't you just stop biting your fingernails/smoking/overeating/procrastinating?" or "Why can't I just stop (hated activity here)?" I don't know if this is a common experience, but everyone I have met and discussed the issue with personally (a very small minority) believes that humans have the ability to stop an action by "deciding to stop". Then, when that fails anger and self-loathing is immediate result. I understand that th... (read more)

Testing this now.

How did your test work out?

This NY Times article says that mindful people may be worse at "implicit learning" (e.g. learning to ride a bike). Based on this post of yours, I would have guessed that mindfulness would be useful for this kind of learning. Is this a contradiction in the research or do I need to upgrade my ontology?

Could drugs like adderall or ritalin could be useful in this regard? Do the same changes occur even when the focus is a result of a stimulant? If it takes sustained attention on a task for the brain to change the structure of your brain, these drugs seem like a convenient shortcut to 'rewiring' certain areas of your brain.

How does the research determine if the subjects, particularly the animals, are focusing on a task rather than doing it autonomously? In the monkey example it seems like it is based off of the complexity of the task, but if that is the case it seems like the effects could be from complex tasks(which may be done autonomously) rather than focus.

By altering the reward condition. In the experimental condition, the animal gets the reward only if it lets go when it feels the speed and vibration of the wheel change in a certain way. So, if it's not paying attention, it doesn't need when to let go. In the control condition, reward comes at random intervals, regardless of the speed and vibration of the wheel. Since there is no incentive to pay attention to it, the animal habituates quickly and ignores the wheel.
I think you're probably right, but I just wanted to check on the interpretation of this piece of evidence... In the monkey experiment, how do we know that the differences are due to attention as opposed to just being a direct result of the altered reward condition? If I had a pattern matching circuit that was driven by reinforcement learning, I would expect it to do nothing meaningful if it was rewarded randomly, and I'd expect it to get better at matching patterns if it gets rewarded when it matches them correctly. Do we even need a notion of "attention" here? I think the CBT and meditation examples are more convincing to me as with those it's the attention itself that's the variable under control.

Reading this improved my self control over night, strong upvote.
I've been mainly using it for improving posture and eating healthier.
Focusing your attention on stopping does wonders for breaking bad habits, 
I can tell stopping gets easier after just one or two iterations.

I'm interested in the opposite of mindfullness - absent mindedness - why it exists and how mutable it is. I have, it must be said, a particularly diffuse personality - I forget things, a lot, put things down and forget where they are, fail to plan things. Introspection identifies this as a mixture of acrasia and propensity to boredom - I find it very difficult to concentrate on mundane things instead of thinking about neural networks or politics.

I've unfortunately chosen a line of work (molecular biology) that punishes absent mindedness ruthlessly. After ... (read more)

I don't know how I rank on the absent-mindedness scale compared to everyone else, but I definitely find that during those periods of my life where I'm working on training attention (mindfulness meditation is often a part of that), I get more done and I keep track of things more reliably.

Thank you for posting this! It's cleared up some behavior of mine, and will definitely be a useful tool that I can put into practice.


Comparing pain to chess and music was intriguing. Intuitively, it seems that attention to pain is qualitatively different. Pain impinges on our attentions, while the other two activities are objects of attention. On the other hand, it is certainly possible to focus on pain or distracting one self from pain. The thesis of the article suggests that by directing attention towards pain, it gets worse, while directing attention away from pain can reduce it. This seems to be a testable hypothesis. Is there any study about this?

Yes, a lot of work has been done, and it is a hugely controversial area.

From my reading, the balance of evidence suggests that people can indeed exacerbate their pain by focusing on it, which is why I included the example in the article.

Whether training to ignore the pain makes it go away is harder to say. Some studies suggest that it does, some that it has no effect. Metastudies generally show no statistically significant effects - but I think people here already know to be wary of statistical significance as an end-all. One certain thing is that pain has its own rules, and utilizes several pathways that are not skill-like at all, which makes training it away somewhat iffy.

My colleagues who work on neuroscience of pain tend to be skeptical. Pain specialists I've spoken to tend to really like the approach; from what I hear, it has an unpredictable efficacy level (which could indicate that the effect is in large part placebo-based), but it often works extremely well.

A popular review that extolls the method is Morley et al. in Pain (80) 1999. Several self-help books on the subject are often recommended to patients by pain specialists; John Otis's "Managing Chronic Pain" is very popular.

As for the somewhat-opposing view, check out this Cochrane review (Cochrane is generally a highly reliable source) which shows much smaller effect size (although there still is a positive effect): Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Apr 15;(2):CD007407.

Hmm. The notion that concentrating on pain makes it worse seems to contradict the finding that mindfulness meditation, which mostly involves concentrating on your feelings, increases pain tolerance even while it thickens the areas related to pain-related processing. E.g. Grant et al. (2010) (For more on mindfulness meditation reducing the effects of pain, see e.g. here, here, here, or here). On the other hand, mindfulness is a very specific way of paying attention to something - a non-judgemental approach where the unpleasant feelings are just observed as they appear and disappear. It seems reasonable to assume that other ways of focusing on pain might indeed make it worse.
Good question, and both your last paragraph and gregv's answer are on the right track. Mindfulness meditation is, above all else, training of attentional control. You choose what to focus at, and how to focus on it. Therefore, instead of focusing on "ohcrapithurtsithurtsithurts" (which would make the pain worse), someone with great deal of meditation experience can easily focus on other thoughts, or on how irrelevant the pain is (which trains the brain to make it irrelevant). Or at least that's the theory. Pain is a very complicated mechanism, and many caveats apply. A side note on cortical thickness: IMHO, it is one of the most useless measures in neuroscience. Ok, fine, it can be a good preliminary note, along the lines of "this area here should be looked at in more detail," but it doesn't provide much more information beyond that. You can get increases in thickness due to outgrowth of the neuropil, or ingrowth of axonal inputs from the outside - and these in turn reflect an increase in excitatory or inhibitory or modulatory inputs (or some combination of the three). So in the end, you don't really have any idea what's really going on. My guess is that the cortical thickening reflects an increase in the number of inhibitory synapses. The area gets larger because people get better at suppressing the activity within it. This can also serve as an illustration of one limit (among many) of fMRI in general. fMRI (in most cases) measures blood flow/oxygenation increases in an area, which is related to neural activity. Neurons fire, they need energy, signals go out to increase blood supply. Area "lights up" on the scanner. However, what kind of activity are you talking about? Activity of excitatory neurons, which activate an area, requires energy and oxygen, hence blood flow, hence it "lights up." Activity of inhibitory neurons, acting to shut down or attenuate the actual functional activity of an area, also requires energy, which requires increases in blood flow, w
Right, I think it depends on how the "mindfulness" is directed. One teacher (Eckhart Tolle) suggests concentrating attention on (sorry for fuzzy terminology) internal energy in your limbs and a general sense of well-being. When pain impinges on this meditation, you notice and try to redirect your attention.
Random anecdotal evidence: I used to do a lot of fire performance, and this was definitely true for that. Once you knew that the weather conditions were such (humidity makes it burn hotter) that you could hold a transfer til it went out on its own (and had the experience to do so), then you could just ignore the sensation, and barely feel it (since you didn't have to track when you had to put it out yourself). IF however, you had to put it out yourself (because you're either not ready yet to hold it til it goes out on its own, or if weather conditions are bad or unknown), then you would have to maintain some awareness/focus on the feeling. The sensation would remain minimal, until it reached a point where you had to pay attention to it (to put it out), and then it would instantly jump to pain-level. (Note for those who are interested: The first step with dealing with these sorts of painful sensations ISN'T to direct attention elsewhere, but rather to first to get rid of fear. Fear leads to attention, and maximizes pain. Lack of fear leads to the ability to NOT pay attention to pain.)
I'm not sure there is a study about directing attention to pain, but there is a video game being used to reduce pain, presumably by directing attention away from it. http://www.hitl.washington.edu/research/vrpain/ Edit: From the page:

This is really helpful if it actually works. Thank you!

You claim that posting attention to some kind of pain might make you feel that pain stronger in the future. However Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction supposedly makes you feel better despite chronic pains. It inckudes mindful meditation, which has you pay attention to how your body feels. This seems to be a contradiction with what you claim, because of you pay attention to it, it will become worse, as you say.

If you want to make this post even better (since apparently it's attracting massive viewage from the web-at-large!), here is some feedback:

I didn't find your description of the owl monkey experiment very compelling,

If a monkey was trained to keep a hand on the wheel that moved just the same, but he did not have to pay attention to it… the cortical map remained the same size.

because it wasn't clear that attention was causing the plasticity; the temporal association of subtle discriminations with rewards could plausibly cause plasticity directly, wit... (read more)

Awesome! This is very useful. I now have a perfect way to describe why Taoist meditation is among the most useful things someone in this community can learn to do. And I have tons of experience to back it up.

Mindfulness meditation is the prerequisite for Taoist meditation. And Wikipedia doesn't explain how to practice Mindfulness meditation.

Could you enlighten us with your preferred approach to meditation then? I've had very positive experiences just with simple breathing exercises, but I'd definitely like to improve.
Crap! I'm sorry I didn't see this. I've had a love/hate relationship with LessWrong while I've been getting as far as I can with meditation. a year late, hopefully you get this response so that it may have some use. http://lesswrong.com/lw/blr/attention_control_is_critical_for/6frz. In this post I describe the steps for learning the prerequisite to Taoist meditation. At the time, I was not able to properly describe Taoist meditation, despite being very familiar with it. I can at least try now. The prerequisite to Taoist meditation is about practicing being aware, and practicing controlling awareness. Controlling awareness requires being aware of what one is aware of, and so is also a practice of that. Once one becomes adequate at being aware of anything for a sufficient amount of time, the next step is about figuring out how to find and fix the problems. The most advanced way to fix a problem is to simply be aware of it until it goes away. maintaining awareness of the problem makes it go away on it's own, without requiring any additional action. However, that is too advanced for most people, and so there are other methods along the way. Step one is to be aware of tension in the body. There are a myriad of ways to activate tension to make it much easier to observe, and thus be aware of. Breath control (both the fast and slow varieties) is one such way. All tension in the body hinders the passage of fluids and mental signals. Neurons can be tense too. Step two is to slowly try relaxing everything. This is the basic form of what is known as "dissolving" in meditation. Step three involves a whole bunch of complicated ways of dissolving tension on deeper levels (Periostium is "deeper" than neurons are "deeper" than ligaments are "deeper" than muscles) To make it less complicated, there is a common practice of breathing slowly while being acutely aware of a block of tension. And in that state, trying to focus the breath in the area of awareness (practice breathing
Wasn't visiting LessWrong with my profile for a long while. Thank you for the detailed steps. I suspect the down-vote is for the Taoist references where some LW'ers are heavily against references to Chi since they haven't found substantial evidence for its existence. For me, your post is a thumbs up: I appreciate the applicability of what you wrote. Thank you!

Nice post with much interesting material.

I wonder when I read the following:

"Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has a highly successful approach for breaking habits, which requires only a very subtle alteration to this process. You notice that you are biting your nails...."

Do you know of any studies on this, or could you link me to some other source of further reading? (eg on the specifics of the method, on the evidence for them, whether there are any high-quality meta-reviews, etc)

Sure. Otte, Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2011;13(4):413-21. Driessen and Hollon, Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2010 Sep;33(3):537-55. Flessner, Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2011 Apr;20(2):319-28. Foroushani et al. BMC Psychiatry. 2011 Aug 12;11:131. Books, hmm. I have not read it myself, but I heard that Leahy's "Cognitive Therapy Techniques: A Practitioner's Guide" is well-regarded. Very commonly recommended less-professional book is Greenberger and Padesky's "Mind over Mood."

this was really well written i thought - nothing new as such but really well explained for those it would be new to.

couple of points:

  • you said you were going to talk in particular about motivation and yet i don't see that in the text -it comes across as a bit of a cop out to talk about cbt (and therefore evoke thoughts of serious issues people go to cbt with) and then use the example of nail biting. it makes a great clear example but that in itself made me think of how much more complex dealing with mental and emotional problems is and so by avoiding a more complex and realistic example i was left with.... scepticism maybe.
Several months ago, I was asked to write on the subject of motivation, and this is the first step. I'm going to meander around for a while, throwing disconnected things (including some that are there just to serve as examples later) onto a pile, then I'll try to tie it together. Less of a sequence, more of a "bundle," so to speak. I'm not sure yet how it'll work out, but we'll see relatively soon.
thanks - can see how this would make an interesting part of the bundle. loved that you tied this in with mindfulness meditation. given some (behaviouralists) would say that motivation comes from avoiding suffering (or gaining reward) mindfulness meditation makes a sharp relief to that due to it's recommendation NOT to avoid or to strive toward. be interested to see how you see that in connection with motivation.
ooh some weird auto editing there, sorry. what i mean is motivation sounds serious and really useful to most of us (so makes the reader interested and invested) but then motivation doesn't really come up. cbt makes the reader think of important, life quality stuff but then it's about nail biting. do you see what i mean? i reckon you have the knowledge and writing skills to cover those things and not leave the reader disappointed because they thought they were getting something that wasn't delivered.

I'll just insert that in my personal experience 7 is very true.

That doesn't mean much but it means at least a little.

With the question of neural real-estate in mind, what areas of the brain would most be benefited by outsourcing? If you could do the processing for a large-scale brain region externally, is it possible that would make those zones more likely to give their functionality to the surrounding regions? This would increase overall efficiency, especially by giving more resources to what would have been historically more limited areas. I am curious what areas would best be candidates for future BCI applications.

The SSC area expanded only when the monkey had to pay attention to the sensation of touch in order to receive the reward. If a monkey was trained to keep a hand on the wheel that moved just the same, but he did not have to pay attention to it… the cortical map remained the same size.

Is that a bad thing? Useful evidence would be a functional difference, achieving a lower performance level. As presented, this could just mean that training in that mode doesn't have an easily visible expression as a localized change in brain structure.

The rest of the post m... (read more)

Putting aside that you do measure performance (animal behavior in response to turning frequency change), generally, yes, it is a bad thing. We have decades of research that show that structural brain changes are required for any change in performance level. Something has to change - efficiency of synapses, number of synapses, wiring topology, number of circuits involved... but you always have a change. In the study I chose as the example, the authors used one possible point of change, the SSC map area. Sensory acuity can be improved at several different levels along the sensory pathway, before map is reached, or in the reactive pathways that follow map activation. Indeed, one of the monkeys in this trial showed improvement in performance without statistically significant increases in the cortical area. So we know that we don't have a perfect method of measurement here. Which is why there are multiple subjects in this study, and two other studies cited which use different methods, measuring different brain structures and different performance aspects.

Pretty interesting idea.

SSC area expanded only when the monkey had to pay attention to the sensation of touch in order to receive the reward.

This seems like strong evidence that something correlated with attention is necessary for the SSC to expand. Has work been done to figure to rule out things besides what we think of when we think of "attention"?

See Vladimir_Golovin's comment below, and my answer. In short, yes, a lot about these networks is now understood.

After reading this post I came across this Bruce Lee quote which seemed in synch with the idea:

“I’ve always been buffeted by circumstances because I thought of myself as a human being affected by my outside conditioning. Now I realize that I am the power that commands the feeling of my mind and from which circumstances grow.”

I wonder if empirically and instinctively, Bruce had arrived at the same concept as this post explores.