Originally posted on 05-21-07:
Yesterday I talked about one of the ways that meditation can improve understanding of our brains—by giving us another perspective on their operations—but there are many other insights available.
As we become better at focusing our attention on some non-verbal phenomenon, like our breath, one of the primary benefits is in learning to shift the major locus of brain activity out of the word-processing area. Communication is of paramount importance to us as social animals, and as a result, an inordinate amount of time and energy are spent in the part of the brain that processes language. No matter what we are doing or sensing, we are usually commenting on and explaining it, either to whomever is physically present, or sub-vocally to someone in our past or future whose opinion or reaction might be important to us. This verbal chatter is nearly incessant, and nearly unstoppable, but we can learn to shift attention to other, non-verbal parts of the brain.
Focusing on the breath is a good exercise because the breath is always there—we can always return to it when we find attention has wandered elsewhere—and when we focus on the breath, we are focused on a tactile physical sensation rather than verbal behavior. Tactile sensation has its own primary location in the brain; separate from, though connected to, the verbal area. The same is true of hearing, seeing, and tasting. If we can focus exclusive attention on any of these and avoid any simultaneous verbal accompaniment, we will find a level of sensitivity and detail that is unavailable when our brains’ resources are being spread among multiple processes. The areas outside primary focus will still be active, but not at the same intensity, and not at the level of intensity required for conscious awareness.
One advantage of reduced activity in the word-processing sector is the sense of peace and quiet that comes when the verbal volume is turned down. If you have ever felt plagued by the unending chatter and repetitive idiocy that can inundate your awareness, you will be greatly relieved at learning to shift attention elsewhere.
The heightened sensitivity and level of detail in vision, touch, sound, and taste that become available with verbal quiet have entertainment value that can’t be appreciated until it’s experienced. It becomes a real treat just to look at something as mundane as the kitchen faucet. Of course, you may find yourself wanting to clean things whose messiness you never noticed before, but that is another issue.
While verbal activity will never lose its importance, it is wonderful to realize that the brain doesn’t have to be dominated by it. There are other options.