Meditation: A Practical Way to Retrain Attention

Daniel Goleman on how meditation can help us flex the different muscles of attention.


One of the important things I learned from writing Focus was the new science of retraining an attentional habit, thereby resculpting the brain. The work of people in contemplative neuroscience where they’re brain imaging people while they do a basic meditation, or a range of meditations, is really impressive.

One of the pieces of research that stuck with me was by Wendy Hasenkamp who is now Research Director at Mind and Life Institute. She looked at the basic move in meditation. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a visualization or compassion or mindfulness, the basic movement is this: when your mind wanders off, notice that it’s wandered, remove it from where it’s gotten attached, and put it back on your point of focus.

The basic repetition is noticing that your mind has wandered, that you’ve gone back to the default pattern in attention and bring it back to the chosen new habit of attention. And what the research shows is that there is different circuitry for each of these four points:

  • Focusing on an attentional stance, or an object of attention.
  • Mind wandering.
  • Meta-awareness, noticing that your mind has wandered.
  • Detaching from where your mind has wandered and for bringing it back.

Every time you go through that motion, you’re flexing the muscle of attention. Those are the basic repetitions in a mental gym. You strengthen that circuitry every time you do that, just like you would with a muscle on an exercise machine at the gym. A meditator or someone doing mindfulness is actually changing the shape and function of their brain. It’s neuroplasticity, and I think that’s very compelling research. It says that what we experience as something very minor—Oh! My mind wandered. I’m bringing it back—actually has profound significance for the very wiring of the brain.

This article was adapted from a video interview with Daniel Goleman and Mindful’s Editor-in-Chief, Barry Boyce. If you want to watch the interview, click here.

Looking for more ways to develop focus? Try this 9-minute sensory focus practice from Daniel Goleman’s new audiobook, Cultivating Focus: Techniques for Excellence.