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What's Attention Got To Do With It? Quantum Physics Of The Brain In Mediation

by Stephanie West Allen
November 2009

From Stephanie West Allen's blog on Neuroscience and conflict resolution.

Stephanie West Allen

I often talk about the importance of paying attention to what you are paying attention to in conflict resolution, and in life. Because I think it is so important, the A in the acronym of my CARVE Disputes Model™ stands for Attention.

In case you have not seen CARVE, here it is:

C - Curiosity
A - Attention
R - reflection
V - Value
E - Ensemble

More here.

In fact, I often describe mediation as attention choreography. Why is attention so important? One reason is that it changes your brain. Jeff Schwartz recently sent me a chapter he coauthored that explains how that change occurs in terms of quantum physics; he sent it because he thinks it is a particularly good explanation of attention density and how it changes the brain.

I will quote here the relevant section of the chapter with Jeff's permission and link to the whole article at the end. The topic of the article is pain but the principles of attention being described apply to any state or feeling to which you attend, whether positive or negative. Here's a short lesson in the quantum Zeno effect.

One important and well-verified law in quantum physics called the quantum Zeno effect is a key to understanding how focused attention can systematically alter the brain’s response to environmental inputs. Quantum Zeno effect was first described nearly 30 years ago and has been extensively studied many times since then. One classic example of it is the fact that rapid repeated observation of a molecule will hold the molecule in a stable state. It does this by markedly slowing the rate of fluctuation demonstrated in molecules when they are not measured (i.e., observed) in a repetitive fashion. This is a basic principle of quantum physics — the rate of observation has marked measurable effects on the phenomenon being observed.

The quantum Zeno effect for neuroscience application states that the mental act of focusing attention can hold in place brain circuits associated with what is focused on (e.g., pain versus pain relief). Focusing attention on mental experience maintains the brain state arising in association with that experience. What this means is that if one focuses attention on an experience, the set of relevant brain circuitry with which that experience is associated will be held in a dynamically stable state. For example, an expectation of pain relief can elicit a focusing of attention on actual experiences of pain relief that are associated with patterns of activity in a given brain circuitry. When sufficient attention is focused on the experience of pain relief, the associated brain circuitry becomes dynamically stable. This acute effect of focused attention can then enable the well-validated principle of Hebb (1955), namely that repeated patterns of neural activity cancause neuroplastic changes and new connectivities to form in well-established neural circuits (‘‘cells that fire together wire together’’). This type of attention-based mechanism of neuroplastic change has been termed self-directed neuroplasticity to emphasize that alterations in CNS function can be readily driven by and dynamically modified by willfully directed mental events. As was stated above, mental events change the activity of the brain in a dynamic manner. Basic principles of contemporary physics now enable us to place this empirically well-validated fact within theoretically coherent, scientifically grounded, and technically described context.

The term attention density has recently been coined to help clarify this mechanism. Attention density is defined as the number of observations per unit time, and thus the higher the intensity of focus of attention the higher the attention density. The term is important because it is this increased number of observations per unit time, or increased focus that brings the quantum Zeno effect into play. This increased focus causes the relevant neural circuitry to become stabilized. It is this fact that allows us to explain how the brain’s response to pain can be systematically modified by the quality of attention that is focused (or not focused) on it. These principles of self-directed neuroplasticity are fully testable in experimental contexts. Many of the experimental findings described in this chapter can be more clearly understood in light of these theoretical advances, and many new empirically based investigations of pain-related events in the CNS can be organized within this new the- oretical frame. For example, the rapidly growing data base on the effects of expectation on S1, ACC, and insular cortices can be better understood within this physics-based reasoning. Specifically, if participants’ expectation of pain relief during placebo analgesia causes them to focus attention on experiential aspects of pain relief, then attention density associated with pain relief will be increased. This can activate the quantum Zeno effect that will dynamically stabilize the patterns of neural activity arising in circuitry associated with pain relief. This can then call Hebbian mechanisms into play, which can lead to neuroplastic changes in the brain’s response to nociceptive stimuli, or even the mental events associated with those stimuli. ... It is our hope that investigators in a variety of related fields will find this kind of reasoning conducive to the creation and pursuit of a variety of new and clinically useful experimental paradigms.
[Footnotes removed.]

Click to read the rest of "Plasticity in brain processing and modulation of pain" (Progress in Brain Research).


Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive with Center co-founder Gary Friedman. She has been a mediator for over two and one-half decades.

She is the author of Triversity Fantasy — Seven Keys To Unlock Prejudice, Creating Your Own Funeral or Memorial Service: A Workbook and many articles on workplace and professional issues for such publications as Lawyer Hiring and Training Report, Colorado Nurse, The Complete Lawyer, National Law Journal, Of Counsel, Law Practice and Denver Business Journal.

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