Brain features: Attention

8 min. reading time

This week is a special blog week, dedicated to three 'features' of our brain. Our brain has all the habits to guide us through life in easy ways. Although these qualities often have many advantages, they certainly also have... disadvantages. This week, read which of our brain's attributes can cause pain - and what to do about it.

Feature 1: Everything that gives you attention grows

Maybe you know the saying 'everything that gives you attention grows'. A statement by Aristotle - one of the most famous ancient Greek philosophers. Nowadays this mainly means that the things that give you attention take up an ever greater place in your life and thoughts.

That place is also 'taken up' in your brain! Brain scientists have discovered that more areas in your brain are occupied when you get better at something. For example, an experienced violinist has much more brain activity when listening to a classical concert than someone who doesn't play an instrument! 

So when we pay attention to something and repeat it often, it 'grows'. In other words, you become 'better' at it. But, this doesn't only count for the good, fun or meaningful things in life. 

brain attention

When attention works against us

When your pain gets a lot of attention, it 'grows'. The brain becomes more active, and the pain can even increase - without anything having changed in your body! That's why many people with long-lasting pain feel more and more pain - the brain becomes 'better' in pain. 

We also see this on brain scans. Someone with long-lasting pain has a much more active brain in pain than someone with little 'pain experience'. Your brain has become better in pain... 

So the trick is to pay less attention to everything that has to do with pain. These are thoughts about pain, behaviour that can amplify pain as well as the pain itself or other negative feelings. 

Train your attention

There are various ways of achieving this. Because this is about attention, I call the way that lends itself the most: mindfulness. Mindfulness is pre-eminently a way to train the 'muscle' of attention. To become more aware of when the attention is being sucked back into your pain and to release you from it. On this blog I regularly write about mindfulness, but if you want to learn more about it right away, visit headspace, calm or tenpercent (all English!). 

Next time is a blog about feature 2: The automatic brain


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